On paper, the story of Mavi Susel’s transgender experience reads like so many others. A young boy grows up feeling like an outcast from his peers, plagued by the struggle of inhabiting a body that he doesn’t feel matches his gender. Bullied by peers and facing disappointment from family members, Mavi’s adolescence was plagued by conflict until undergoing a sex reassignment surgery. Susel’s life changed as she finally became the woman she always knew she was.
What sets Susel’s story apart from so many others is that hers takes place in a country that is taboo to Americans. That is because Susel lives in Cuba, a country that has been the subject of economic sanctions and travel restrictions from the United States for decades.
Susel was the first person in Cuba to ever receive a sex change operation. The operation was free for Susel under Cuba’s health care initiative.
Susel’s story has now been immortalized by a documentary on her experience. Titled “In The Wrong Body (En El Cuerpo Equivocado),” the film was directed by Cuban filmmaker Marilyn Solaya. After premiering in several theaters in Cuba last year, it caught the attention of members of SF State’s Latina/Latino studies program.
“We heard about it, and were very excited about the prospects of bringing it to San Francisco,” said Gloria LaRiva, one of the organizers.
The result was a United States premiere of the documentary hosted by the College of Ethnic Studies at SF State. The film screened to an audience of students and members of the public at Knuth Hall Nov. 3.
Originally, both Susel and Solaya were scheduled to be present at the premiere. However, after the death of her mother in February, Susel found the prospect of traveling too difficult.
“She has suffered deep depression,” said Felix Kury, lecturer with the Latina/Latino studies department.
Kury spoke of the importance of bringing Solaya’s film to SF State. According to Kury, building a relationship between the academic communities can benefit both. He has also traveled to Cuba with students studying medicine.
When it comes to a discussion about transgender people, Kury noted the importance of bringing the discussion to people who were “straight but not narrow.”
Solaya attended the premier to host a question and answer panel after the film. Speaking through a translator, she spoke of the experience of transgender people in Cuba and how they face similar struggles to transgender people in the United States and all over the world.
Solaya also pointed out that Cuba’s government has taken steps to combat issues of homophobia and transphobia, including setting a day aside as an anti-homophobia themed holiday. A government-founded institute called Cuba’s National Sex Education Center also exists to assist gay, lesbian and transgender youth with everything from health care to counseling.
Solaya met Susel after Solaya appeared on a television program explaining that her new project would focus on transgender people in Cuba. Susel called her the next day.
“She asked me how I was going to do this film without talking to her,” Solaya said.
Ultimately, Solaya emphasized that understanding those who are different should be a universal concern. For Solaya, this awareness came after becoming a mother.
“When one has children, these themes start to develop,” Solaya said. “The necessity of seeing through others’ eyes and their experience starts to develop.”
“The story of Marvi is the story of us all,” Solaya said.