No one does political rags to riches stories quite like Brazil, but even in a nation where the most celebrated president in decades once shined shoes to survive, the story of Erika Hilton takes some beating.
The transgender teenager was kicked out of her house aged 14 and spent several years as a sex worker in rural Brazil before reconnecting with her mother and studying teaching and gerontology at university.
After involving herself in student politics she moved to São Paulo and joined the leftwing PSOL party. In 2020 became the first trans person elected to the city council, Brazil’s largest.
Now, she is running for Congress and seen as very likely to become the first trans member of the Brazilian parliament.
“I think she has lots of layers, being black, a woman, and trans,” said Evorah Cardoso, a researcher for the campaigning NGO VoteLGBT. “She is about more than just her physical attributes. She has policies to go with it and she puts them forward very well. She has a really good chance of being elected.”
There were at least 300 LGBT candidates running for election in Brazil this year, around 80 of whom were trans, Cardoso said. Hilton is one of the most visible, and her showing two years ago in the São Paulo city council elections prompted the PSOL to allocate resources to her campaign.
Individual vote winners under the complicated Brazilian electoral system help elect less popular members of the same party and Hilton is seen as a marquee presence. Much of that is down to her LGBT background and strong stance on issues such as education, social housing and domestic violence.
An increased awareness of the power LGBT candidates can wield has also helped. In 2017, researchers at the annual Pride parades in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo asked participants if they thought LGBT people should vote for LGBT candidates and 42.8 % agreed totally or partly. In 2022, that number had shot up to 88%.
The 2018 election of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro threatened and galvanised minorities in equal measure. Bolsonaro had long made clear his contempt for LGBT people, Afro-Brazilians and women, and Hilton is one of a new generation who stepped up to answer back.
Tall, stick thin with a flowing mane of dark brown hair, she is as poised and articulate as she is striking. Although she lost several years of education while living on the streets, she worked hard to catch up and has won respect for both grasping key issues and surrounding herself with savvy allies.
She has also come along at a life-or-death moment for many of her constituents.
Brazil is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be LGBT, with at least 310 killed last year, 114 of them trans, according to the rights organisation Grupo Gay de Bahia.
The 2018 murder of Marielle Franco, a black and lesbian city council woman in Rio de Janeiro, sent a chilling message that no one is safe. Two former police officers are in jail awaiting trial for ambushing Franco and her driver, although who ordered the crime still remains open.
Hilton is a breezy and engaging presence in her ramshackle office and a magnetic force on the campaign trail, where she delivers almost as many hugs as stickers. But the threats are never far away and she visibly wilts when discussing the life they have obliged her to live.
“I feel less free and less safe as a city council member in the city of São Paulo than when I was a 14-year-old and needed to stand on a street corner to survive from prostitution,” she said.
“I knew I could get in a client’s car and never come back, but [the threat] was generic. Now it hangs over me directly. Criminals who are organised and capable, who say what they will do to Erika. It’s not just any transvestite who will be a victim of structural transphobia. It’s about me, and my body, and my life.”
She now has a bodyguard and cannot frequent bars or clubs like other young women who share her passion for Beyoncé and Rihanna. So for the last three years, much of it restricted anyway because of the pandemic, she has thrown herself into her work, building a base she wants to fight alongside her to “rescue” Brazil from the far right and the dominant white, male power structures.
“I want to lift this country up,” she said, warming to her theme with the intense mile a-minute delivery that is her trademark. “Brazil has a gigantic historic debt with these [marginalised] groups and it has never worried about paying it. That bill will have to be paid sometime … I will do everything I can so that happens, even if it’s not in my lifetime.”
Still only 29, Hilton clearly has the potential to go much further. How far that might be probably depends less on her own merits than on the openness of Brazilian voters.
When asked if Brazil is ready for more Erika Hilton, her brown eyes flare and a smile flickers across her lips. “Brazil is being prepared for more Erika Hilton,” she said. “It’s not ready yet. But it’s getting ready.”