July 29, 2020 at 11:45 am PDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Transgender woman from Cuba builds new life in Fla.
Dayana Mena López (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdéz Gonzaléz)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A transgender woman who spent nearly eight months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody won asylum in the U.S. last August because of the persecution she suffered in her native Cuba.

Dayana Mena López on July 25 noted to the Los Angeles Blade during an interview at a restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., where she now lives that she suffered persecution in her homeland because of her gender identity and her opposition to the Cuban government.

Mena, who is of African descent, is from the town of Placetas in Cuba’s Villa Clara province.

She told the Blade she came out as trans when she lived in Cienfuegos, a city in Central Cuba. Mena said her family supported her.

“I would have been able to consider myself lucky and happy in this regard because my entire family accepted me: My parents, my grandparents,” she said. “My entire family always accepted me and I never had any problem in my neighborhood with my neighbors in this sense. In this sense I lived well, with respect to this part of my life.”

A federal lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed behalf of Mena and other ICE detainees who had been denied parole that would have allowed her to pursue her case out of detention notes she “refused to complete compulsory military service” in the Communist country, but “authorities misidentified her as a gay man and attempted to force her to serve in the military.”

Mena told the Blade the men in the unit to which she was brought insulted her because she is trans. Mena said she could not wear a female uniform and was unable to do her make up or hair.

“The environment was very tense,” she said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit further details her life in Cuba.

“Due to her political beliefs and identity, Cuban authorities have beaten her, taunted her with homophobic slurs, locked her in a frigid chamber for hours, and held her under arrest,” it reads.

Mena said she received death threats. She also told the Blade that police officers harass trans women who gather along Havana’s oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón because they think they are sex workers.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, spearheads LGBTQ-specific issues on the island.

Her supporters note Cuba provides free sex-reassignment surgery under its health care system. They also point out that Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a proposal to ban anti-gay discrimination in the workplace because it did not include gender identity.

“She is something very, very fake,” said Mena in response to the Blade’s question about Mariela Castro. “She is something created, (they are creating something) fake to sell an image.”

A woman and girl sit on Havana’s oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón on Feb. 28, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘I left Cuba to flee persecution’

Mena left Cuba on Dec. 22, 2018.

“I left Cuba to flee persecution and physical and psychological abuse I also suffered because I am a trans woman,” she said.

Mena said a friend helped her pay for the flight from Havana to Panama. The Panamanian government granted Mena a visa that allowed her to travel to the country, but she told the Blade she could not return to Cuba. 

“I had to stay there in Panama because they would have detained me if I returned to Cuba,” she said.

Mena and a gay man from Cuba asked for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, in January 2019. Mena presented herself as a gay man, as opposed to a trans woman, because her friend did not want to be separated from her.

“He was very afraid to be alone,” said Mena. “That’s why I asked for asylum like this.”

Mena was separated from her friend when ICE transferred to the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run detention center in Milan, N.M., that once had a unit for trans ICE detainees. The friend with whom she entered the U.S. was eventually deported back to Cuba.

ICE transferred Mena to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center, another privately-run prison in Tutwiler, Miss.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit notes Mena “again identified as trans” and she was held in solitary confinement for a month while she waited for her credible fear interview.

Mena told the Blade she was isolated “supposedly for my protection, to not suffer violations, etc.” Mena said she was able to speak with fellow detainees through the glass window of her cell’s door. She also said a guard of Puerto Rican descent allowed her to leave her cell and did not close the door when he was on duty.

ICE initially placed Mena in general population when it transferred her to the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, another privately-run detention center in Pine Prairie, La. The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit notes ICE placed her back into solitary confinement for “several days” after she old a psychologist she is trans.

“The prison warden had me placed in the hole for four days when, after a medical and psychological evaluation, I said that I identified as a transgender person,” Mena told the Blade. “I was detained together with another companion.”

Mena said Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers raised the issue with the warden and challenged the decision.

“They then freed us from the hole and they made us sign a paper that said it was our responsibility if something happened,” Mena told the Blade. “They also gave me another paper to present to officials saying that they couldn’t check me or even touch me.”

“I never had problems with anyone,” she said. “I was not a victim of homophobia, to the contrary. The Cubans were always defending me.”

Mena’s attorneys in May 2019 asked ICE to transfer her to the Cibola County Correctional Center’s unit for trans women, but the request was not granted.

The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

New life in Jacksonville ‘has been awesome’

Mena’s final hearing in her asylum case took place on Aug. 1, 2019, which took place against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy that, among other things, seeks to drastically limit the number of asylum seekers allowed into the U.S. Mena told the Blade her hearing lasted upwards of six hours.

“I had a super bad time with the (government) prosecutor, who treated me badly,” said Mena. “He called me a liar, even as an expert the day before my court hearing examined my body to verify the injuries and scars that I had on my body were real.”

The judge granted her asylum, but ICE did not release her until Aug. 5, 2019.

“The day that I saw my name on the list to leave I cried more than anyone in this world,” Mena told the Blade. “I cried more than when I left Cuba. I cried because I had a happiness that many other people crave.”

“I couldn’t eat that day and I saw people next to me crying,” she added. “The entire pod, 140 people, clapped for me when I left through the door. It is something gratifying, but at the same time it hurt a lot.”

A friend of Mena’s father picked her up and drove her to Jacksonville.

Nearly a year later, she is working two jobs. Mena told the Blade her life in Jacksonville “has been awesome for me,” even though none of her relatives live in the city.

“Thank you to people and the city who have welcomed me without discrimination, who have given me support and helped me get ahead in a country as difficult as this,” she said.

Mena further described the U.S. as “free.”

“I am hopeful that the new laws that allow people like me to live free don’t change,” she added.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. Follow Michael

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