Juliana Martinez: A Salvadoran Transwoman from the 1940s

Source:  Un hombre-mujer fue detenido en la ciudad de San Vicente. Diario Nuevo  (1940)

Source: Un hombre-mujer fue detenido en la ciudad de San Vicente. Diario Nuevo (1940)

The case of Juliana Martinez, a Salvadoran transwoman from San Ildefonso, San Vicente, is a historical example of the existence of Salvadorans whose sexual orientation and gender expression and/or identity has departed from the hegemonic heterosexual binary system. Nevertheless, collective and institutional memory has attempted to erase her existence. It is crucial to recover the memory of sexual diversity in El Salvador.  

“Homosexuality is the importation of Western countries” is an oft-repeated claim by the discourses of hate inside El Salvador. This claim, however, is nothing but a political strategy designed to deny the historical and contemporary existence of Salvadorans whose sexuality and gender expression/identity are not bound by heterosexual norms.* It serves to delegitimize equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersexual (LGBTI) Salvadorans. Naysayers claim the campaign to procure rights for the historically marginalized LGBTI community in El Salvador is being promoted by the United Nations and international human rights organizations, who surely—with their “unfounded ideas”—are tearing apart “Salvadoran culture.” They have coined the term “gender ideology” to signify any attempts to procure rights for the LGBTI and other social groups.  

“Gender ideology” does not exist. The term is nothing but a discursive move invented to put discriminatory policies into place. These policies are designed to diminish, restrict and/or withdraw rights from historically marginalized populations, such as LGBTI individuals, women, youth, Afro-descendent and indigenous individuals, among others. In the last two decades, these groups of people have accomplished a series of important political wins in legislative, social and cultural arenas in many countries, principally, in the Western hemisphere.  

These homophobic arguments* and discursive strategies are espoused with greater fury during the national elections. In particular, between 2005 and now, we have seen multiple efforts to redefine marriage as solely between a man and woman “as they were born.” On top of these attempts to institutionalize discrimination, all the hateful rhetoric has also exacerbated the amount of hate crimes. In 2009, at the most critical point in the national debate about LGBTI marriage, hate crimes against LGBTI communities increased exponentially. LGBTI communities even received bomb threats during their March for Sexual Diversity in June 2009.  

LGBTI people have always existed in this country.
— Amaral Arévalo

Nevertheless, whether through ignorance or lack of information, the people who promote the “gender ideology” hoax are unaware that LGBTI people have always existed in the country. Collective and institutional memory, on one hand, has attempted to forget their existence and, on the other hand, has created symbolic mechanisms and practices to erase any trace of LGBTI Salvadorans. In attempt to rescue the memory of sexual diversity in El Salvador, since 2014, I have been conducting research to construct a history of homosexuality* in El Salvador. The book covers the colonial to contemporary periods, filling an important gap in Salvadoran history.  

In an attempt to insert reputable academic fact into the partisan political debate about gender and sexuality, I will electronically publish a series covering the primary sources I have centered in my research. I showcase these sources to concretely refute any suggestion that the presence of LGBTI people in El Salvador has been the result of foreign contemporary thought. Contrary to conservative rhetoric, the primary sources do not reveal a gay “dictatorship” or “empire.” The sources, instead, uncover an array LGBTI Salvadoran experiences. Remarkably, no matter the historical moment, LGBTI Salvadorans have lived under conditions of discrimination, persecution, torture, and murder due to their sexual orientation or gender expression/identity.  

I will now move to the case of Juliana Martinez, a Salvadoran transwoman from San Ildefonso, San Vicente. She was detained and incarcerated by the police for the crime of crossing the borders of gender, for identifying as a woman, even though she potentially possessed a different biological sex.iv Reading between the lines of this excerpt, we can potentially interpret her as an intersex person. In this case, Juliana Martinez found social acceptance and respect in her neighborhood, where she had sources of income and people called her by her preferred name. This acceptance did not extent to “the authorities” who forced her to wear clothes that contradicted her gender identity. Her refusal to obey authorities very likely led to her imprisonment. Today, being open about your sexual orientation and gender identity/expression do not result in prison sentences, but hate crimes. Have we advanced as a society? 



The curious case of Juliana Martínez 

Source:  Un hombre-mujer fue detenido en la ciudad de San Vicente. Diario Nuevo  (1940)

Source: Un hombre-mujer fue detenido en la ciudad de San Vicente. Diario Nuevo (1940)

Chronicles by EL MONGE AZUL 

Is that man a woman or is that woman a man? 

A crowd in the city of San Vicente wanted answers when the local police force walked the captive subject down the street. The subject had pallid skin, thick, long hair, complete with beautiful combs and a yellow, feminine blouse.  

