As Peru readies for a momentous general election in April, candidate Gahela Cari aims to make history as the South American country’s first out trans woman in Congress. 

Cari, an Indigenous activist and candidate of the progressive Juntos por el Perú political party, already broke barriers when she became the first trans woman to run for national office in 2020. While she shocked competitors by receiving more than 24,500 votes, the ballots still failed to pass the 5% threshold requirement. 

But a lot can change in a year — and in Peru, one of the countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America and where massive protests have sparked rejection of conservative neoliberal politics across the nation, transformation is underway that could help Cari in her latest run for office.

The self-described feminist is running on an intersectional platform: she hopes to join neighboring countries in bringing marriage equality and gender identity laws to Peru while strengthening the region’s fight to decriminalize abortion, reform law enforcement and fight climate change. 

According to the 27-year-old contender, bold feminist politics is what the Peruvian government needs.

“Feminism isn’t just a struggle for women. It’s a struggle for a different world. It’s a bet on life. I am pachamamista, and in my cosmovision, I don’t believe that it’s enough to fight just for the rights of people, we also have to include the earth and our natural resources. We have to achieve a balance, a harmony,” Cari told NACLA

A lifelong activist, the candidate was raised in a home of freedom fighters, keenly aware of the plight of Black, Indigenous and impoverished people. As she grew up and came out as transgender, she faced a new form of hate and discrimination. Even her parents, leaders in the agrarian struggle, kicked her out of their home out of fear that she might “infect” her younger siblings. She was fired from her job, and comrades in social justice struggles closed their door on her. 

“In this country, it’s very difficult and very complicated to be trans. Just for your ID card to show your name, you have to go through the courts, which isn’t just expensive but also emotionally damaging,” she said. “… Here in Peru, not even 1% of trans people work legally. Something isn’t right. If the state doesn’t do anything to fix this, it’s committing de facto transphobia.”

While Cari grew up with household lessons from her dad that change happens in the community, not through the government, her experiences as a trans woman showed her that systemic problems require systemic changes.

“If the system is the problem, we need to change it. And it cannot be changed overnight. I think both the streets and the social movement play an important and fundamental role,” she said. “But I do not want to spend my life convincing everyone else or trying to influence the decision-makers. I want to be part of making the decisions. And that can only be achieved through political parties.” 

But even within electoral politics, Cari has encountered backlash. Recently, conservative contender Frank Krklec, of the Renovación Popular party, publicly called Cari by her birth name, refusing to acknowledge her trans identity. In response, Cari submitted a letter to the National Jury of Elections (JNE) requesting a sanction against Krklec for transphobic political harassment. She also demanded that measures be taken to prevent intimidation and ensure LGBTQ+ people are safe and respected while running for public office. 

According to the candidate, this work isn’t about being a victim but rather about being a light that magnifies the daily struggles that trans people, and marginalized communities moreover, experience in Peru.

“I don’t do politics thinking about what those who oppose [human] rights will think. I do politics thinking about the ways [of life] that have been silenced all this time, about the people who are invisible,” she said. “I am not worried for even one second about what the anti-rights groups think. I am convinced that if I engage in politics, it is to be able to build a society with equal opportunities and conditions for all. And that implies giving voice, tools, opportunities, and conditions to those who have never had them.”