Two organizations have entered into a partnership that seeks to improve the health and quality of life of transgender and non-binary people in Puerto Rico.
The collaboration between the South Florida-based Arianna’s Center and the Puerto Rico-based Waves Ahead seeks to strengthen and improve programs and/or services to these communities. They include free mobile HIV testing, prevention and care, case management to help with name changes, legal referrals and links to medical care and mental health services.
Both organizations will offer workshops to help trans women and non-binary people enter the workforce.
Arianna’s Center and Waves Ahead will also train trans women to become activists and help elected officials at all levels of government on issues and policies that are vital to people who are trans or non-binary.
This partnership will allow Waves Ahead to uphold its commitment to the community and expand its capacity to serve LGBTQ seniors in Puerto Rico.
Arianna’s Center CEO Arianna Lint told the Washington Blade that another one of her organization’s goals is “to empower the trans community over 50 with support groups.”
“We will have two offices: One in the San Juan metropolitan area and the other in Cabo Rojo (in southwestern Puerto Rico),” she said. “We are also developing a fundraising project for these two organizations to continue with the services. We are starting this work with very few financial resources, but with a lot of energy and the faith that we are going to move forward and that many people are going to support us.”
“Puerto Rico has become the heart of Arianna’s Center. Since 2019 we have been here supporting the trans and non-binary community with the services and advocacy that characterize our work in the United States,” added Arianna’s Center Operations Director Tony Lima in a press release. “We are proud to start 2021 by announcing Kimberly Vázquez, with vast experience and is highly recognized by her own community, is an official part of our family who will continue our trans legacy here on the island.”
Vázquez, who is in charge of coordinating Arianna’s Center work in Puerto Rico, told the Blade that joining forces with Arianna’s Center will create more opportunities for trans people who need and deserve dignified and fair treatment.
“I think it is a great alliance that, in the end, will support many more people and I know that, by receiving all their medical and support services, we will finally restore the dignity that has been taken from them for no other reason than to exclude them because they are different,” said Vázquez.
Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, said they “are extremely proud to be able to continue the work that Arianna started in 2019 in Puerto Rico.”
“Ms. Vázquez will work with our existing staff and from our centers to add more services for our Transgender and non-binary community in Puerto Rico,” said Labiosa. “New year, new beginnings.”
A transgender woman who was a well-known activist and performer in Miami was murdered on Tuesday.
A spokesperson for the Miami Police Department told the Washington Blade that 28-year-old Ygor Arrudasouza had placed a 911 call at around 4:25 a.m. on Tuesday, stating that he had stabbed his girlfriend, 39-year-old Yunieski Carey Herrera also known Yuni Carey, in their downtown Miami high-rise apartment near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.
Responding officers found Carey covered in blood suffering from stab wounds and unresponsive. The police report noted that Arrudasouza had uttered a spontaneous confession admitting to the crime and that methamphetamine had influenced the events. She was pronounced dead at the scene. According to Miami police the two had been involved in an argument that became physical.
Arrudasouza on Wednesday during his first court appearance confessed he was under the influence of methamphetamines when he used a fork and a knife to stab Carey in a fit of rage.
Arrudasouza, a local dancer of Brazilian origin, has been charged with second-degree murder. Arrudasouza in an emotional confession claimed he “deserves the punishment that comes to him.”
Arrudasouza, according to the arrest report, told a detective that Carey said during an argument that “she had a better man.” This confession triggered Arrudasouza, who has a recent history of violence, to attack Carey.
Court records indicate Arrudasouza in January was charged with three counts of battery.
That case remains open and is scheduled to go to trial on March 8. Arrudasouza was out on bail when he allegedly killed Carey. He is currently being held without bail at a Miami jail.
Arianna Lint, executive director of Arianna’s Center, a South Florida-based group that works with members of the trans community, told the Blade on Wednesday that she knew Carey and Arrudasouza well. Lint said she is still in shock over Carey’s murder.
“They came to the center for exams and for emotional support,” said Lint. “I received calls from her (Carey) on several occasions seeking advice when she had a fight with her husband. They, as a couple, were facing problems.”
