‘Wërapara,’ the Indigenous Trans Women Fighting for Inclusion and Respect in Colombia

Wërapara BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of “Wërapara, Chicas Trans.”

In the traditional Embera language, “Wërapara” literally means “not women.” The Amerindian people of some 350,000 people inhabit parts of the Pacific region of Colombia, eastern Panama, and northwestern Ecuador.

Within this community, Wërapara women have been victims of discrimination and violence for years.

Today, these women have organized themselves through artistic manifestations and their deep connection with the spirits to fight for inclusion and respect in Colombia.

From the territory where they sow, cultivate, and harvest coffee, make handicrafts, take care of their homes and honor their land and ancestral culture, the women make up a trans group of the Emberá Chami community in the Karmata Rua indigenous reservation.

The story of the Wërapara has reached the public through the documentary “Wërapara, Chicas Trans,” by Colombian director Claudia Fischer, which officially premiered Saturday in Bogotá as part of Pride Month.

The documentary follows the story of Marcela, Jaima, Gina, Alexa, Roxana, and Pamela, who live in the mountains of the Colombian Andes. 

These Wërapara, or “clay women” have not been afraid to assume their identity and have fought to defend their place in an often hostile environment. Together they have managed to give visibility to their artistic and spiritual expressions, and their work as weavers and designers of accessories typical of their culture has resonated at the forefront of fashion in Colombia.

As the synopsis of the documentary explains, the Wërapara advise each other, support each other and, above all, strive to preserve the healing power of their self-recognition as a community. Each of these women, with their stories, represents the diversity and potential of the Emberá culture and tradition. Thanks to their families’ support and innate determination to fight discrimination, their individuality shines through. Their unstoppable strength has truly positioned themselves as an essential element for their community.

The idea for the documentary was born out of an invitation from Richard Battye and Liliana Sanguino to Claudia Fischer to participate as a filmmaker in the interactive project WRAPAROUND, which took place in London in 2019, where Claudia documents the construction process of fashion designer Laura Laurens and the trans artisans of the Karmata Rúa community, from Antioquia in 2018 to the Fashion Case Show at the 2019 Summer House in London, which Liliana curated.

As a result of the exhibition, an invitation was sent to the group to hold a fashion show in Medellín for the 2019 career day.

The process involved: Laura Laurens, Liliana Sanguino, Gulsun Mettin (fashion design professors from the University of London Westminster), La Colegiatura de Medellín (fashion design professors and students), involving the LGBT community of Karmata Rúa as artisan creators and runway models.

Then, Fischer decided to go beyond documenting the processes and enter the wërapara’s lives she had followed.

They created a collaboration and a friendship, the possibility of having a portrait where we could understand why this group of people move free of certain burdens we maintain in our society.

“I was interested in the story of this group of artisan girls, not only because of my anthropological fascination with indigenous cultures but also for the authenticity of their characters,” Fischer says.

Official surveys indicate that only 12 percent of Colombians are openly LGTB, and indigenous lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual people “are a minority within a minority,” Fischer told EFE.

Yet, in Karmata Rua, “many, many boys who wanted to be girls came out and presented themselves as trans,” she says.

“Many work harvesting coffee, with practically non-existent pay and, are subjected to discrimination and abuse, but the remarkable thing about this group of Emberas is that they remain in the community, devoting themselves to agriculture, weaving, making chakiras (jewelry of colored glass seed beads) or ceramics,” the filmmaker says.

“One sees that in our society, there are sometimes much bigger difficulties to come out of the closet than those they have had in theirs,” Fischer says, though the film does not minimize the hardships endured by the wërapara.