At just 20 years old, the non-binary trans Xicana was elected senator at the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the officially recognized student association at the University of California, Berkeley, has riled up conservative outlets like Fox News, Breitbert and The Federalist Papers and has become a much-needed brown trans femme voice in politics and education – looking as hot as your favorite fire emoji throughout it all.
Ahead, find out how Cordova is crushing the patriarchy by advocating for inclusivity on college campuses and bringing her whole self to the ivory tower.
You are a big proponent of education. You have three associate's degrees and are working on a bachelor's degree in political science. What does education mean to you as a formerly homeless brown trans femme?
Throughout elementary, middle and high school, education was a safe place for me. I was bullied all the time, but in the classroom I found teachers who protected me. It was also a place where I could excel. Education, from the start, was my go-to support system. When I became homeless in eighth grade, that’s when education became a haven, because time on campus wasn’t time spent in hotels. Education was a way out of poverty, at least for me.
What are some of the biggest issues impacting trans women of color, particularly trans Latinas, and non-binary folks in education right now?
I think the biggest obstacle we face is accessibility to education, from not having the means to attend, to not having stable housing that allows you to rest and go to school in the morning, to working too many hours to even think about school.
What can institutions do to be inclusive, safe and joyous spaces for trans students?
I think there are a few things. For one, I do think institutions need to be intentional about protecting students, which they can do by instilling policies, respecting names and pronouns in record-keeping, making sure mental health providers are capable of helping trans students and ensuring our histories are included in the curriculum. There should be an overall concern for the safety of trans students.
You were recently elected to the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the officially recognized student association at the University of California, Berkeley, which is one of the largest in the country. What was that like for you?
That was hell. For transfer students, it’s super hard to get into the election, because you only have a semester on campus before running. And then as a brown, poor, femme navigating a system that doesn’t have a good representation with the queer trans community, it was very taxing emotionally. I sacrificed so much, but in the end it was super worth it. My message was clear: I’m not here for the BS of bureaucracy and I’m not holding up white supremacy. Instead, I’m working with students so that they can survive this campus. That message was heard. I won the seat, and I got most of the votes. This shows that brown trans femmes can win first place in a race of 20 people. There’s so much power in our voices.
Of course, there was (and remains) resistance. Just recently, you wrote an op-ed for The Daily Californian, the independent, student-run newspaper of UC Berkeley, discussing the need to prioritize the safety of the campus' most marginalized over free speech, and it received a lot of criticism. First, what point were you making in this piece and why do you think it pissed so many old, white, cis dudes off?
My whole point in that piece, in the context of this whole “is free speech dead” conversation, was that before we talk about free speech as a concept, we should be willing to protect students in danger, including Black, undocumented and trans students. I wasn’t saying that I don’t believe in free speech. My ability to write that piece was because of free speech. I use that right all the time when calling out BS. All I was saying was that before we talk about that, what we should be prioritizing is Black and brown undocumented students being put in danger by conservative speakers – that was my intention. I knew the people who I was talking about, the people who need the protection, would get it and agree. And I also knew more conservative people would read it, ignore context and come after me. But I don’t regret it and I stand by it.
There were article responses to your op-ed in some of the most popular conservative content platforms, like The Federalist Papers, Breitbert and more. How do you handle that level of condemnation, which oftentimes is laded with racist and transphobic language?
It’s a lot. I’ve been dealing with this since high school, when I first played softball senior year. I’ve been dealing with Fox News attacking me. Everything I do is against what they want, so I definitely expected and feel somewhat comfortable with the criticism, mostly because it’s been my experience and I’ve done a lot of media training through different queer organizations. That has prepared me to deal with this and makes it a little easier. But the most important reason I continue to move boundaries is because I have my community behind me, brown, trans, femme friends who I can go to when I need to cry, rant, talk shit, whatever.
What does self-care look like for you?
Self-care is something I’m working on. For so long, my work was what kept me away from going back to hotels. My motivation through high school and my first few years of community college was to not live in shitty places. Now that I have a home I can go back to, I want to prioritize self-care, but it’s something I’m struggling with. But I think self-care, to me, looks like relying on friends, who ask me if I have eaten, drank water or need a nap or party. My community has kept me alive for so many years and slowly I’m learning how to manage myself. I also recently got health insurance, so now I have access to necessary health care, and I’ve taken up art and painting, though I’m no Picasso.
Talking about the self, your personal style is simultaneously beautiful and reflective of your brown trans femme identity. Tell me, how might your clothes, makeup, acrylics and styled hair be a political statement?
Off the bat, me wearing anything feminine is political, because I am trans. But recently, being among the white and rich of Berkley University, I’ve come back into my roots and dress like the ghetto my mother was raised in. My mother is my first inspiration. She’s the chola chingona who’s very feminist, takes no shit from anyone and is not here for respectability politics. I’m trying to be as cute and femme as possible, with my long ass nails, bright red lips and heels.
What role do you think the aesthetic plays in social movements?
I think back to the pachucas, who were looking glamorous even while they were being criminalized. That empowers me. I think aesthetic is important because if I look the way I do and younger femmes see me in leadership roles, then they can feel like they can be themselves, too. And me being non-binary, and not trying to fully assimilate to womanhood, allows for people to question their gender and realize they don’t have to be whole or all of any gender.
How do you see your work as helping to crush the patriarchy among other oppressive systems?
I think when I was little and my mom would say, “you can do whatever you want in the world,” I know she hesitated because she knew I was queer, brown and trans, but she still said it, and I still believed it. My work today is fulfilling her prophecy, and that alone at least works to crush the limitations the patriarchy has put on me. And by expanding that to my community, as we continue as femmes to assert ourselves in school, in political circles and in workplaces, we are continuing self-assertion and smashing everything we are limited by – I also hold these brown boys to their machismo.