TIJUANA, Mexico — Melani Sofía Rosales Quiñones, a transgender woman from Guatemala City, was on her way home one night in July 2017 when she saw a group of homophobes waiting for her. She said good evening to them and that alone provoked an atrocious attack.“They hit me with bats and sticks,” Melani now recalls. “They broke my jaw and left jaw bone. I was in a coma in the hospital for three days and 15 days later I had surgery to reconstruct my face. They put in plates and screws. It took me four months to recover.”
A year later the gangs, who are full of hate and violence in Latin America, took over their house and turned it into a stash house. Melani’s mother never accepted this and filed a harassment complaint against the so-called “gangs.”
“They called my mom and threatened her as she was leaving the police station,” says Melani. “They said she can’t play with them and they will kill my younger brother who is 15.”
Melani shared part of her life with the Washington Blade from a guest house in downtown Tijuana where LGBTI members of the migrant caravan who arrived in this border city weeks earlier receive temporary refuge. Melani and other LGBTI migrants in Tijuana all hope to seek asylum in the U.S., a nation in which they think they can live without fear and with economic prosperity.
The LGBTI migrants, like other members of the caravan, are now scattered along Mexico’s northern border. They were a small group that faced abuse and mistreatment while traveling with the caravan itself before arriving in Mexico. Today the LGBTI migrants are nothing more than small and vulnerable groups scattered in Tijuana, Baja California state and Nogales, another border town in Sonora state.
Stories behind the American dream
It is not the first time that Melani has launched herself north in order to reach American soil. She “went up” to Tijuana in May of this year with another caravan, but another attack made her think twice. “I was very disappointed because Tijuana officials beat me when I went to the El Chaparral checkpoint,” she says. “I later went to the hospital and filed a complaint against the immigration officers.”
Melani returned to a small town between Guatemala and Mexico she says was “in no man’s land” with the hope that she could once again hit the road and seek the American dream at any moment. She was unable to return to Guatemala or Tijuana. She had almost become a hermit during that time. Melani, an extroverted and sociable girl, was living far away from people.
“I worked in a bakery and from there I went to my house without saying a word, without saying hello to anyone,” she adds.
Melani fled from a Guatemala, where violence is seen as a normal part of life and is worse for members of LGBTI communities. One report on the situation for LGBTI people in four Central American countries says they endure “insults, bribes, arbitrary detentions and physical attacks that often lead to murders, but they do not report them because of fear of reprisals.”
“LGBTI people live in fear and don’t depend on community support networks that help them deal with the violent scenarios in which they live,” reads the report.
The Observatory of Murdered Trans People notes 39 trans women were killed in Guatemala between January and July 2017. Guatemala has the sixth highest rate of trans murders out of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Honduras’ National Commission for Human Rights says 40 LGBTI people have died between 2007 and May of this year. Cattrachas, a lesbian feminist network, indicates 288 LGBTI people have been killed in Honduras between 2009-2018.
Insecurity is not the only situation the Honduran LGBTI community faces. Infobae, an Argentina-based news website, once reported “there is no record of any trans person who has been hired by a private company or a government agency in Honduras.”
Amelia Frank-Vitale, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who has spent more than a year living in Honduras studying issues related to deportation, migration and violence, confirmed to the Blade “people from the LGBTI community are exposed to all forms of violence that exists against any person in Honduras, which is mainly urban, young and poor.”
“But they are nevertheless discriminated against and stigmatized because of their sexual orientation and in many cases the government is absent on justice-related issues,” she added. “It is always more critical for the LGBTI community.”
It is this situation from which Alexis Rápalos and Solanyi, two identities that live inside the same robust 38-year-old body, fled.
Alexis was wearing a knit hat that covered a nearly shaved head when he spoke with the Blade.
He comes from a family with few resources and he revealed he has suffered the scourge of discrimination in the streets of his city, San Pedro Sula, which for four years was recognized as the world’s most dangerous city, since he was 10. He has lived alone since his mother died a year ago.
A tailor and a chef, he worked in a restaurant in his native country but he decided to join the caravan in search of a future with more security and a life without the harsh realities of rampant homophobia.
He left with nothing more than a pair of pants and a shirt in his backpack and joined the caravan at the Guatemala-Mexico border. “I was discovering friends in the caravan,” says Alexis. “And then the gay community. We came fighting, fighting many things because we are discriminated against, insulted constantly.”
“The road has been very hard,” he adds. “Sometimes we slept in very cold places, with storms. I had the flu with a horrible cough, people gave us medicine, clothes, thank God.”
They reached Tijuana by hitchhiking, and sometimes by bus while depending on charity groups to eat. “We arrived at the shelter that had been at the Benito Juárez Sports Complex, but we were in our own group. They treated us well with clothes, medicine and food,” he said, insisting he is thankful for the assistance he received while there.
