Tiffani Ortega

"I live a perfect life through the lens of many. But, like us all, I have my own personal struggles. I have lived through many fears, and insecurities. I am a human. I was raised in Carpinteria, in what I thought was seriously the golden family. I was born with a twin brother and had three older sisters. As a family, we did everything together. We went on adventures and spent a lot of time in our garden. Our home life was well cared for, and there was a lot of love.

When I was 10 years old, we moved to Lake Tahoe. A year later, my father started disappearing for long periods of time. When I was 13, my father left for good. That was my first heartbreak, I had never experienced that kind of pain until he left. Around the same time, I lost my virginity to a rapist. With everything going on in my family, I didn’t have a way to process that trauma. I didn’t want to be a burden with my own sexual experience, so I never talked about it.

My older sisters were already gone when my dad left, and my twin brother ran away. Our family home became occupied by only my Mom and I. Every night for months my mother would search for my brother. She started working three jobs to support us, and I stopped going to school. We were both struggling with deep depression. Behind closed doors, my Mother and I would sit in our separate rooms and cry. We needed to be strong for one another, but we didn’t know how. We were two broken-hearted souls hiding our emotions behind walls.

I think my Mom thought she had to be brave and show no emotions. So, I mustered my strength and did the same. As time passed, I started hanging out with a bad crowd and also ran away from home. When I came home to gather my belongings, I found my Mother’s typewriter and typed out all the reasons why we needed to leave Lake Tahoe. It ended like this: If we stay, I will die. A few weeks later we moved back to Carpinteria. Soon after, we got a call from the local jail informing us that my brother had been arrested. It was a relief to know he was alive. We visited him as much as we could. Once released, he joined us with my grandmother in a three-bedroom condo. I shared a room and a bed with my Mother, but we never spoke of our past. My mother and I were never so close, until this painful chapter of our lives, but it always felt like we were just surviving. A year later, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and my brother left again. I felt as if life was repeating a vicious cycle.

At 16, with the help of my best friend Kaylee, I turned my life around. She was an angel who never judged me. Kaylee pushed me to get back outdoors. I started to realize that the more active I was, the stronger I became and the easier it was to cope. She guided me into healing, and away from the baggage of my past. I promised myself I would never judge another human being, because of what I went through. I went back to school and became really popular. I treated everyone equally because I knew everyone had a story behind their well-maintained masks.

After High School, I met Traver Boehn, who invested four years of his life teaching me self-love and how to create goals. We traveled all over the place together, and he was always completely present with me. He bought me my first rock climbing gear and my first camera. I’m not sure where I would be without all of his support.

For most of my life, I had struggled with body shame and intimacy issues. I could never relax due to the violating experience of being raped at 13. As I moved forward in life, I have been blessed to form connections that have restored hope and healing for me. When I was 26, I met my husband. He has been a gentleman, who has given me tons of emotional support and encouragement.

I started the Mi Refugio Projects in 2015. People tend to think that ‘Mi Refugio’ is just an artist that creates leather goods, but really, it’s so much more than that. Mi Refugio creates community, it offers a space where people can come together and create things, and most importantly feel seen. Most of the items created go up for auction or to charity. I also teach leather making, wreath making, and rock climbing workshops. I know the power behind my projects. If they can help me, I know they can help others.

In 2017, Mi Refugio teamed with the Santa Barbara Transgender Advocacy Network (SBTAN) and created the Hearts on Fire fashion show, which debuted at the Lobero in May 2018. The whole event was about giving the transgender community a platform to stand in their truth and be witnessed in that rawness.

What I’ve realized since creating this project, is literally the best thing that I can do is create visibility for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone deserves to be seen. I could not get anything done without my husband, he has given me so much space to heal and grow. We have two beautiful children together. I’ve learned that love has no boundaries, and I try to show my children how to never hold fear in their heart. I expose my kids to nature and diversity. I teach them to always see the positive and be grateful, and I guide them to live life to the fullest. If you have faith, you can create the life you want."
~Tiffani Ortega

Nathan Williamson