Gritty and unflinching, yet also tender, fantastical, and funny, Bad Girls is a trans woman’s tale about finding a community on the margins.
In Sarmiento Park, the green heart of Córdoba, a group of trans sex workers make their nightly rounds. When a cry comes from the dark, their leader, the 178-year-old Auntie Encarna, wades into the brambles to investigate and discovers a baby half dead from the cold. She quickly rallies the pack to save him, and they adopt the child into their fascinating surrogate family as they have so many other outcasts, including Camila.
Sheltered in Auntie Encarna’s fabled pink house, they find a partial escape from the everyday threats of disease and violence, at the hands of clients, cops, and boyfriends. Telling their stories—of a mute young woman who transforms into a bird, of a Headless Man who fled his country’s wars—as well as her own journey from a toxic home in a small, poor town, Camila traces the life of this vibrant community throughout the nineties.
Imbuing reality with the magic of a dark fairy tale, Bad Girls offers an intimate, nuanced portrait of trans coming-of-age that captures a universal sense of the strangeness of our bodies. It grips and entertains us while also challenging ideas about love, sexuality, gender, and identity.
Bad Girls is out now from Other Press.
The night air in the Park is dense, dark, and freezing. The ancient trees, recently stripped of their leaves, look askance to the heavens, pleading for some obscure boon essential to vegetation. A group of travestis makes its rounds in the shadows cast by the branches. They almost seem to move as one body, cells from the same animal, or members of a pack. Potential johns cruise by in their cars, slowing down to inspect the group before selecting one with the wave of an arm. The chosen woman answers their call. Night after night, nothing changes.
Sarmiento Park is right in the heart of the city. A large green lung with a zoo and a theme park. At night it turns wild. The travestis wait in the shelter of the branches or by the side of the road, casting their spell from the jaws of the wolf that stands next to the statue of Dante, who also lends his name to the avenue. Every night, the travestis drag themselves out of a hell that no one would ever think to write about, to bring spring back to the world.
With them is a pregnant woman, the only one of them to have been born female. The rest, the travestis, have worked their own transformation. Among the fellowship of travestis of the Park, she’s different, the pregnant woman who always plays the same joke: grabbing an unwitting travesti’s crotch as though to catch her out. She reaches for one now and they all laugh.
The caravan of travestis isn’t fazed by the cold. A hip flask of whiskey is passed from hand to hand, scraps of folded paper filled with cocaine go from nose to nose, some of which are large and natural, others cut down to size by the surgeon’s scalpel. The devil lends what nature has withheld. In the Park that borders the center of the city, the seductive allure of travesti bodies emanates from pits of damnation. Auntie Encarna joins in the sabbath with ferocious enthusiasm. The cocaine has given her a boost. She’s one of the eternals, invulnerable as an ancient stone idol. But something out there, in the depths of the cold night, attracts her attention, drawing her away from her friends. Something is calling to her from the darkness. As mouths embellished with lipstick cackle and ingest the whiskey and cars honk in search of a moment’s happiness with a travesti, Auntie Encarna makes out a very different sound indeed, a sound made by someone not at all like the cast of characters to whom we’ve been introduced so far.
The other travestis continue on their way, ignoring Encarna. Auntie has been a little scatterbrained lately. There comes a time in everyone’s life when their memory isn’t what it used to be. To keep up, she’s taken to writing everything down in notebooks and sticking notes to the refrigerator. Some think she’s going crazy, others that she’s grown weary of remembering. Auntie Encarna has suffered more than her fair share of beatings; boots belonging to policemen and tricks alike have danced plenty of jigs on her head and kidneys. The latter organs are now so badly damaged that she pees blood. So no one pays any attention when she goes off, leaving them behind, answering the siren call of fate. She wanders away, a little disoriented, treading painfully in acrylic shoes that at 178 years of age make her feel as though she’s walking on a bed of nails. She hobbles through the dry earth and weeds that grow in the neglected regions of the Park, careering across Dante Avenue like a wolf whistle, into an area full of brambles, hillocks, and a cave where faggots seek out lips and reassurance, now known as the Bears’ Grotto. A few feet farther on is Rawson Hospital, where infections are seen to: our second home. Ditches, emptiness, thorn bushes, masturbating drunks. While Auntie Encarna disappears into the thickets, the magic begins to happen. Whores, horny customers, chance hookups in an improvised forest, everyone giving and receiving pleasure in cars parked askew, lying among the weeds, or up against a tree. This is the hour when the Park becomes a pleasure womb, a recipient for sex with no shame attached. There’s no telling whose hands and tongues belong to whom. Right now, in this place, couples are fucking. But Auntie Encarna is on the hunt for a voice, or scent maybe. You never know when she’s going to go off sniffing for something. She gradually begins to realize what she’s looking for: a crying baby. Auntie Encarna feels through the darkness with her shoes in hand, plunging farther into the inhospitable undergrowth, determined to see it with her own eyes. Hunger and thirst. The baby’s cries are full of them and in response Auntie Encarna desperately quickens her pace: somewhere in the forest a child is suffering. It’s winter in the Park, cold enough to freeze your tears.
