Tuesday 11 March 2014

Interview with Vicki Estrada

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect, urban planner, civic visionary, the President of Estrada Land Planning, a landscape architecture firm from San Diego. Hello Vicki!
Vicki: Hello Monika. I am quite honored that I am one you chose to interview. By the way, thank you for all you do for our community throughout the world.
Monika: Could you say a few words about your professional career so far?
Vicki: Well, I have owned my own design firm now for 29 years, almost half of my 61 years. I currently have 8 employees. Growing up I wanted to be an architect but realized while in architecture school that what makes a city great is not an iconic building here or tower there. It is what happens between buildings, how the buildings are arranged, that makes cities great. This is what landscape architects do.
There is misunderstanding by most that because the word "landscape architect" has the work "landscape" in it, that we are "fancy" gardeners. It is much more far reaching than that. I heard a story once by a famous landscape architect that if you imagine the earth as a canvas, architects put dots on the map, engineers connect the dots but landscape architects are the only ones that can literally paint the entire canvas.
I never forgot that story and have never regretted my decision to change from being an architect to being a landscape architect. We seem to be much more open and able to think on a larger scale.

An example of a large scale plan Vicki prepared.

Monika: I heard someone say that “Being an architect isn't only about construction, it's about creating wide spaces with small spaces.” Do you share this view?
Vicki: From a landscape architects perspective, the spaces we create are really the sum of a series of smaller spaces, so in a way, that statement is correct. A lot of what we do is planning and urban design and does not even involve construction as such, but rather determining what the future urban form of a city or a community will look like. The product is a master plan that guides architects and planners illustrating and recommending various design guidelines and standards.

The Barrio Logan Community Vision Plan prepared by Vicki.

Monika: You authored the 1989 Balboa Park Master Plan for San Diego after nearly a decade of public meetings and controversies. Was it a difficult project?
Vicki: It was long, that is for sure. It took that long because there were so many stakeholders and community members with differing viewpoints. The final result was a combination of good design decisions and political compromises that we had to choice but to incorporate into the plan.
For example, there is a large historical bridge that traverses a canyon and freeway in the park that is the only vehicular connection between east and west in the core of the park. I wanted to close the bridge to automobiles and make it pedestrian and bicycle only, which 
I still believe is the right thing to do, but the major museums in the park felt that if the bridge was closed to cars, the museums would go bankrupt. So they lobbied the elected officials and got their way.
The Balboa Park Master Plan.
Monika: If you could indicate the American ideal city, which city would it be?
Vicki: A great question. I love the excitement, Central Park, the ethnic diversity, the city form, the culture, the food and the transit friendliness of New York City, but every time I visit (my son and grandson live there) I come more stressed out than before I visited. Everyone is always in such a hurry. Rush. Rush.
So to me, the idea city would need to have the following characteristics. - Walkability and bikability - Lots of trails - Cultural activities (public art, museums, music, social gatherings, etc.) - Great food and restaurants - A great natural open space system and lots of parks - Topography that is not boring (not too flat) - Memorable architecture - Lots of street trees - A great climate - A logical urban form (not Los Angeles).
That being said, the ideal city does not yet exist however, there are several that come close. San Diego and San Francisco probably top the list.
Monika: You transitioned on the job. Did you lose any clients because of that?
Vicki: I transitioned in 2005. Was full time for a year and then had my GRS in Trinidad, Colorado. I decided to actually appear live on our local Public Radio Station on a one hour news and public affair show and tell the community about me wanting to become a woman. Going home from the interview, I decided to go to work as Vicki for the first time. That was my first day of being full time. You can still hear that interview here.
I think that being so public about it made my transition easier. In a sense, the community transitioned with me. As a result, I did not lose any clients. I lost a few right wing conservative religious friends (I thought they were friends anyway) but really no clients.

Vicki at a Public Presentation.

Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda?
Vicki: I really feel that transgender issues are the civil rights issues of the day. We are where the gay movement was 20 years ago but we are accelerating fast. Our visibility is becoming greater and greater.
There are many ways to instigate change. One is to protest, pound and demand, one is to force legislate and one is to gradually infiltrate and lead. This is my approach.
I am on eleven boards and committees and I am chair of five of them. These are not LGBT related but civic ones like Lambda Alpha International, the Media Arts Center San Diego, the Opening the Outdoors Initiative Action Team, the Center for Civic Engagement Leadership Council, Groundwork San Diego and San Diego Canyonlands (environmental organizations). If we can show the entire community that we can lead and make a difference in the overall quality of life of the community, then little by little, they will all realize that it does not matter that we are transgender.
The hate and ignorance will eventually be eliminated. I am fully convinced of this. So to summarize, I feel the current issues are simply to be treated like everyone else. Of course within this goal are bathroom rights, employments rights, family rights and many others. But the overarching goal is equality. I was asked to write and sing a song at last year’s San Diego Transgender Day of Remembrance. Empowering ourselves was the overarching theme. You can see it performed here:

Monika: What do you think about transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books etc. so far?
Vicki: Well, being featured in the first episode of Sex Change Hospital, I have some firsthand experience on this. As far as documentaries go, there are some good ones and I honestly feel that the Sex Change Hospital six episode series was well done and presented an honest impression of what we go through. I still hate the name of the series though as it was not about the hospital but about the people.
However, too many documentaries just try to sensationalize our stories just for ratings and impact. As to movies, I, like others, am getting tires of the same old stereotypical trans characters that are unemployed, depressed, drug addicts and prostitutes. There are those of that exist that have good jobs, contribute to the community at large, are not druggies or prostitutes and have loving families.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Vicki: It is definitely a small “T”. There are exceptions of course, but I find way too many in the LGB community that do not understand or fight for our cause, our equality. There have been times when I feel that we would be better off separating (as such) from the LGB community. There are some directors of LBGT Centers that do not really fight for us. As before, there are exceptions, but this naivety should never happen.
But I do not think that is practical or even productive. I think we need the gay community to assist in our cause. There are just not that many of us, we need more critical mass to go it alone. So how can we fight for our cause in the overall community if we cannot even garner the full support of the LGB community? I do not think we have done that well. We need to take some leadership in the local LGBT centers and fight for all of our causes, to fight for all social injustice.

Vicki with her wife and mother at a banquet
to receive an award for “Inspiring Latina”.

Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Vicki: Several people come to mind. Jamison Green, Mara Keisling, Masen Davis, Kate Bornstein, and Jennifer Boylan. Each fighting for our equality in their own unique way.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Vicki: Absolutely. Dr. Marci Bowers, Jennifer Boylan and Amanda Simpson. They are all professionals with successful transitions. They were really an inspiration for me.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Vicki: My mother suffered so much when I came out, especially doing it so publicly. She cried daily until she died last year. She was convinced that I was going to go back to being Steve. Being very Catholic, she prayed constantly that I would see the evil in what I was doing. She eventually tolerated me but never accepted me as Vicki. I loved her very much and causing her that much pain is something I wish I did not have to do.

Vicki and her wife, Lynda.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Vicki: Love for me is very important. Since I graduated from college in 1975, I have never really been alone for more than a few months. Not sharing my life with someone I love is something that I cannot imagine.
I have been legally married to Lynda now for nearly 6 years. She is also a MTF Transgender woman. I honestly thought I was going to be with a man but like many transwomen, I fell in love with another transwoman.
Although my sex drive has diminished greatly since my surgery, I need the closeness, trust and communication that a relationship brings. Also, I am very fortunate to still be very close to both of my children and grandchildren. I love them and my wife more than anything. They have accepted and supported my transition more than I could have hoped. I am very close to my father as well. He has been incredible throughout my transition and he continues to be. I call him every day.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors or trends?
Vicki: I am not one that desires a flashy fashion statement. I tend to want to blend in and not draw attention. I wear dresses on fancy occasions but for my daily work, I generally wear skirts and blouses and living in San Diego most of my shoes are sandals.
That being said, I do want to look good and professional so I buy most of my clothes at Nordstrom. I wear black a lot and tend to favor solid bright colors for my blouses. I rarely wear jewelry except for earrings. I feel naked without them.

As Steve with her two children 35 years ago.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Vicki: Not really. It has been suggested to me but I do not think my story is that unique that it would be of interest to non-trans people, unless I can put a very unique twist and focus on it… something that has not been done before. I suppose linking my transition to my music, my designs and my civic volunteerism might be a direction I could take. 
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Vicki: I have not regretted my decision to transition for one minute. People would always call me “sad Stevie” because I always seemed so sad (Interestingly though, I was never really depressed and never had suicidal feelings. I do not like to lose, and that would really be losing).
No one, including me, knew why I always seemed so sad. I know now why but those days are gone! I COULD NOT BE HAPPIER. My personal life, my work, my music and my tendency to want to make the world a better place for all… keep me going. 
Monika: Vicki, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Vicki Estrada.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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