JUAREZ, Mexico — A rainbow flag sways in the wind outside a pink two-story house in an out-of-the-way Juarez neighborhood.
Inside, 38 transgender women and teens tell jokes, try on new skirts or dresses and help fix each other’s hair. The environment is cheerful, almost festive.
Each laugh and smile helps these transsexual migrants from Central America overcome a lifetime of rejection, reproach and violence, says Grecia Herrera, who runs the house.
“They come here with physical scars and deep emotional wounds. Some have suffered violence so ugly and degrading that they cannot bring themselves to talk about it,” Herrera said. “They come here without money, malnourished and sometimes sick. Our intent is to help them heal.”
Herrera runs Respettrans Chihuahua, a nonprofit seeking to provide temporary shelter to transsexual migrants who come to the border to request asylum in the United States.
“We Mexicans complain that things are not so good, but these women come from places that are much worse in terms of discrimination and basic human rights,” she said. “They are not coming here to improve their economic situation. They have no American dream. They are fleeing life-threatening situations; they just want to survive.”
The organization is a year old, but the house just opened its doors last May. Herrera said she started it after the death of Roxsana Hernandez, a transsexual woman who died after staying in a government detention facility in the United States.
“I identify with the migrants because I came from a small town in Chihuahua. I suffered rejection from my family and here, I lived on the streets and slept under bridges. I learned to defend myself and then another woman, an older trans, helped me improve myself. I want to do the same thing,” Herrera said.
Although now a respected activist and municipal worker, she carries the scars of past violence: dental surgery for broken teeth and loss of hearing
Herrera was also close to Johana Medina Leon, who died in El Paso this year after being paroled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after getting sick in an Otero County detention facility.
Activists in Las Cruces, New Mexico, said Leon, or “Joa,” as her friends knew her, had health issues and medical needs that authorities ignored. ICE has denied the allegations.
“I know what happened. I was there when she died,” said Herrera, who first informed the news media of Joa’s passing. She declined to comment further on Joa’s case, citing possible pending legal action on the part of Leon’s family.
But if conditions at American detention centers are less than optimal, the trip from Central America to the U.S. border is much worse, according to the migrants at Respettrans, a name that combines the words “Respect” and “Transsexual”.
Guatemala-Mexico, the road trip from hell
Canada Solis, 20, was a university student and aspiring model in Honduras when gang members in her neighborhood noticed she was a cross-dresser.
“I was chased by the gang, they hit me, they cut me, they told me to leave,” which she did not, she says. “Later, I was coming from work and the gang saw me again. One of them said, ‘What? You haven’t left yet?’ He said I had to leave or the next time they would kill me and leave me hanging from a bridge.”
She went to the police but she said they told her: “This happens to you because you are gay. Be a man and you won’t have problems.”
The police officer allegedly would not take down the report of the assault. “They’re going to get you sooner or later, so it doesn’t matter,” he told her.
Solis said she joined a migrant caravan headed to the United States and found a group that identified itself as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT).
“We stayed in a group for protection,” Solis said. But the illusion of safety got crushed once the caravan got to Guatemala.
“The cops were angry at the way we dressed and because we were carrying the (rainbow) flag. They were insulting, threatening, so we decided to get a ride so we could get to the Mexican border faster,” she said.
The group hitched a ride in the back of a trailer truck.
“We were on the trailer for two days. There were many people in there. At night, they raped one of the women; she was violated by many men. Then they went after one of my friends, She resisted and they murdered her,” she claims.
While it’s difficult to verify such claims, non-governmental organizations like Transgender Europe say they do happen. The organization reports 2,115 murders of transgender individuals between January 2008 ad April 2016. The group states that 78% of those murders took place in Central and South America.
At the Mexico-Guatemala border, local gangs forced her group and others to sell or carry drugs across, she said.
“They told us we’d be killed if we said something. They said, ‘you’re not from this country. Nobody knows you. Nobody cares. If they find your body, they’re just going to throw it away’,” she said.
Solis said several migrants fled the gang during a rainstorm, opting to swim across the Suchiate River. She said she saw two in her party being overcome by the current and drown.
“It was a very hard thing to see because we were close, we took care of each other, we had become a community,” she said.
What was left of the LGBT group slept in a park in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas for two days and inside a church for several more days, living off of charity.
Some again fell prey to criminals and were forced into prostitution. The group was intercepted by Mexican immigration while attempting to reach Tapachula, a larger city.
“The officers beat us and took us to a detention center. The police purposely put us in the men’s cell. We had to fend them off all day because they were touching us, pulling our hair, slapping our butts. We could not sleep at all… we were terrified, we were crying, we were yelling for the police to put us in another cell,” she said.
The police finally obliged, placing the LGBT group in a cell with gang members from El Salvador. “The gang didn’t want us there. They beat one of our girls and cut her throat with a spoon. The worst part is that the police saw how we were being treated and they were like, ‘I didn’t see anything’.”
Solis said the Mexican guards constantly laughed at her and launched insults. “They made fun of the way we talked, of the way we walked. It was like that until Human Rights officials went to inspect the detention center and told them to move us where the women were”.
But instead of solidarity, the female migrants also showed contempt. “One woman said, ‘You shouldn’t dress like a woman, my kids are looking at you. You’re a disgrace” Others would say, “you’re not one of us. Keep to yourself.”
Carolai, a 19-year-old transgender woman, from Auchapan, El Salvador, said she, too, experienced harassment at the Mexican detention facility near the Guatemalan border.
She had left her town after gang members beat her and threatened to kill her for joining a co-ed softball team.
“It was very ugly. From the minute we got there we were discriminated. In the dining room, the men didn’t want us in line with them, and neither did the women,” she said. “There was a fight among the men and the guards said we had given them the knife. They wanted to search us. In the dining room, we were holding hands and someone said we were doing sexual things. The guards always sided with the accusers. They were homophobic.”
Solis and Carolai said they are hopeful of getting asylum in the United States. However, if that doesn’t work out, they don’t plan to go home.
“I have a friend who has been living in Mexico City for three years and has a good job. Maybe I will ask her if I can stay there,” said Carolai.
Solis said she would continue to pursue modeling and open an English academy, though she hasn’t decided where.
The mirror, friend and foe
Carolai said she came to terms with her sexuality at 14 and shared her secret with her mother at 15. Unlike many of her LGBT acquaintances, she got some support.
She has worked on her appearance and started hormone treatments to look feminine. She regrets leaving her mother, who gave her the $240 to make the trip north, but says she had to after the gangs threatened to harm both of them. She believed the threats because one of her LGBT friends was drowned by gang members, and another acquaintance was murdered with a rock.
At Herrera’s house, she uses a large round mirror to apply makeup or fix her hair. “In Juarez people are more open-minded. I have gone Downtown, to the old City Hall building. I haven’t felt discriminated,” she said.
Herrera concurs that people in Juarez are not as homophobic, but still, she takes precautions.
“We don’t tell people where we are. We don’t share our telephone number. The neighbors know who we are. They have given us clothes and furniture,” she says, pointing to the big mirror.
That piece of furniture is symbolic of the hopes and the heartbreak of the people under her care.
“Those who suffer the most are the ones who have not made a hormonal transition, whose bodies remain masculine. There is the physical and emotional suffering that others inflict on you, and there is the suffering when you look in the mirror and you see a person that is not you. That is probably the worst kind of suffering,” Herrera said.