Special Stories

Joss Murillo: The Tilaran native who battled to be a woman freely and a dentist

Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español
Translator: Arianna Hernández

Joss plays at her aunt’s house, the one who makes delicious cakes. She jumps and runs around while tasting the icing of a cake with her finger. In one jump, she falls to the floor. As a result of that jump, she breaks one of her front teeth.

For a long time, Joss didn’t understand why fixing her tooth took so many dentist appointments. But far from hating them, she was patient and began to be curious about dentistry. Sometimes she lined the teeth of her childhood friends with aluminum foil.

On another occasion, when she was about eight years old, she went to Tilaran’s municipal slaughterhouse and picked up the dry jawbone of a pig. She took it to the dining room table in her house and started digging at the pig’s teeth with a needle that her mother used to knit.

“What were you thinking putting that on the table? Let’s put newspaper down, let’s put something down!” her mom, Cecilia, told her.

That day, Cecilia recalled, she saw beyond her child getting into mischief. “They are little things that go unnoticed by another person, but I saw something deeper and I saw that it was a desire.” And who was she to quelch her dreams?

Neither her fixed tooth nor her desire to be a dentist were something that happened overnight. Other desires were also slow to become a reality. Joss was born in 1980 with male sex characteristics, but her identity was always that of a girl.

Almost since she was a baby, I saw her inclinations,” recalled her mom, Cecilia, now 75 years old. “And for me it was never and has never been a problem.” But if identity and sexuality are full of taboos, they were even more so in the Tilaran of that time.

The Checklist

Joss knew early in life that she was different. “But I didn’t have time to think about things that had to do with gender identity or sexuality. When I was a child, I just wanted to play.” She didn’t even have role models as a reference to understand what was happening with her.

She wanted to wear her sisters’ dresses and play with her dolls. One day in pre-K, Joss also got upset because they painted a mustache on her and put a bonnet on her. “And I wanted to look like the girls!” she said, laughing. 

She thought that one day she would transform overnight into a wonder woman. But as a teenager, when she went through physical changes, she knew it wouldn’t be that easy. Then she made a decision: “I’m going to grow up and I’m going to see if what I feel is true,” she thought.

Growing up, she faced constant teasing about two things: her false tooth, which would come off from time to time, and her way of expressing her identity in an authentic and cheerful way.

Joss always dared to be herself,” recalled Ana Maria Murillo, a resident of Tilaran who is an LGBTIQ+ activist. “She has never felt like she’s less and she has never allowed someone to treat her as something inferior,” said Ana Maria, who admires her since she herself hid her sexual orientation.

So she finished high school, studied English, was a teacher and took a hairstyling course, a little indisposed. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed, that because I’m like that, then I had to be a hairstylist,” she said. But at the time it was a strategic move, one of many she has calculated in her life.

She needed to earn money to achieve her two dreams: first, to be a dentist; second, to start hormonal treatment. That was the checklist that she had made, even though it would take her years to be, finally and openly, a trans woman and a dentist.

In her town, she faced stares, harassment and teasing. Without knowing it, of course, other sexually diverse people also looked at her with admiration. “The old beauty salon that Joss had was a safe place for many people from the community’s LGBTIQ+ community,” recalled Murillo.

Joss worked full time at the salon between 2003 and 2007. She saved up, requested a loan and at 27, she moved to San Jose to study dentistry. “I don’t even know how I studied, but I said ‘I’m not going to please the devil’. I told myself and society that a trans woman can be more than a hairstylist,” she said.

Even at the university and living in the capital, she held back from freely expressing her identity. She wanted to do everything step by step, little by little.

Her greatest freedom came in 2014, when she began her hormonal transition. Since then, she has proudly declared that she is a trans woman. “I never say that I am a woman. I am a transgender woman, not a biological woman. I always say it with that qualification,” she pointed out.

Dentist or hairstylist, woman with or without a qualification, her mother Cecilia is clear about one thing that she says, crying.

There are mother’s hearts that close. Instead, I tried to open up to her reality,” she said. “I gave birth to her with God’s help and if I gave her life, it’s to love her and support her forever.”

She finished her degree at 33 and started working as a dentist, first covering vacations or disability leaves in clinics, and since 2020, in her own business, the one she opened in the midst of the pandemic in Tilaran.

There in her town, after years of people looking down on her, now they admire her for the professional and the woman she is. Watching her in a public appearance is enough to understand that the Joss that used to swim against the current, flows with it now.

“I decided to live without returning an insult to anyone. I have been dedicated to myself, because this ticket is a one-way trip”, said Joss. “I can’t allow people to want to hurt me. As much as they want to and they snort, as much as they come out with creeds and religions, I can’t do anything for anyone, just for myself.”

This profile of Joss Murillo was put together with an interview with Joss Murillo, her mother, Cecilia Herrera, Tilaran resident Ana Maria Murillo and this interview.