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Meet Karina Pintarelli: The First Recognized Trans Survivor Of Argentina’s Dictatorship

Now 64, the transgender poet and activist suffered police torture under the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. After a long legal fight, she became the first trans victim of the regime to be granted monetary reparations by the Argentine Justice Ministry for persecution inflicted because of her gender identity.

Karina Pintarelli

Karina Pintarelli, 64, is an Argentine transgender poet and activist.

Agustina Ramos

BUENOS AIRES — From a house she shares with three friends, the trans activist and poet Karina Pintarelli, values above all the chance to rest. It’s the privilege of a survivor, at 64, of a life marked by multiple acts of violence as if tattooed on her skin.

On July 15, while she was sleeping, the envelope arrived with the news that ended the fight of her last five years. The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights of Argentina recognized the violence and persecution she suffered due to her gender identity during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, she became the first trans person to receive reparation of this type from the government.


“I can tell my story while I’m still alive,” says Karina, sitting in the garden of “Casa Leonor”, where she lives with Morena, Agustina and Cielo, three transgender friends. “This is a recognition of what we had to live through, what we experienced and what we still experience. To my companions in activism, I want to tell them to keep fighting, through persevering you can achieve things.”

Because of my identity

Karina had many lives: a childhood in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Paternal with her Basque mother, Irma, and her siblings, Mario and Liliana. She sometimes lived on the streets; other times in Europe. Also in shelters, police stations, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals where she was forced to share spaces with men.

She was a sex worker at 22 years. She lived and worked for three years at the Frida center, which aids women and LGBTQ+ homeless. Karina also wrote poems that portray her experiences, which she brought together in the book Me quedé en Karina — I stayed in Karina (2019).

Currently, she is one of the few transvestites and transgender people who are still alive to tell what they experienced during the dictatorial period (1976-1983). But also what she’s faced in the democracy, since the violence did not stop.

Karina went from police station to police station during the dictatorship. “I lived in prison. I was inside for 30 days, then they released me for a few days, then arrested me again (and held me) for another 30 days,” she tells Presentes during a recent interview. "It was because of my identity."

She could do something with her memories.

In 2018 she decided she could do something with her memories. While she was using her 30 minutes of computer time at the Frida center, she read the news about a trans woman from the province of Santa Fe recognized by the provincial government as a survivor of the dictatorship.

It was within the framework of Provincial Law 13,298, which establishes the payment of a monthly pension to people who prove they have been "deprived of their liberty for political, or student union reasons,” between March 24, 1976 and December 10. December 1983.

“I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what, how to start, what tools to use. Then I told Flor what I wanted to do and that's where we started the fight," says Karina.

"Flor" is Florencia Montes Páez, a political scientist and member since its inception of the organization No Tan Distintes-Not So Distinct (NTD), which founded the Frida Center.

Search for evidence

The Gender Observatory in Justice of the city of Buenos Aires, NTD and Lawyers for Sexual Rights (AboSex) began to accompany Karina in her fight. The first action they had to carry out, and the most difficult, was to collect the evidence.

“We went to look for three files: one in the province of Buenos Aires, one from the prison service and another from the Federal Police,” recalled Montes Páez. “The one from the province of Buenos Aires was eaten by rats, they told us, so we couldn’t find it.”

Finally, they found the Federal Police file. “A file like this (she makes a gesture separating her index finger from the thumb about 10 centimeters), the cover said 'Pederast'. They created it at the end of the '60s and the last thing on her record is from '96. Thirty years of records ”, says Montes Páez.

“Karina's file is surprising and not pleasant because it is the living proof of the systematic nature of arrests due to the application of police edicts. This basically proves the violence and the criminalization of gender identities.”

Sofía Novillo Funes, a lawyer and member of AboSex, explains the standing edicts of the Argentine Federal Police, in particular subsections 2F (public scandal and incitement to carnal acts) and 2H (wearing clothing contrary to sex). “It was also very important to have a first-person account of the events experienced by Karina," adds Novillo Funes.

A protester attends a vigil in support of the passing of a law creating a work quota for transvestites and transgender people in Buenos Aires on June 24, 2021.

Protester in Buenos Aires

Manuel Cortina/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Subversive agents

With what was gathered and the awakening of memories, Karina put together a multifaceted work called “Time in my hands.” It was composed of the book of poems I stayed in Karina, which the collective Serigrafistas Queer used to make a visual proposal. Also, for an audiovisual installation curated by Mariela Scafati and Daiana Rose called Prontuario (criminal record), where they showed part of the file. “I like to express what I feel, what I experienced, my feelings. Of everything that was my life. There are many people in my same situation”, says Karina.

“With the image of the dictatorship maybe you think that she was in a clandestine center. No. Kari was picked up by the police and systematically taken to Devoto,” Montes Páez says, referring to the infamous prison. “She was in the men's pavilions. She was tortured, all linked to her gender identity to punish, 'discipline' and hurt her. All with the endorsement of the context of the dictatorship.”

It's a fundamental precedent.

In 2020, Karina, together with the Observatory and the organizations that accompanied her, submitted a request for reparation to the National Human Rights Secretariat for the violence suffered as a victim of State terrorism.

The July 15 ruling of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights confirmed "the systematic cruelty against trans people as part of the National Security Doctrine."

The ruling highlighted the role of the Federal Police in the framework of State terrorism, concluding that the Argentine state had declared "that trans women, in their incarnation of their gender, were considered subversive agents."

"This recognition in favor of Karina is a fundamental precedent," says Novillo Funes. What they experienced "was not only during the civic-military dictatorship, but that criminalization persisted afterwards." Even today, the lawyer added: "There are still provinces that have misdemeanor codes that criminalize gender identities.”

Rested and recognized

Karina today is calm, happy and, above all, at rest. She shares her days with Morena, Agus and Cielo. “I am happy for Kari, for what finally turned her way and that she continues to fight today,” says Morena, a 31-year-old transgender woman, who accompanies Karina to the psychologist every 15 days and also travels to bring her medication.

“In one way or another, we are with her because she is already an old person”, says Cielo, 41, who came from Peru to Argentina 15 years ago, and is the group's cook. “We live as a family because that is what we are. Kari is like my mom, and she (Morena) is like my sister.”

As for her blood family, Florencia Montes Páez asked Karina what her mother would say if she was alive. “She would be happy, like all Basques,” Karina said. “She would be happy that I’m being recognized."

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