Carey performed at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Alexis Fernández, a drag queen known as Marytrini who is the establishment’s artistic producer, told the Blade that Arrudasouza was kicked out three times because of violence.
“Her boyfriend was aggressive, violent,” said Fernández. “He got hysterical out of jealously and he was always hitting people. I advised her to leave him on several occasions, but she was afraid. I even think she wanted to rehabilitate him for his violence.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/TnXYwUq6clc?wmode=transparent&modestbranding=1&autohide=1&showinfo=0&rel=0
Carey born, raised in Cuba
Carey was born in Santa Clara, the capital of Cuba’s Villa Clara province that is in the center of the country, and spent her childhood there. She lived with her grandmother in Miami, while the rest of her family remains in Cuba.
Carey previously won the Miss Trans Cuba beauty pageant. She was later crowned Miss Trans Global 2019 in Barcelona. Carey was preparing to return to the stage for the first time in eight months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Next Sunday would have been her great return to Azúcar,” said Fernández. “I was ready for the show.”
Fernández, as an artist, defined Carey as a person who knew how to seduce her audience. Fernández added the community loved her.
“She was the typical jovial and cheerful Cuban,” added Lint. “She loved parties. She was very Cuban, very beautiful.”
Bamby Salcedo, president of the Los Angeles-based TransLatin@ Coalition, told the Blade she had known Carey since she was a teenager. Salcedo described Carey as a highly motivated person and a role model for young trans women who took care of her grandmother.
“This is a crazy world, so sad,” said Salcedo. “She [Carey] was admired by so many in the trans communities, her work in pageantry, her work as a service provider, she was the most resilient person. She was a good person.”
Carey was killed days before the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, which pays tribute to trans people who were murdered. Carey is the 37th trans person reported killed in the U.S. in 2020.
Azúcar on Friday and Sunday plan to honor Carey’s life with a tribute. Marytrini, Valeria Coutier and Mónica Simpson are among those who are expected to perform.
“Please help me make this video viral! The army just killed my wife! Please help me spread it! … They killed Juliana … We don’t have weapons, we don’t have drugs, we don’t have anything, this man killed her. Look, we’re not wearing anything, they killed Juliana, that man shot her in the head.”
Unable to contain his tears or anguish, Francisco Larrañaga pleads for help in a video that he recorded himself. His wife, Juliana Giraldo Díaz, a 38-year-old transgender woman, had just been killed instantly by a bullet that a Colombian soldier fired from his gun while she passed through a military checkpoint.
The shooting took place at around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 24 in a rural area of Cauca department in southwestern Colombia. Giraldo was in the passenger seat of the car that Larrañaga was driving.
Two versions of why the soldier opened fire are circulating in the Colombian media: One indicates the car did not stop at the checkpoint, while the other says the vehicle was backing up.
General Marco Mayorca, commander of the Colombian Army’s 3rd Division, supported the latter version. In an interview with Caracol Radio, Mayorga said a soldier reported having shot the vehicle’s tires when it was backing up near the checkpoint because he thought it was preparing to crash into it.
“The soldier said he shot the tires to stop the vehicle,” Mayorga added. “It seems to me that a bullet hit the pavement and changed course … unfortunately hitting Juliana.”
President Iván Duque and Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo condemned the shooting on Twitter. Duque has called for a swift investigation and added the person responsible should be prosecuted fully under the law.
Holmes said that the soldier involved in the shooting and other uniformed men who were with him when it happened have been relieved of their duties. Colombia’s attorney general has also launched an investigation into whether Giraldo was targeted because of her gender identity.
The Transgender Community Network, a trans rights group, notes Giraldo is the 28th trans person killed in Colombia this year. The Transgender Community Network says violence against LGBTQ Colombians has increased during the first eight months of 2020, with at least 63 people—including 17 trans women—killed.
An immigration judge on Monday granted asylum to a lesbian woman from Cuba who has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for 10 months.
Judge Pedro J. Espina, who is based in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, via videoconference granted asylum to Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte, 36, based on the harassment and discrimination she suffered in Cuba because of her sexual orientation. Espina said Moreno would face future persecution if she were to return to her country.
