The minute Susie Hidalgo leaves her apartment, one of her neighbors calls out to her. “Hi, Susie,” the neighbor says. On the street in East Harlem, she asks the older women she passes for their blessing, and they give it to her — “dios te bendiga,” they reply. She goes out of her way to stop and talk with her neighbors. After all, she calls herself the Queen of El Barrio.
But she concedes that the vibrant, outgoing persona she wears in public masks her private pain. Ms. Hidalgo, 56, who was born in Puerto Rico, was raised mostly in this neighborhood as a boy, but her life has been filled with struggle over identity and acceptance. It is her faith, she said, that has helped her cope with what can feel like a lonely existence.
“I ask God to help me find justice,” Ms. Hidalgo said in Spanish, in her home decorated with crucifixes and small statues of saints, “and he will. He listens. I pray a lot.”
One of 12 children, she was born in a set of triplets and named Jesús. She no longer uses that name, but accepts it as part of her Roman Catholic faith. One of the triplets, her sister, María, died when she was 2 weeks old.
“After my sister died,” Ms. Hidalgo said, “I felt like a part of her — her gene lives in me.”
One of the earliest signs of her struggle with her identity came when she was 7 years old, after she took a pair of an older sister’s underwear. Now, at 56, she openly identifies as a woman, wearing high-heeled shoes, keeping her bangs long and often commenting on the dresses she passes in store windows.
However, her family has not stayed with her through her transition. She formed a family of her own with friends in the East Harlem community, where she has lived for over 40 years. Betty Castro, a longtime friend, described her as community-oriented, kind and good-hearted. “The people who don’t know Susie aren’t blessed,” Ms. Castro said. “Even the dogs and cats know her.”
But she notices the stares she often gets on the street, and struggles to find consistent work. At one job, she said, a customer asked her manager why they would hire someone like her.
“I have so much pain,” Ms. Hidalgo said.
In addition to her faith, her goals keep her going. For example, she wants a job and to own a car someday.
She spends a lot of time in her apartment, watching telenovelas with her dog, Prince. Her life appears simple and solitary, but every so often, a friend will drop by to see her. She goes to the gym regularly and also keeps busy by cooking and cleaning. Every Monday, she works in a local food pantry.
Sometimes, she said, that feels like enough.