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Meet the Puerto Rican Activist Who Helps Trans People Legally Change Their Names

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Karina Torres was born on Saint Patrick’s Day, with its shamrocks and good fortune. But she does not think anything in her life has been the product of good luck. “I believe I was born at 11:59 p.m., with just a few seconds to go, and that was the last time I was touched by luck,” she says with a chuckle.

She grew up in the Santiago Iglesias public housing development in the southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce, and left home before she reached legal adulthood due to her family’s homophobia. While she was attending Ponce High School, she found out about the AIDS Foundation of Puerto Rico. “That was the only place where I saw that there were people like me,” she says. She volunteered, lending a hand wherever the organization needed her, and choreographing dance routines for pride parades. It was a first step toward becoming a trans rights activist.

Torres is a woman who walks with her head high and a look of determination. She wears acrylic nails and, for religious motivations, a green-and-yellow beaded bracelet. At the age of 23, she began her transition: She took hormones and underwent surgery in Ecuador. She tried to find work at a department store, but she could not get them to hire her. “I made it through all the interviews, and when I went to sign the contract, they turned me down because I didn’t have my name changed [on the identification document],” she says. “I left in tears.”

The process of changing her name was lonely: “Nobody went with me. Nobody gave me guidance,” Torres says. “I walked up and down the streets, looking at signs that said, ‘attorney.’ I had to argue and explain.” Although she does not remember the exact amount because she changed her name 22 years ago, she is certain that the cost of the process surpassed 600 United States dollars.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

Karina Torres takes a call in The Euphoria Project’s office, where she helps people who come to her in search of legal assistance so their identities can be recognized.

In 2022, to make sure others would not go through the same experience alone, Torres converted part of her San Juan home into an office, where she provides guidance and economic assistance to up to eight trans people per month who cannot afford to legally change their names. On average, the cost of an attorney for this process is 2,000 dollars, when a private service is hired, plus 135 dollars for the mandatory government fees, known as “sellos.”

Run by Torres, The Euphoria Project helps trans people who may not otherwise be able to afford this process. They seek her out motivated by the premise that legally changing their names will reinforce and honor their own identities — and encourage others to respect them. By taking this step, they find validation and alleviate gender dysphoria, a deep sense of unease and sorrow that occurs when a person’s biological sex doesn’t reflect their gender identity.

The Euphoria Project was the brainchild of Alexander Milán Santiago Cordero, a trans man, in 2018, and Torres assisted him. Santiago Cordero made special undergarments for trans people, and Torres provided name-changing services. After Santiago Cordero’s death in September 2022, Torres decided to continue the project, but only with the name-changing services. Since then, she has kept the project going to honor Santiago Cordero’s memory. “May he rest in peace,” she says with every mention of his name.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

A checklist with the documents needed for the name-change process, which Karina Torres hands to trans people who come to her for help.

On the desk in The Euphoria Project’s tiny office lie the papers that Torres gives to people who want to change their names: a checklist with all the documents they’ll need and a list of addresses for all the offices they’ll have to visit.

The Euphoria Project covers costs for two of the six government sellos: one that costs 78 dollars to submit the request form, and another, for 5 dollars, to request a person’s original birth certificate. The project is funded by private grants which sometimes allow Torres to pay for additional sellos. “I have to go from grant to grant,” she says about how she raises funds.

When it comes to legal counsel, Torres also reaches out to the Civil Rights Commission, an entity designated by the governor of Puerto Rico with the approval of the Senate to manage the protection of human rights before government authorities. The commission works to make legal assistance free for those who wish to use its services.

If necessary, Torres accompanies those who come to her to the offices they must visit, or she delivers documents to them by hand. “Karina went to my house and brought me the papers and sellos because I couldn’t make it to her house,” says Michelle Sánchez, a The Euphoria Project beneficiary who does not have her own means of transportation. Sánchez legally changed her name because the people at her place of employment refused to call her Michelle on the grounds that it was not the name that appeared on her contract. “If Karina didn’t exist, they would have called me by my deadname. I’d have no value in the eyes of society,” she says, referring to the name she was given when she was born but with which she does not identify.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

In addition to helping trans people change their names, Karina Torres puts on drag queen shows, where she often raises funds to support trans people.

There are days when Torres does not come home for 24 hours. She gets up at 5:15 a.m. to go to her job as a health consultant at VIDA, a health care program run by the municipality of San Juan, where she provides HIV testing. When she finishes there, she spends her afternoons completing tasks for The Euphoria Project and other nonprofit projects she’s involved in, like FLUX Puerto Rico, which works to help people get to know the trans and nonbinary community through activities and the creation of safe spaces and innovative promotional initiatives.

Torres’ nights, especially on the weekends, are full of makeup and music. She performs as a drag queen in various clubs and returns home at dawn. It is hard for her to say no. “No matter how much I say I’ll take a month for myself, I always end up doing everything, even though I end up exhausted,” she says.

Tatiana Soto, a nurse who has been a friend of Torres since their youth, describes her as a “strong and tenacious” woman. Soto requested the services of The Euphoria Project when she was 48 years old. “Karina gave me the sellos, we got all the documents, she filled out the request and authorization forms, and we did it,” she says.

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Gabriela Meléndez Rivera, GPJ Puerto Rico

A trans pride flag seen from Karina Torres’ office, where she assists trans people who want to legally change their names.

When Leodalys Marie Carmichael wanted to change her name, she went to Torres as well. “She explains everything to you from beginning to end, what it’s going to be like. I felt supported,” Carmichael says. But Torres helped her with more than her name. With teary eyes and a faltering voice, Carmichael says, “Karina has been my guardian angel. Someone attacked me where I used to work, and she picked me up, almost dying, and took me to the hospital.”

Torres dreams of expanding the services of The Euphoria Project to cover all the sellos people need to change their names, as well as having an information table for health fairs and other events, so that more people can affirm their identity in an accessible way.

“Being trans is being human, and that is my focus,” Torres says. When she returns to her house after a long day, there to greet her is Sky, Santiago Cordero’s dog. Torres draws up to her altar, where she prays to her deities for herself and her loved ones. Even though she says she has achieved nothing through luck, many people say they have been lucky to have her in their lives.

The following documents are required for the name-changing process. They can be requested in any order, as long as debt certificates show that there is no debt. Two sets of copies must be submitted. One set must be submitted to the trial court (Tribunal de Primera Instancia) and the other to the prosecutor’s office (Oficina de Fiscalía) with jurisdiction in the applicant’s area of residence.

  • Original birth certificate
  • Copy of photo identification (it can be one issued by Puerto Rico, a passport or identification from a foreign government entity)
  • Criminal record certificate for Puerto Rico and other jurisdictions in which the applicant has lived
  • Non-debt certificate from ASUME (Administration for Child Support Enforcement)
  • Non-debt certificate from CRIM (Municipal Revenue Collection Center)
  • Non-debt certificate from the Department of the Treasury
  • Certificate of tax filing
  • Photograph with a white background
  • Government “sellos”

Once all the documents are obtained, the next step is to go to the Civil Rights Commission or another attorney to make a sworn statement and complete name-change request form OAT 1896.

After that, all documents must be taken to the trial court closest to the applicant’s physical address.

The time it takes the applicant to receive the judge’s ruling depends on the judge’s workload and if the judge needs more information or requests hearings. The Euphoria Project has had cases that have lasted anywhere from one week to three months.

As soon as the name-change request is approved, the applicant is notified by email. With the signed ruling, the applicant must then request that the change be made to their birth certificate, Social Security card (will need a copy of the card), and driver’s license or personal identification (Real ID). For that, the applicant must go to the corresponding offices.

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