Moreno, in an article the Washington Blade published on June 18, said her family and neighbors never accepted her. Moreno also said Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police in Zulueta, a small town in the center of the country where she lived with her girlfriend, Dayana Rodríguez González, 31, subjected her to homophobic treatment.
The context of rights for the LGBTQ community on the island is extremely limited, because same-sex couples cannot legally marry and they do not have the right to adoption. Cuba’s Labor Code does not protect transgender people and only those who undergo sex-reassignment surgery can change their gender and photo on their identity document, a process that can take several months.
Rodríguez and Moreno entered the U.S. together on Nov. 3, 2019, through a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, but were separated as soon as they began the asylum process.
Rodriguez was released from the El Paso Service Processing Center on Feb. 4, 2020, on parole and a $7,500 bond. Moreno was transferred to the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La., where she remained until her final immigration hearing.
Rodríguez, who now lives in Arizona, in a message she sent to the Blade said she was very happy when Moreno called her and told her she had won her case.
“I felt a lot of emotion in my heart,” Rodríguez declared. “I couldn’t help it. I still can’t stop crying. We will be together again soon.”
Liza Doubossarskaia, a legal assistant for Immigration Equality, which assisted Moreno with her parole petitions, welcomed the decision with joy.
“We are all extremely happy for Yanelkys and Dayana,” said Doubossarskaia. “It has been a difficult journey for her, but fortunately it has a happy conclusion.”
Moreno won asylum without legal representation and she will be released soon, according to Rodríguez. who added her girlfriend will first move to Houston and then meet her again after 10 months of forced separation.
Around 20 LGBTQ immigrants, the majority of whom are transgender women from countries throughout Latin America, are isolated and protected from the threat of the coronavirus in the Jardín de las Mariposas shelter in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
Jaime Marín Rocha, the shelter’s legal representative, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview the shelter has implemented new hygiene and cleaning procedures that include the use of masks, gloves, antibacterial gels, disinfectants and bleach in order to stop the spread of the virus and to protect the health of its residents and clients.
“The local government in Tijuana has not supported us a lot,” lamented Marin. “Only Tijuana’s Health Department came to inspect the facilities. They recommended ways for us to improve, but they left very pleased with its cleanliness.”
All of the refugees who live at the shelter are currently in good health and take all social distancing measures very seriously.
One can appreciate the cleaning procedures the shelter’s residents have done by looking at some of the posts on its Facebook page. Marín also explained the shelter has set aside a part of the house in which anyone who develops coronavirus symptoms can be isolated.
“We would keep them there until we can bring them to the hospital if necessary,” he said.
Marín is nevertheless worried because the shelter does not have a doctor. Refugees only have health insurance coverage for the first three months after their arrival to the country.
“What we want to do is create a fund for people who don’t have health insurance, because when that period ends we have no way to deal with a situation that could develop,” said Marín. “We have to look for support from other organizations in the medical field that can assist us. We really need help with that.”
Jordi Raich, director of the International Committee of the Red Cross for Mexico and Central America, confirmed it is often difficult for immigrants, who are exposed to the disease like any other person, to access the public health care system or humanitarian assistance. They are often unable to receive help because they are victims of violence and discrimination.
“It is important to highlight the fact that the presence of migrants does not generate a higher risk for the disease,” said Raich. “They are exposed to the virus in the same way as nationals from any country.”
Marín said a psychologist worked with the shelter until they had an accident a few days ago.
“We have also been a bit helpless in that regard,” he said. “We would ideally have a psychological program to help overcome many of the traumas that these immigrants have because of the persecution that they have suffered in their countries of origin because of their sexual orientation.”
Most shelter residents live with HIV
Alerts that coronavirus cases among LGBTQ people have skyrocketed since it was declared a global pandemic, combined with the fact this population has a higher percentage of people with HIV and cancer who are more susceptible to the virus, compound Marín’s concerns.
The National LGBT Cancer Network in an open letter signed by the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, GLAAD and other groups expressed their concern as the community confronts barriers when it tries to access medical care.
“Discriminatory attitudes are commonplace among medical professionals and some people avoid or delay visiting the doctor for this reason,” they said.
