“We are advancing because we are united”: An interview with Erika Hilton
Last year, murders of trans women surged by 45% in Brazil, with Black women making up two-thirds of the victims. In the face of this stark reality, many inspiring Brazilian activists are campaigning against transphobia, homophobia, and racism in the country. One such person is Erika Hilton, who became the first transgender councilor elected by the city of São Paulo in 2020.
In line with COLORS’ recent production period in Brazil, we spoke to Hilton to find out more about her transition from militant activism into institutional politics, the women who inspire her to keep fighting, and how, outside of her day job, she’s just a young girl who loves music, putting on makeup, and singing into her hairbrush.
COLORS: When did you first become interested in politics and activism?
Erika Hilton: One day, when I was around four or five-years-old, I told my grandmother that I was going to be the president of Brazil.
I have very happy memories of my childhood. I grew up surrounded by women in a matriarchal home. Through their strength, they were political almost without knowing it. A lot of my political motivations came later, through being on the streets, having to fight for my right to exist, and through my experiences with prostitution. But observing these women as a child was the first thing that made me want to take action and be part of important conversations.
COLORS: When did you decide to get involved in politics yourself?
EH: In 2015, I had an argument with a bus company in Itú—a city in the state of São Paulo—who refused to let me use my chosen name on my ticket. I started a petition against them which gained a lot of attention. After that, I was invited to join PSOL, Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party. This was my gateway into institutional politics. I began to learn about parliament, legislation, structures, and how to build dialogues with institutions. It was very different from what I was used to: being a militant activist, shouting loudly, and putting up posters. It was a really important experience for me, but also very frustrating. Many of the party’s values didn’t align with what I was trying to achieve.
“I’m occupying the government on behalf of every Black woman and trans person in Brazil.”
COLORS: Did this frustration prompt you to run for the position of city councilor in the 2020 elections?
EH: When I realised that I wouldn’t be able to achieve everything I wanted through PSOL, I decided to create my own political project that represented my worldview and the movements I believe in.
A whole range of people came out to campaign and support the cause, from transvestites to Black cis sisters, the queer and disabled communities to white cisgender men. They all believed in social transformation and were willing to dream and work to build the world that we believe in. It was beautiful to see.
COLORS: After the results of the election you became the first transgender councilor elected by the city of São Paulo, and the most voted councilor in the country! How did it feel when you were elected?
EH: Honestly, I can’t describe it. I was very happy, honoured, and privileged. I couldn’t believe that one year after Bolsonaro—who sees the communities I champion as public enemies—was elected president, our campaign, which didn’t have lots of money or companies financing it, could achieve this feat. I felt a great deal of responsibility, but I was also so joyful to be carrying on the legacy of amazing women like Brenda Lee and Cláudia Tapety who paved the way for me to be here: women who dreamed of a world where a Black, trans woman could occupy the largest legislative chamber in the country. The victory was bigger than me. I’m occupying the government on behalf of every Black woman and trans person in Brazil.
COLORS: You’ve held the position of city councilor for just over a year. What does your average day look like?
EH: I don’t have a daily routine or schedule. I end up doing completely different things everyday. One moment I’m dealing with cracolândia—areas of São Paulo known for high drug use and trafficking—invasions, the next I’m at meetings or public hearings, or talking with teachers and the LGBTQ community. It’s crazy—I don’t get much time to sleep—but wonderful at the same time. I constantly have the opportunity to connect with many different types of people, help them face their struggles, and be the intermediary for their desires and needs. It’s very rewarding.
COLORS: Black and trans rights are your main area of focus. How would you describe the situation for Black and trans communities at the moment in Brazil?
EH: In Brazil, the Black population, the LGBTQIA+ population, women, and the working class are all part of the same group. They are all denied the same basic rights, including the right to education, housing, health, and to move freely around their cities. The latter is not possible not only because of the cost of transportation, but also because of the threat of being attacked, raped, or even killed along the way.
This is the reality of the country: I’ve seen young boys have their lunchboxes mistaken for revolvers by the police, just because they are Black and living on the outskirts of the city. 90% of the trans community lives off prostitution because no one will offer them employment elsewhere. Homosexual couples are attacked in the streets. We live in a reality of abjection, a reality of dehumanization, a reality where many of us have to fight to live, eat, dress, study, and have access to the most basic things. There is a lot of resistance and we are advancing because we are united. But there are still very strong power structures that are working against us.
