Santiago died of cancer early Tuesday at her home in the north coastal city of Carolina, activist Pedro Julio Serrano told The Associated Press.
“Soraya was a pioneer, our teacher, our beacon of light,” trans activist Ivana Fred said in a statement. “She opened the door for all us trans people and left us a legacy of unwavering spirit that is unmatched.”
Santiago had often hung out at New York's Stonewall Inn and was in the city — though not the bar — when police raided it in 1969, unleashing a rebellion that led to the LGBTQ rights movement. She credited that with helping turn her into an activist.
She traveled again to New York in the 1970s for gender reassignment surgery and upon returning to Puerto Rico, became the island’s first trans person to successfully change their name and sex on their birth certificate.
Santiago, a hair stylist who owned a beauty shop, was the first openly trans person to run for office in Puerto Rico, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, trying unsuccessfully for a city council seat in 2008. She was also the first LGBTQ candidate to do so as a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, the center said.
Santiago said in a 2019 interview with the online collaborative publishing platform United Explanations that much work remains to be done.
“Those were doors I opened, and I hope to keep opening more doors so that the community can keep establishing itself where it should be and not where people want it to be,” she was quoted as saying.
Santiago studied political science at Puerto Rico’s largest public university and was featured in several documentaries, including the 2014 Puerto Rican film “Mala, Mala,” which follows nine transgender people. Santiago also published a book, “Made by Hand: Gender Dysmorphia.”