Once at the shelter, where unsanitary conditions and overcrowding were a constant, they experienced homophobia that follows some of their fellow travelers and places them in an even worse situation than the rest of the migrants. Alexis says they were booed in food lines and there were times when they were not allowed to eat. The situation repeated itself in the cold outdoor showers where privacy was an unthinkable luxury.
He felt the harshness of the early morning cold while he and roughly 6,000 Central Americans were staying at the shelter that city officials set up. Alexis slept in the street because he didn’t have a tent to protect himself. The unusually heavy seasonal rains that soaked his meager belongings chilled him to the bone.
“In the (Benito Juárez) shelter we saw humiliations, criticisms and they even made us take down our gay flag,” says Bairon Paolo González Morena, a 27-year-old gay man from Guatemala. “We were discriminated against a lot. They told us we could not make the same line for food and they made us stand at the end of the line for the bathroom and here (at Enclave Caracol, a new shelter) they are treating us much better. They gave us our place. We have a separate bathroom and everything.”
Bairon was a cross-dresser known as Kaira Paola at night and was a sex worker, which left him with many scars on his body. “I worked to provide food for my twin brother and younger brother,” he says. “My family there found out that I was gay. My stepmother discriminated against me and my dad did not support me and until this day I am fighting for my well-being.”
He lived alone and decided to join the caravan because he was constantly extorted for money. He was already working in a restaurant in Tuxpan in Veracruz state when the migrants reached Mexico, and he didn’t think twice about joining the caravan that Frank-Vitale says is “a civil disobedience movement against a global regime.”
“The caravan is the form that has been recognized as the way one can cross Mexico without being as exposed to criminal groups, corrupt authorities and without paying a smuggler to seek an opportunity to live,” she says.
Waiting for asylum
A long line has formed outside Enclave Caracol, a community center located on First Street in downtown Tijuana that has welcomed this portion of the LGBTI caravan that arrived weeks after the first.
Under tents, the migrants organize themselves to distribute food they prepared themselves inside the building in which a wedding for several gay couples took place weeks earlier.
Nacho, who asked the Blade only to use his first name, works for Enclave Caracol. He said (he and his colleagues) are supporting “the community with food and water, (allowing them to) use the bathroom, Internet access, use of telephones that allows them to call practically any part of the world and at some moments it has functioned as a shelter.”
Enclave Caracol’s employees were the ones who cooked most of the food and did the cleaning when the center first provided aid to these displaced people. But Nacho says “people from the caravan have been getting involved bit by bit.”
“No one from Enclave has actually ever been in the kitchen,” he tells the Blade. “Over the last few weeks we have received donations and we have also been going to the markets for leftover fruits and vegetables and we clean them, process them and they’re cooked. They are organizing the cleaning and delivery of food themselves.”
Nacho said many civil society members in Los Angeles, San Diego and in Tijuana itself are donating money, food, cleaning products, disposable plates and cups to alleviate the tense situation that exists with the arrival of thousands of migrants, many of whom have not begun the political asylum process, to this urban border city. These civil society members are also volunteering their time.
“There is a very long list of people who are seeking asylum, who have been brought to the port of entry and are looking to following the correct process under international law,” says Frank-Vitale, noting the U.S. asylum process has been made intentionally difficult. “It has been said that they are going to have to wait up to two months to have the opportunity to make their case and this is truly a deadly humanitarian crisis for vulnerable people who have fled persecution, who live in the rain, the cold, outside all this time.”
“Sometimes one becomes hopeless because there is no stable place,” says Alexis, who remains hopeful. “We are going from here to there. They say that today they are going to bring us to another house to wait for lawyers who are going to help us with our papers.”
Melani is nevertheless more realistic when speaking about her asylum claim. “Our situation is a bit difficult because many people continue to arrive,” she says. “Donald Trump closed the border and the crossing is very complicated. This is why people who are going to the border are under stress.”
Frank-Vitale thinks the actual asylum system should be changed in order to recognize modern forms of violence and persecution to which people are exposed and especially LGBTI groups. “Taking all of this into account, yes, it is possible,” she says. “There are cases from Central America that perfectly enter the system, always and when they have a founded fear of their lives in their countries and many people have a very real fear.”
This fear, which has been with Melani for most of her life, will follow her to the U.S., because in “the previous caravan there was a girl named Roxana (Hernández) who died because she had HIV, but the autopsy revealed that she had been beaten by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.”
The original autopsy performed on Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who died in ICE custody in New Mexico on May 25, lists the cause of death as cardiac arrest. The second autopsy to which Melani referred shows Hernández was beaten, but does not identify who attacked her while she was in custody.
Hernández’s case has reached the U.S. Senate with three senators recently asking U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide them with documents relating to her death.
In spite of all of these situations, in spite of a xenophobic president who commands the other side of the border, in spite of a powerful army positioned on the border, in spite of the long lines to be heard, in spite of the constant uncertainty, Bairon remains firm in his decision: “We are here. With everything we have given up, I will not return.”
We already know why.