Arts & culture, Campus & community, People, Profiles

I’m a Berkeleyan: Student Cai Carranza on queer representation — ‘We’re not singularities, we’re entire human beings’

Graduating student reflects on their journey to Berkeley and how the portrayal of gender minorities in mainstream media falls short

Portrait of Cai Carranza as KaiAnne Pepper.

Graduating student Cai Carranza reflects on their journey to Berkeley and how the portrayal of gender minorities in mainstream media falls short. Carranza — as KaiAnne Pepper — is shown in a self-portrait project from summer 2020. (Photo by Cai Carranza)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Cai Carranza. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

Growing up in Norfolk, Nebraska, there weren’t a lot of people of color. Often the main interactions people had with communities of color were through stereotypes they saw in media and entertainment.

Kids at my school would call me “Manny” because I reminded them of this young  Colombian boy on the TV show Modern Family. My family is actually from Mexico, but they lumped all Brown Latinx people together. And it was like I had to be this person, to fit into this box they created for me, in order to gain acceptance.

Childhood photo of Cai Carranza hugging his brother Carlos.

Toddler Cai Carranza, left, hugs their older brother Carlos Carranza.  (Photo courtesy of Cai Carranza)

As a queer, plus-sized, low-income person of color, there have been countless times where I have been made to feel this way. But for many of us in the queer community, finding art and content that reflects our daily lives gives us a sense of ownership over our unique experiences.

Through media representation, people can also understand the queer community and our experiences on a deeper level. But I don’t really feel like I see myself fully represented in mainstream art and entertainment.

While there may be quite a few different ways we are portrayed on television shows, in music and on Broadway, we are often being represented as singular identities — reduced to the most commodified versions of ourselves.

And that’s my problem with a lot of queer representation: Do we really hold our own stories in the public space, or are they portrayed just to make the same people in power more money?

To reclaim power over our stories, we need to share them ourselves.

I was born in California’s Central Valley, but my family moved to Norfolk when I was 1.  For the majority of my childhood, my father wasn’t with me because he had been arrested when I was 4. After he was released, he was deported to Mexico, where he and my mother are originally from.

My mom had to raise the eight of us by herself. She worked nights cleaning one of the local supermarkets. It was a hard job.

Childhood photo of Cai Carranza's mom holding their brother.

Cai Carranza’s mom, Elva Carranza, holds their brother, Jonathan Carranza, as a baby in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Cai Carranza)

She would come home sometimes at seven in the morning and still have to take care of us, cook, clean and sleep during the day before waking up and going back to work. I’m so grateful that she pushed through to do everything she possibly could to make sure we always had a roof over our heads and food on our plates.

As the youngest sibling, I understood what being low income meant for me at a young age. On the first day of kindergarten, I remember walking up to the school and telling myself, “If you ever want to go to college, you have to find a way to pay for it on your own.”

I would work jobs at fast-food restaurants, join after-school clubs and take the hardest classes that I could. But in a predominately white school, it felt like, for some people, my skin color equated to not being smart, not being good enough and not being expected to go to college.

I remember a math teacher once telling me that I was going to end up homeless, working at McDonald’s and living under a bridge.

Despite being discouraged, I was an exceptional student. I earned A’s and really thrived academically. But in social settings, being plus-sized, low income, queer and Brown was an uphill battle. I dealt with being bullied a lot.

In the Mexican community, families are heavily Catholic, and often there is not a lot of tolerance or acceptance for LGBTQ+ people. My family was pretty involved with the church community. My mom even offered to help out our pastor and his pregnant wife by cleaning their home, and I myself even went to church camp for many summers.

Childhood photo of Cai Carranza making silly faces with their siblings.

Cai Carranza, top left, having fun with their siblings, niece, and nephew. Pictured left to right: Leo De La Rosa, Jocelyn De La Rosa, Carlos Carranza, and Jonathan Carranza. (Photo courtesy of Cai Carranza)

Being so young, I struggled with the internal battle of what I was taught through religion and the queerness around me. I didn’t know how to hold these two pieces that felt so polarizing.

But that made me more aware of my own personal identity.

I first came out, or at least tried to come out, when I was in the sixth grade. I vividly remember walking into my mom’s room, bawling my eyes out.

“I like girls and boys,” I told her. It wasn’t until freshman year of high school, after a bad breakup, that I finally texted all of my siblings that I was bi. I remember one of my brothers texting me back saying, “I don’t care what you are. You know we still love you.”

Knowing I had my family to rely on in that way was so important for me. And to this day, they still support me.

For a lot of my family, art came pretty naturally, and it was around the house in one way or another. Music has always been a passion of mine. I would sing in choir clubs and groups throughout grade school and high school. But I learned very quickly that I was never going to be featured or chosen as the front of any songs we performed.

Being queer in Norfolk, I was unlucky in the sense that from the way I carry myself, you can tell what I am: There isn’t much that I’m hiding. And I didn’t exactly fit the mold of what most choir directors wanted.

I bring my identities to any space I am in. Even if I don’t intentionally do it. And me being who I am is political, because people have made it to be that way. So, in order for me to exist and thrive, I am forced to take up some of that action of being political.

Cai Carranza waving a pride flag in front of the Washington Monument in D.C.

Carranza waving a rainbow pride flag in front of the Washington Monument in January 2018 after being elected to represent UC Berkeley at the National LGBTQ+ Creating Change Conference. (Photo courtesy of Cai Carranza)

My sophomore year, I restarted the Gay Student Alliance in our high school — after it had been disbanded over a decade before — as a place to build community with other queer students and staff. While there was some acceptance of the group, other students started a straight alliance and threatened to meet in the same room, and at the same time as us, to purposely drown us out.