Encarna eventually finds him by the drainage ditches where the whores hide from police cruisers. The child is covered in prickly branches, wailing desperately. It feels as though the Park is crying with him. Auntie Encarna is frantic, the horror of the world presses down on her throat.
The boy is swaddled in an adult coat, a green puffer jacket. His bald head makes him look like a parrot. She gets scratched as she reaches down to rescue the child from his tomb of thorns. Her skin starts to bleed, staining the cuffs of her blouse. She looks like a veterinary midwife shoving her hands into a mare to pull out a foal. She feels no pain, doesn’t even notice the cuts. She keeps pulling away the brambles and eventually gets to the child, who is still howling into the night. He’s covered in shit, the stink is unbearable. Gagging and bleeding, Auntie Encarna hugs him close to her chest and starts to call to her friends. Her cries have to travel all the way across the avenue, it seems unlikely that they could possibly hear. But the travesti bitches of Sarmiento Park in the city of Córdoba have much better hearing than your average human. Auntie Encarna’s summons reaches them because they can smell the fear in the air. They are suddenly alert, their skin puckered with goose bumps, hair standing on end, lungs taking in as much oxygen as they can, jaws clenched.
“Travestis of the Park! Come! Come look what I’ve found!”
A three-month-old boy abandoned in the Park.
Covered in branches, left for death to have her way with him. Or maybe the stray dogs and cats that live there: children make for a tasty morsel wherever you come from.
The travestis come over curiously, they look like a pack of hungry zombies stumbling toward a woman with a baby in her arms. One puts her hand, a hand big enough to cover the sun, to her mouth. Another declares that the child is gorgeous, a peach. Another immediately starts to back away, saying that she wants nothing to do with this, she hasn’t seen a thing.
“Figures…” says another, meaning that when push comes to shove, you can’t trust a hairy faggot.
“We’ll have to call the police,” says one.
“No!” barks Auntie Encarna. “Not the police! You can’t give a child to the police, it’s the worst thing you can do!”
“But we can’t keep him,” says a reasonable-sounding voice.
“The boy stays with me. He’s coming home with us.”
“But how are you going to get him home? He’s all covered in shit and blood.”
“In my purse. Look: he fits perfectly.”
The travestis walked from the Park to the area by the bus station at a remarkable pace. They were a caravan of cats, hurried by circumstance, their heads down to make themselves invisible. They were going to Auntie Encarna’s house. The queerest boarding house in the world, during desperate times it had offered shelter, protection, succor, and comfort to an endless stream of travestis. They were going there because they knew it was the safest possible place for them to be, carrying the baby in a purse. One of them, the youngest, worked up the courage to say what they were all thinking.
“It’s a cold night to spend in jail.”
“What?” Auntie Encarna demanded.
“Nothing, just that prison is pretty cold this time of year. Abducting a baby…”
I was scared half to death. I trailed behind and kept having to break into a trot to keep up. The sight of the baby had hollowed me inside, as though my organs, blood, bones, and muscles had all been scooped out. It was partly panic and partly determination, two emotions that always go hand in hand. The girls were nervous, their breath billowed in the cold air as they panted in fear, praying to every saint they knew that the boy would stay asleep, that he wouldn’t start squealing as he had just a few moments ago, like a pig in the slaughterhouse. Along the way, they were passed by cars driven by drunk drivers, squad cars that slowed down when they saw them, insomniac students out for a pack of cigarettes.
Just by bowing their heads, the travestis pulled down the cloak of invisibility that was given to them when they were baptized. They pretended to be lost in thought, repressing their terror of getting caught. Oh, to truly know fear you need to be a travesti carrying a blood-soaked newborn in a purse. They got to Auntie Encarna’s house. A large, pink, two-story building that looked a little run-down but welcomed them with open arms. They walked down a bare passage and went straight into the patio, which was surrounded by glass doors in which the faces of other travestis appeared looking extremely curious. A falsetto voice singing a sad song upstairs was silenced by the commotion. One of the girls got a basket ready, another ran to the pharmacy for diapers and baby formula, another fetched clean sheets and towels, another lit a joint. Auntie Encarna murmured to the child very quietly, a litany, a lullaby, a spell to stop him from crying. She undressed the boy and took off her own shit-stained dress as well. Half-naked and surrounded by friends, she bathed him on the kitchen table.
Some were bold enough to make jokes, even though their asses were clenched like a vise over the insanity of bringing the kid home. Keeping him as a pet, like a rescue dog. They started to wonder what his name was, where he came from, who the terrible mother that abandoned him in the Park might have been. One ventured that if she was planning to throw him in a ditch she wouldn’t have named him. Another said that he looked like a Twinkle in Her Eye. Another dismissed this as poetic nonsense, reminding her of the danger they were in. The police were going to come roaring in with their sirens, guns blazing, the news programs were going to shriek bloody murder, editorial pages would fume, society, always up for a lynching, was going to bay for vengeance. Travestis and children don’t go together. The very sight of a travesti carrying a baby was a sin to these people. The bastards preferred to hide them from their children, to shield them from the degeneracy of which man is capable. But even though they were well aware of all this, the travestis supported Auntie Encarna in her crazy endeavor. It was the orphans’ code.