Editor’s note: Yariel Valdés is a contributor to Tremenda Nota, an independent e-magazine in Cuba that reports on the country’s LGBT and other minority communities. Tremenda Nota is the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba.
Yariel Valdés is currently in Tijuana, Mexico. Tremenda Nota originally published his story on its website in Spanish on Tuesday.
TIJUANA, Mexico — A group of LGBTI+ migrants in Tijuana, Mexico, is waiting to reach the U.S. border. Dozens of people left the caravan of at least 5,000 Central Americans to avoid harassment from their fellow travelers.
Loly Méndez began the longest trip of her life more than 22 days ago. El Salvador is roughly 4,400 kilometers (2,684 miles) from the U.S. Loly nevertheless decided to join one of the groups of Central American migrants who are fleeing the violence in their home countries and travel towards the U.S. border.
Loly, a transgender woman and cosmetologist, did not only have a goal achieving the “American dream,” but the opportunity to escape violence and transphobia. A gang member had assaulted and robbed her in her own country.
“I am thankful to God because they did not take my life, nor did they rape me,” she says.
Loly already knew that she was a woman when she was a child. The climate of intolerance that exists in her country of origin, however, prevented her from completing the transition that she wanted.
“You never know if you are going to stay alive,” she says. “I cannot stop thinking about my friend, how they killed her, strangled her and threw her off a bridge. We had plans to leave El Salvador together, but people hated her because she already looked like a woman.”
Cruz Torres, director of the Office of Diversity in El Salvador’s Ministry of Social Inclusion, estimates that 600 LGBTI+ people have been killed over the last 24 years in the Central American country. At least 145 of these crimes occurred in only three years, from 2015-2017.
The border, one step
“All the gay people who traveled with this caravan came with the goal of being free, of working, of not being criminals,” Loly explains to Tremenda Nota. “I have never prostituted myself and I am not going to another country to do this.”
The Salvadoran arrived in Playas de Tijuana last Sunday as part of an advance group of around 80 people from the LGBTI+ community, members of the first caravan of more than 5,000 Central American migrants.
The group arrived, escorted by officials with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration and by officials from various human rights commissions in the Aztecan country. They arrived in the border city after passing through San Luis Río Colorado (Sonora) and Mexicali, the capital of the state of Baja California.
César Mejías, one of the migrants who is the group’s unofficial spokesperson, declared that this first caravan reached northern Mexico earlier than they expected because they received support from “an organization in the U.S. that also belongs to the LGBTI+ community.” Mejías did not mention their supporters’ name.
The uncertainly of the migrants in Tijuana has increased. “It hurts to know that now they are going to deport us to our countries,” says Kecha Cataleya, a 24-year-old trans Honduran woman.
“They doused me with gas and set me on fire in 2015, I can still see the scars,” she recalls. The young trans woman also insists that gangs also force trans people to sell drugs and prostitute themselves.
Latin America has the world’s highest rates of violence against the LGBTI+ community, according to the non-governmental organization Transgender Europe.
El Salvador, for example, has seen “terrifying hate crimes against LGBTI people” in recent years, according to a report from the group COMCAVIS Trans. They are “acts that take place with greater cruelty than usual: Mutilations, excesses of violence that reach the point of multiple shots, bodies that are tied up, dismemberment of genitals and acts of systematic torture.”
When Kecha Cataleya and her counterparts arrived at Olas Altas Street in the Coronado section of Playas de Tijuana, several neighbors protested. “Thank God,” recalls César Mejías. “They already understand who we are, what we are going to do and how long we are going to be here.”
Mejías and the rest of the group, which includes minors, are waiting for their “legal representatives” to begin the process of seeking political asylum in the U.S. “We want to do things right,” he added.
President Donald Trump, however, has tried to close all doors into the U.S. to Central American migrants. The president on Nov. 9 signed an executive order that prohibits illegal entry into the U.S. through its border with Mexico. If Central American migrants cross north into the country through unauthorized ports of entry, they would be arrested and would lose the right to stay in the country or seek asylum.
The U.S. government at the end of October announced the deployment of 5,200 troops to the border with Mexico. Trump on Twitter said, without any evidence, that the caravans “are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members. He threatened the migrants in another of his tweets: “This is an invasion of our country and our army is waiting for you!”
Some are more equal than others
The LGBTI+ members of the caravan walked with their Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan counterparts during the journey. They swam across the same rivers, climbed over the same border fences, slept exposed to the same bad weather, endured the same cold and the same hunger. Their status as LGBTI+ people, however, meant they were discriminated against by their fellow migrants.
“I didn’t expect this from them because we are all migrants and we came together. I thought that we had to support each other,” complained Noe Alvarenga from El Salvador.
“Because we are the most vulnerable community,” stresses Loly. “We have suffered violence, machismo that comes from within this caravan. We have been viewed badly, they have shouted things at us.”
Marta García Ortega, a social anthropologist and investigator at Colegio de la Frontera Sur de México, concedes the LGBTI+ community is particularly vulnerable within the group of migrants “because they are not only asking for a right to asylum, but they are at high risk and require special attention, like women.”
Discrimination, homophobia, violence and hate crimes, in reality, forced Loly Méndez, Kecha Cataleya, Noe Alvarenga and César Mejías to undertake a journey of thousands of kilometers from their home countries to the U.S. border.
“To live as I want to live, being who I am without anyone discriminating against me, without hiding who I am, without some thugs coming around the corner and hitting me…this is what I want,” stressed Mejías.
This route, however, does not end at the U.S. border. They will have to undertake another “walk” through the U.S. legal system from there.
Investigator Marta García Ortega feels the caravans, which have begun an unprecedented process in the recent history of forced migrations, in a few days will be knocking on the doors of the U.S. “This is not just a movement of exodus, it is a movement for social rights, for human rights, for the right to migrate.”