Or maybe she would have told the parishioners about the time when she was 11 and still a boy in Guadalajara and a neighbor urinated on him after tying him up and burying him up to his neck in dirt in the woods behind his farm, Lopez's young body still sore from the rapes and throbbing with fear for his life. Or maybe she would tell them about her uncle who, perhaps after noticing the small boy's softness and delicate tendencies, began to discreetly swipe him from play circles with his cousins and sodomize him in those same woods.

"There was this tremendous solitude. All those trees," she says. "I still have dreams of the woods and wake up terrified."

There was the time the young boy went to feed the family's animals and was beaten unconscious by his uncle after being raped. He missed school that day and woke in the afternoon. "I came home with my clothes torn and bloody, and no one said anything. How could no one know?" she asks. He sewed those same tattered pieces back together and wore them again.

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

There were guns on the farms for game hunting. One time, Lopez spotted a gun while everyone was away at church, and he grabbed it and took it to his uncle's house down the street. By this time, he had often fantasized about killing his uncle as a way out of the abuse. He found his uncle and shot at him once, then twice, but the gun wouldn't fire. "He really beat me and raped me that day after I tried to kill him," Lopez says. "But thank God I didn't kill him. Imagine what my life would have become if I had killed someone?"

*   *   *

Carlos Diaz didn't have a thing to wear when he went from pageant volunteer to contestant last year. Friends lent him an evening gown and accessories and gave him the coaching he needed to parade onstage like a diva. Over the course of a few weeks, he became Kayla Montesdeoca, representing the country of Jamaica. "I wasn't thinking about winning," he says. "I so stressed over my walk and how I would look and sound. But my worrying wasn't helping, so I decided to just focus on my message." He thought about his two best friends, who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the small province he's from in Guerrero, Mexico. "The situation in Mexico is very difficult. It takes a lot of effort to survive with HIV there." He remembers how he became an advocate for his friends, driving hours to clinics for their medications and learning as much as he could about living with HIV in a hometown where the disease was only ever whispered about.

When he came to the U.S. in 2002, he sought out AIDS-awareness resources locally and became a diligent volunteer at the Center.

When it came time to deliver his message last April, Diaz ambled up to the microphone with his newly perfected womanly gait in a glittering red halter gown. Dipping his thick, new lashes down, and then up, he said, "I know you love your children, but is there a frank discussion that you're having with them about sex?"

Diaz ate up his time limit but would not budge as the crowd, full of families, elderly couples and friends, cheered him on.

A short time later, the gay man from a little town in Guerrero was crowned queen.

He gained no preference for dressing in drag after his pageant experience. "I made an ugly woman," he says. "But I think people now say, if he can win, then why can't I? Which is great."

The discomfort of cinched hosiery didn't end with his win. The annual winner is charged with a year's worth of volunteer events to educate the Latino community, a task Diaz took seriously. He frequented dance clubs less and took up speaking engagements—usually in full drag—with various nonprofit centers throughout the region. "I was representing the Center," he says. "And this was an opportunity to reach communities that I might not have been able to reach in the past."

As pueblo-quaint as some of the pageant's moments may be, Diaz considers the passing on of the torch gravely. "The next Miss Hermosa y Protegidaneeds to understand what a tremendous responsibility she has to the community," he says.

*   *   *

Three years ago, Lopez injected her first estrogen shot, delivered from Tijuana, into her bristly thigh. A few months later, she experienced the elation of a young girl at the sight of the small mounds poking through her shirt, the first visible marks of womanhood.

About a month ago, she decided to go public with her secret by propping up the little box at the gas station. A lot of her longtime customers had seen her go through her transformation and supported her, but not everyone knew, she says. Instead, the little box has prompted curiosity and questions and chats long into the night during her late shift about what it means to be transgender, her history of abuse and the importance of talking to one's children.

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