Joselyn Mendoza and Lesly Herrera met as LGBTQ+ activists in upstate New York. As trans women and undocumented workers, they bonded over shared experiences—specifically, the difficulty of finding a dignified means of providing for themselves. So, to reclaim their economic futures, they founded the Mirror Beauty Cooperative in New York City.
In 2014, Herrera was granted asylum in the U.S. She was also diagnosed with colon cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer that same year. “I could never take a day off to see a doctor, was not allowed to leave early, and always thought I would be fired. I never had any time.” Such conditions compelled Herrera to join with others who had similar experiences to take back agency over their lives together.
They created Mirror as a co-op so they could share wages equally, with the goal of economic independence for themselves, other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrants. Ultimately, they would like Mirror to model what they hope to see in the world: equal pay and worker-ownership.
Mendoza, originally from Morelos, has always liked the idea of being a company manager and thought she might go into tourism. Herrera is a beauty expert. She went to beauty school and worked in salons around the Mexican city of Hermosillo, which she fled because of police violence. But her Mexican cosmetology license was not recognized in the U.S. She was able to find a job at a salon through a friend but continued to face discrimination.
Economic oppression is an everyday reality for trans women. Even despite major cultural and legal victories, trans folks are still at higher risk of unemployment, poverty, and houselessness than their cis counterparts. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which polled more than 27,700 trans, gender-queer and nonbinary people, almost 20% of respondents reported having been fired from their jobs because of their gender identity or expression. This reality is at the heart of why Mendoza and Herrera founded Mirror. “There are not many opportunities for the transgender community in employment,” Herrera says.
Originally, several people founded Mirror, “but a few lost interest because there was no support, and I restarted it,” Mendoza explains. “Also, racism is dividing our communities. … We are worried about President Trump’s policies but, for now, we are focused on completing our project.” The Mirror founders suspect that if they were White trans women, their project would be establishing economic viability faster.
Mendoza and Herrera, like many others who want to start businesses, have faced various financial challenges such as getting startup capital, finding a suitable physical space and building systems to support the flow of work. “One of the great obstacles is the high rents in commercial areas,” Herrera says.
Nonetheless, co-ops have been a route toward economic freedom and workplace justice for people of color in the United States for more than 100 years. The number of co-ops in the U.S. has nearly doubled in the last decade, with communities of color experiencing much of that growth.
Mendoza and her colleagues started Mirror from scratch in 2015, and they have been working out of various salons. They meet every Thursday night to plan, raise money for their own salon, and seek new members. Herrera explains that they typically recruit people who are transgender, part of POC communities, and bilingual (Spanish/English) regardless of their immigration status. Joining the co-op also means becoming an activist for the economic freedom of trans women.
Herrera and Mendoza have set up Mirror as a vehicle for the financial empowerment of all its employees by choosing to register Mirror Beauty Co-op as an LLC, which makes each member a co-owner rather than an employee. This also allows affiliates to register with an individual taxpayer identification number instead of a Social Security number, which undocumented folks don’t have. ITINs don’t grant legal authorization to work automatically, but the IRS application for an ITIN requires only some proof of identity and a complete income tax form, making it easier for undocumented workers to acquire.
Another benefit is that the IRS does not report taxpayer information to the Department of Homeland Security or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so undocumented immigrants can feel safe using their ITINs to open bank accounts, apply for loans and establish credit. As of January 2020, Mirror is finalizing legal details and pursuing a business loan, because their fundraising efforts have not had the success they hoped for.
But a lack of financial resources has not stopped these women from building their presence and serving their community. They marched in the Queens’ Pride Parade with signs urging people to “Invest in trans Latinas” shortly after they wrapped up a large fundraiser. They provided free hair treatments to older and low-income LGBT+ folks at a community event hosted by SAGE, a service and advocacy network for LGBT+ elders. And Herrera reports plans to host events that benefit local houseless shelters every month after their shop officially opens.
Though much work still must be done, the women of Mirror Beauty Co-op see their work as more than just a co-op: “We would like to model to the transgender community that there is another positive option for work. Our business is open to the entire community; our business does not discriminate against anyone. We want safe workplaces where we can work in respect and harmony. We want to help our families, be productive for society, and model economic sustainability,” Herrera says.
Megan Wildhood is a writer, speaker, and advocate for the marginalized. She is the author of the poetry collection Long Division.