There is additional concern based on the rate of tobacco use among this population that is 50 percent higher than the general population. The coronavirus is a respiratory disease that has been shown to be particularly harmful to smokers.
Another factor that also increases vulnerability to the virus is the higher rates of HIV and cancer among LGBTQ people, which means there are more people with compromised immune systems that leave them more vulnerable to the pandemic. There are also many cases of people who don’t know they are living with HIV.
Marín says 95 percent of Jardin de las Mariposas’ residents live with HIV, which makes it necessary to take extra precautions. As a result, Marín said the shelter for the time being will not accept new residents.
“We hope to reopen our doors soon,” he said in a Facebook post. “We are following government guidelines to guarantee your personal safety.”
In order to counter all of these logical and economic challenges, Jardín de las Mariposas has received donations from several non-profit organizations that are supporting them during this health emergency. Families Belong Together; the Refugee Health Alliance; the Minority Humanitarian Foundation; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Alight and the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration have extended a supportive hand to those who need it most.
ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth pointed out to the Blade that his organization supports shelters like Jardín de las Mariposas in three ways: “With products to help protect against the coronavirus, information about the virus and how to protect oneself from it and programs to help residents during these difficult times.”
“We are working together with our partner Alight on this,” said Roth. “In the case of Jardín de las Mariposas we bought most of the products on Amazon and sent them directly to the shelter. We had already sent soap, disinfectant, gloves, disinfectant wipes, trash bags, first aid kits, toilet paper, etc. They more or less have enough for the next month and we are going to do another order soon.”
Jardín de las Mariposas is in a large and comfortable house with many bedrooms and is located about 10 minutes from downtown Tijuana.
Local media reports indicate the border city has more than 500 coronavirus cases. Marín said the city in Baja California’s northern state reacted very late, compared to the majority of countries that had already closed their borders.
“Mexico responded very late,” he said.
The city is now under lockdown and the U.S. has temporarily stopped asylum seekers from entering the U.S. The Mexico-U.S. border is open only for essential commercial traffic and authorized people.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, for his part, said that his country will not accept migrants and asylum seekers from third countries who are returned to Mexican territory from the U.S. by the Trump administration
Meanwhile, the nearly 20 LGBTQ immigrants must remain at Jardín de las Mariposas until the lockdown ends. Marín has described the shelter as “a dream we forged by the hard experiences of being different in a society that excludes and points out those who do not accept social labels because they know how to love differently.”
Jardín de las Mariposas is a non-profit organization founded by Yolanda Rocha, Marín’s mother and current director, on April 6, 2011. It always receives anyone who asks for help with addiction or emotional problems because of their sexual orientation with love, respect and without cost.
It is the only center in Tijuana that openly welcomes the LGBTQ community. The organization has lately focused on providing help to asylum seekers and refugees because of increased immigration to the U.S.
The American dream to live in absolute freedom; safe from the threats, persecution, violence, psychological torture and even death the Cuban dictatorship has imposed on me because of my journalistic work fell apart in my hands as soon as I arrived in Louisiana. The Cubans here who are also seeking protection from the U.S. government welcomed me to the Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility with an ironic surprise. They opened their arms and told me, “Welcome to hell!”
I could hardly believe they have spent nine, 10 and even 11 months asking, waiting for a positive response from immigration authorities in their cases.
I was under the illusion that after an asylum official who interviewed me at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center in Tutwiler, Miss., on March 28 determined I had a “credible fear of persecution or torture” in Cuba, one hearing with an immigration judge would be enough to obtain my conditional release and pursue my case in freedom as U.S. law allows. But I was wrong. The locals (here at Bossier) once again took it upon themselves to dash my hopes.
“Nobody comes out of Louisiana!” they proclaimed.
It only took a few minutes for my dream, like that of many others, to turn into a nightmare. The more than 30 migrants who arrived in Louisiana on the afternoon of May 3, coming from Mississippi after more than a month detained at Tallahatchie, were plunged into a deep depression that continues today. Only the tears under the blanket that nobody can see are able to ease my desperation for a few minutes and then I once again feel it in my chest when I think of my family in Cuba who continues to receive threats of jail and death from the Cuban dictatorship because of my work with “media outlets of the enemy.” This reality is the only thing that awaits me back there. I therefore see the situation in Louisiana and I am once again afraid. I cannot see an exit. Prisoner here, prisoner if I return to Cuba. I feel trapped.
