"I said, why don't we do a beauty pageant, and people thought I was crazy," he says, "but what the hell?" Then came the name. "Obviously, 'beauty' had to be in there, but how would we get the HIV/AIDS-prevention message across? That's what this thing was really about. We went through everything, some really silly names, and finally settled on protegidabecause that's what she is in the end: a person who considers herself beautiful and is protecting herself from acquiring a sexually transmitted disease."

Amaro and the Center directors thought the pageant would be a one-time experiment. But the first event drew a sellout crowd of 200 from both the transgender and gay communities. Amaro quit esthetician school, joined the Center and managed the pageant for the next 10 years.

Guerrero, director of Latino programs at the Center, took over when Amaro left. "He's done a tremendous job," Amaro says. Chavez, Guerrero's partner, volunteers yearly to help the girls prepare for their onstage choreographies. Guerrero works for months with the contestants on their pageant message. They are all required to attend weekly workshops, and their messages are written and approved by the Orange County Health Care Agency. "They have to give advice to the audience," says Guerrero. "Every year after the pageant, we get a lot of phone calls wanting to know if what this or that contestant said was true—and to find out about getting tested."

Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant
Russ Roca
Contestants begin their backstage transformation for the Miss Hermosa Y Protegida pageant

Pageant attendence, the makeup of which has also changed over the years, has ballooned to a yearly average of 450. "People would bring their tiasor neighbors, and pretty soon, they would bring their friends, and there were all sorts of people there," says Amaro. "It grew into something for the entire Latino community." The pageant's far-reaching influence is no small feat given the ambivalence a lot of people—Latino and non-Latino—still express toward the transgender community.

*   *   *

Days before this year's pageant, Nicole Lopez stands on an elevated platform behind the cashier's counter at an ARCO station early one morning in Santa Ana. She punches dollar amounts and pump numbers into the register, her fingers landing softly on the keys before jumping up as if stung. A little box covered in metallic pink paper and featuring a picture of Nicole in a miniskirt and silk top sits in front of the cash register with a short typed note in Spanish:

I am soliciting your donations so that I may participate in a beauty pageant with the central theme of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease awareness and prevention.

Sometimes, the 33-year-old Lopez looks slightly boyish. Her profile reveals bone structure untouched by the hormones: an angular, impressive jaw line and shoulders that extend just wider than her limited hips. The platform makes her look taller than she really is, a setup that occasionally leads customers to stop, whisper and sometimes even come right out and ask: ¿Eres hombre o mujer?Are you a man or a woman?

There are times when kids poke around the market in a huddle, looking up at Lopez, then returning nervously to their chatter. They wonder, too, she says. "When they ask me if I'm a woman, it's difficult. I can maybe say, 'No, mijo; you'll understand later.' But you can't speak too loud or say too much because their parents can become upset if they perceive me as disrespecting their children."

So normally she just smiles, the dimple in her right cheek turning inward with her gaze. "Ask your father," she sometimes says.

She remembers one instance that broke her hard-earned cool. A minister once came to the station with his son. "I noticed the man because when I gave him his change, he pulled his hand back and the change fell to the counter," she says. "He pointed at me, and he said to his son, 'This is what we talk about in regard to the word of God. These are the followers of the Devil.'"

Lopez responded with a tirade in Spanish. "I directed my attention to the boy," Lopez recalls. "I asked him how old he was. He was shy, uncomfortable . . . I said, 'I'll tell you one thing: If God would have given me a son like you, I would never talk this way to him. Instead, I would talk to him about why things are the way they are.'"

She challenged the minister to take her to his church. "Let's see how many people there—after I tell them my story, what I've been through and how you've treated me—will judge me," she said to him. "I told him to give me the address to his church. He refused to give it to me, to let me come. I was crying."

Lopez wanted to tell the minister's parish, as well as everyone who had ever pointed and cussed her out, that her desire to live her life as a woman did not translate into living as a drug-addled, transgender prostitute. That her desires for a serene little home with a bit of sunlight and small garden were the same as those of a lady sitting across from her in the pew.

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