“THE issues I’ve raised are essential in the fight against inequality.”
COLORS: With this context in mind, what are the challenges of being a woman, and specifically a trans woman, in politics?
EH: I think the difficulties women and trans women face are very similar. The main difference is that trans women have more stigmas attached to them. But women in general all struggle to be respected, to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to avoid harassment in a work environment. Old white men often think they own the political space, that they know more than you, and that they can teach you how to do politics their way. They also often struggle to take women in politics seriously, and think that they are just there for their charm, beauty, or clothes, or to talk about “less important topics.”
These are the greatest challenges for cis women, trans women, Black women, white women, and Indigenous women alike. Of course, trans women are often placed by many in a sub-woman sub-category, which means they have to fight harder against harassment, infantilization, ridicule, and being silenced, all while trying to make policies and represent the city. It’s really tough.
COLORS: Do you have one achievement during your time as a councilor that you’re particularly proud of?
EH: This year I was really proud of preventing an eviction order for over 400 families. Elderly people, children, and people with disabilities were going to be thrown out on the street in downtown São Paulo—close to the cracolândia drug trafficking areas—during the pandemic. I chair the human rights commission in São Paulo. Through that, we managed to speak with the judge presiding over the case, and stop these people from losing their homes. This was what I ran for office to do. It made me so happy.
We also managed to establish a city council award for women working in the areas of recycling, art, writing, literature, and fighting hunger. It’s named after Carolina Maria de Jesus, a memorialist who lived most of her life in the slums on the outskirts of São Paulo. I wanted to honor her, her work, and all the amazing women who have come after her. It was very hard to get it approved, but it means so much to me now that it has been.
COLORS: What are your hopes for the future?
EH: There’s a lot of requests for me to run for federal government in next year’s elections. I think it would be very meaningful to bring the debates and issues I’m raising to a national level, but São Paulo still really needs me. I would like to ensure that the city is a transcidadania by law—defined as “trans citizenship”, the transcidadania programme is aimed at the inclusion of transgender people and transvestites in São Paulo—before I step onto a larger stage. I really want to leave a public policy focused on social assistance and development, especially for homeless populations. I would also like to see the completion of the first shelter for trans men in the city, which is currently in the works.
By doing all of these things, I hope the council will be able to have more open debates moving forward, and that the people who come after me will understand the issues I’ve raised are essential in the fight against inequality. I want to leave a legacy, so that everyone who voted for me thinks: “Good. We appointed a Black trans woman as our councilor who was committed to the human rights agenda. She’s started important conversations, and even if she hasn’t succeeded in everything, things have been set into motion, and topics that used to be brushed under the carpet have been brought out into the open.”
COLORS: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
EH: Music is a massive part of my life, it helps me to relax and connect. Whether I’m sad, happy, or on the way to work, I’ll put on a song to make me feel good. I love to be around people—especially with my friends during happy hour!—and to sleep. Sleeping is something I really cherish, as I often don’t get as much as I’d like. I don’t really watch intelligent, cult movies. I prefer to watch silly things on the television. Basically, outside of the political scene, I’m just a young girl who loves music—mainly pop and MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira)—and to dance, perform, put on makeup and sing into my hairbrush. When I leave the house I have to be serious again.
“Changing the aesthetics of politics is very important.”
COLORS: You sometimes show this side of yourself on social media though, right?
EH: I believe being open about my personal life attracts younger generations to politics. Politics can and should be a place for everyone. It doesn’t have to be all about boring speeches given by boring men wearing ugly clothes. Changing the aesthetics of politics is very important.
COLORS: Who are the people who inspire you to keep fighting?
EH: Carolina Maria de Jesus, as I mentioned before. Chica da Silva—a Brazilian woman who became famous for becoming rich and powerful despite having been born into slavery—has also always inspired me in my womanhood and in my view. Afro-Brazilian philosopher, writer, and anti-racism activist Sueli Carneiro—who is one of the leading authors on Black feminism—is another person that I worship, respect, and admire. Lélia Gonzalez—an intellectual, politician, professor, anthropologist and a woman human rights defender—is a great matriarch who guides my steps. And last but not least, Brenda Lee, an inspirational Brazilian transsexual activist for LGBTQ rights.
“Calm down, breathe, understand, analyze, live, and feel.”