Fortunately for me, my family and I would end up moving to Modesto, California, my junior year. In California, I definitely wasn’t as alienated because of my race. Discrimination around sexuality and gender existed, but it was more hidden.

Something that really impacted me was the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. There was a lot of hatred and racism being outwardly expressed in the area. I remember at one point riding my bike home from school, and this truck pulled up next to me, and this group of men started yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks at me, breaking the chain on my bike.

I had to walk home the entire way back, bawling my eyes out.

Cai Carranza with friends protesting at the Sacramento capitol building.

Carranza as KaiAnne Pepper, center, at the 2018 Sacramento Pride Parade marching with Planned Parenthood with Jonathan Carranza, left, and Janet Alvarez. (Photo courtesy of Cai Carranza)

Although I wasn’t old enough to vote at the time, I signed up to work the polls that election because I felt like I needed to be involved. I also lost quite a few friends for openly being against Trump and cut off some friends because I felt like, what’s the point of being friends with someone that doesn’t support me having rights as a person of color, as a queer person, as all the things that I am?

That definitely was a kind of rude awakening right before college, that the personal would always be political for me.

My freshman year at Berkeley, I lived in the UNITY Theme Program and performed in their annual drag show as KaiAnne Pepper. This program put me on my path to working for the Gender Equity Resource Center, as it allowed me to merge so many of my skills and passions.

I’ve been lucky enough to find my own community within Berkeley that is expansive and really inclusive. But there is still a struggle and work to be done with the atmosphere as a totality. There are so many instances of queer and trans students being made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe due to students still making transphobic and homophobic comments in class and around campus.

With that said, I don’t want to deter people or sound like Berkeley is the scariest place, because that’s not true. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet LGBTQ+ center directors from across the country through Berkeley, and some of those campuses didn’t even have a permanent physical space to meet, let alone programs like UNITY and GenEq.

So, I think if you look for the community, you’ll find it.

This video narration project by Carranza was created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Carranza discusses their relationship to art, trauma, and identity, while putting the final touches on their digital illustration of “The Abyss.”

During my time at Berkeley, I’ve had the opportunity to work as an intern organizing around sexual violence issues and created programs and events for sexual violence and sexual

harassment survivors through the ASUC. This is where I discovered my passion for advocacy.

Billy Curtis and cici ambrosio at GenEq really helped me to focus my skills and talents as a part of GenEq’s marketing cohort. During Geneq’s celebration of Berkeley’s 150 Years of Woman at Cal, I helped to highlight Berkeley women who have been underrepresented by history, by the media and by society.

150W Graphic of LGBTQ+ activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons.

Carranza designed this digital graphic of LGBTQ+ activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon for UC Berkeley’s 150W commemoration. (Photo courtesy of Gender Equity Resource Center)

As a graduating student, I am currently one of the marketing, outreach and volunteer coordinator interns and working on bringing more representation to our queer community.

I got an opportunity this year to work as an intern for Peacock Rebellion, a Bay Area-based, queer and trans Black, Indigenous and people of color (QTBIPOC) crew of artist-activist healers.

We recently performed a show that came from this desire to reclaim the time, space and ownership of our narratives. And we’re doing this to get artists paid and to make the statement that the queer and trans communities need more than just representation: We need ownership of the systems that tell our stories.

How do we create our own TV shows? How can we fund our own theater systems and our own employment and production companies?

We need to eliminate the gatekeeping in art and entertainment that sometimes prevents queer and trans performers from being successful artists. So, we’re creating systems of support and financial mobility that weren’t there before.

We’ve definitely come a long way in the industry. We’re seeing shows like Pose, where trans women are playing trans women, and those are important steps. But there’s still a long way to go.

This original song was written and performed by Carranza and produced by Lafemmebear. Carranza said the song is a message of body positivity and reclamation of sensuality. The projects aims to take back the agency over beauty from the “beholder” to declare an inner component of body positivity against a culture of “fat-shaming,” racism, and desirability politics.

My experiences at Berkeley have equipped me to tackle this work after graduation. I definitely want to work in diversity and inclusion within the entertainment industry, and to advocate for spaces for people that don’t fall into those singular identities.

As the industry is just scratching the surface of unlearning racist, homophobic and transphobic biases — and the institutional concepts of what makes good TV — it is important for people with lived experiences in the queer community to be a part of that change.

Cai Carranza as KaiAnne Pepper.

In January 2019, Carranza as KaiAnne Pepper celebrated their one-year anniversary of becoming a drag performer  (Photo by Cai Carranza)

Something I’ve struggled with is when I look into media, I have to pick and choose aspects of different characters that I can identify with. And it’s like, maybe that person of color is telling that person of color’s story very well, but they’re straight or they’re skinny. Or there’s a plus-sized character over here that I really understand, but they’re white.

How do I fit myself into those representations?

I hope we can get to the point where we’re allowed to portray people in the queer community that maybe, not a lot of people watching will identify with: But that doesn’t mean their story doesn’t deserve to be told.

This is really a calling for me: To be a part of that work to create more of a nuanced version of representation where we can advocate and honor the stories and give agency back to the people that they’re supposedly being told about.

Because we’re not singularities, we’re entire human beings. And that’s what should be thought of first.