The murmurs and comments of the public grew sharper and more colorful by the minute. The noise inevitably caught the attention of our traveling editor, who was passing through the historic city of Lorenzana, lulled by the calm waters of the underrated  river of Acahuapa. And, in search of the truth, El Monge Azul found his way to a cell in the Rent Administration building, where the "phenomenon" was incarcerated.  

We found a sad and defeated individual with very dark skin and thick, long hair decorated with combs, wearing leather slippers.  

We asked about their state, sex, and customs and they told us: “I am Julián Martinez, but I am known in my town as Juliana. I am 39-years-old and I make my living doing domestic work.”   

“But man,” we asked. “Why do you do ‘domestic work’?”  

“Because that’s my job. I wash, iron, raise chickens, and on the plantations, I operate a grinder.”  

“Well, do you do any man’s work?” 

“No, sir. Those tasks are too difficult for me.”  

“Well, then. Tell me the truth. What are you: a Man or a Woman?” 

“I belong to both, sir.”  

“But man, how is that possible?” 

“Just look. —I am a man, because I am a man; but I am not a man; I’ve never been a man and I never want to be one.”  

Still not believing our eyes, we asked, “Have you ever had a lover?” 

“Yes, sir. But never with women, —I have been honorable. I have never liked women.”  

“And where are you from, Juliana?”  

“I am from San Ildefonso, from our department San Vicente.”  

“Tell me, have you been like this your whole life?” 

“Yes sir. —Ever since I was little, I have belonged to both. I have dressed as a woman for a long time, and I only dress like a man because the authorities force me to.”  

“And this beauty mark on your face, did you draw it on?”  

“No way! Thank god, it’s natural.” 

“Well, Juliana, we are going to photograph you. Is that okay? 

“Oh, no! I’m going to look ugly.”  

And our Kodak captured the image of this poor person, “who belongs to both,” who is a man yet cannot be one, and who wants to be a woman, but cannot be one either. And who, in truth, is not to blame for Nature or for moving between the two sexes, as they clearly do not pertain to either.  

“Goodbye, Juliana,” we told her.  

“Goodbye, sir. Please ask the Administrator to give me my liberty,” they said with a flute-like voice, before returning to their cell, traipsing along with the rhythm of a woman.  


In 2018, I published a story on Juliana in the pages of El Faro Académico. I was very grateful to receive an email response to my call for more information about her case and any others related to LGBTIA+ communities in El Salvador. Dolores Miranda wrote me to share that in her childhood she had heard people talk of Juliana in a very natural and respectful manner; she remembered that she was described as “a very hardworking woman, honest and diligent.”  

Digging through her memories, Dolores recalled that her mother, Rosa Sánchez, who lived in Santa Clara, San Vicente, used to buy chickens, eggs, and chumpes (turkeys) to sell in San Salvador. Rosa used to buy chickens for Juliana, and in some cases, Carmen accompanied her, and because of these circumstances, she ascertained that in 1952 (12 years after being incarcerated in San Vicente) Juliana continued to raise and sell chickens in el Cantón San Pablos Cañales de San Ildefonso. According to Carmen’s memories, “Juliana was a very kind, attentive woman; she would invite us to sit and have a glass of water, and she would be very happy when we came. She was morenita with dark skin and had lots of hair, which she wear in two long braids that would drape down her front, on her chest. She wore red dresses down to her knees. Her hands, legs, and feet were big, and she wore oilskin shoes. She was older and lived alone. We never saw anyone else in her home.”  

Revitalizing the historical memory of any social group is a collective process. I invite anyone who knows of a historical document, a fragment in a book, a poem, a photograph, an anecdote, a legend, the life experience, or any other historical reference to Salvadoran LGBTI communities to share, publish, and organize them. Undoing historical invisibility is a collective task. Any collaboration is welcome and appreciated.


Amaral Arévalo earned his doctorate in International Studies with a focus on Peace, Conflict and Development. Currently, he is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Social medicine in la Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janiero; he is the scholarship recipient of la Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro - FAPERJ. Contact him at amaral.palevi@gmail.com. 

*Note from the translator: Arévalo’s Spanish limits itself to terms useful for understanding sexual diversity (“heterosexual norms,” “homophobic arguments,” and “history of homosexuality”), but for some reason, does not utilize language as precise in regards to gender diversity. Arévalo clearly intends to include cisgender norms, transphobic arguments, and the history of gender diversity in the examples cited above.

In my translation of the El Monge Azul, I utilize “they” pronouns because the author manages to avoid gender pronouns altogether. The author did this because of the way Spanish is constructed, not out of respect necessarily. At times, the interviewers respected Juliana’s identity (by using her chosen name, for example), and at other times, they do not (by calling her “hombre” and taking her picture without consent, for example).

previously published in el faro

Translation by Willy Palomo