Violation of their own laws
I realized a few days after I arrived in Louisiana the subjectivity of who makes the decisions matters, not objectivity or attachment to those who are being held. Louisiana feels like a lost piece of “gringo” geography at which nobody seems to look, or to the contrary, it is a coldly calculated strategy that triumphs on authoritarianism, abuse of power or intransigence. I don’t know what to think.
More than a few who have arrived here have come to the conclusion the U.S. has made migrants its new business. Keeping migrants in their custody for so long keeps hundreds of employees and lawyers in business, as well as generating huge profits for the prisons with which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts. It has become clear the government prefers to waste more than $60 a day per migrant than set us free under our own recognizance.
“Louisiana is an anti-immigrant state,” Arnaldo Hernández Cobas, a 55-year-old Cuban man whose asylum process has taken 11 months, tells me. “It is not possible for any of the thousands of people who go through the process to leave victorious.”
Hernández tells me ICE agents have not met with him once during his confinement and the deportation officer has never seen him.
“I don’t know if I am allowed to have bail,” he says. “Judge Grady A. Crooks affirms that we do not qualify for this and he does not give it to those who qualify for it because they can flee. This only happens in this state because migrants in other places are released and can pursue their cases on the outside after they make bail.”
Another way to obtain conditional freedom is through parole, a benefit the federal government offers to asylum petitioners who enter the country legally and are found to have a credible fear of suffering, facing persecution or being tortured in their countries of origin.
“To grant it, ICE asks for a series of questions that relatives should send to them, but what is happening is that they don’t give them enough time to do so,” says Arnaldo.
This is exactly what happened with me.
My family managed to send the documents the next day for my parole interview, which was scheduled for the following day. ICE nevertheless denied me parole because I did not prove “that I am not a danger to society.” I am sure they didn’t even take my case seriously.
There are stories that border on the absurd because many migrants have received their parole hearing notifications the same day they should have filed their documents. One therefore feels as though ICE mocks you to your face and your feelings of helplessness reach the max.
The awarding of parole is a new procedure ICE must complete, but it does not go beyond that. They use this and other crafty strategies to “stay good” in the eyes of the law and they therefore keep asylum seekers in custody for months. They bring them to hearings they will not win, pushing for the deportation of those who do not succumb to the pressure of confinement without properly assessing the risk to their lives that returning to their native countries would entail.
ICE is required to free us a few days after it grants parole, and we already know it doesn’t want to do this. Their goal is to keep us locked up at all costs.
“The cruel irony is that the majority of asylum seekers who follow the law and present themselves at official ports of entry don’t have to ask an immigration judge for their release from custody,” declared Laura Rivera, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants, in an article titled, “Stuck in ‘hell’: Cuban asylum seekers wither away in Louisiana immigration prisons.” “To the contrary, their only avenue to secure their freedom is to ask the same agency that detains them, the Department of Homeland Security.”
But DHS — as Rivera details in the article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center — is ignoring its mandate to consider requests for release in detail. And to the contrary it denies conditional release without justification.
“Men are kept hidden from the outside world, locked up and punished for defending their rights and are forced to bring their cases before immigration judges who deny them with rates of up to 100 percent,” affirmed Rivera.
Another of the process violations in Arnaldo’s case was he was assured where he was first detained that he could win his case along with that of his wife, “but when he came” to Louisiana the judge “told me this was not allowed, that each case is different.” Arnaldo’s life cannot be different from that of his wife because they have been together for 37 years. His wife has been free for nine months, but he remains behind bars. And so, it happens with mothers and sons, brothers and people who have identical cases. Once again, subjectivity determines a person’s fate.
During his hearing with Crooks, Arnaldo declared he feels “very uncomfortable” because he considers him an extremist.
“He said that he only recognizes extreme cases,” says Arnaldo. “Doors mean nothing to him. He describes himself as a deportation judge, not an asylum judge. In the entire time that I have been here nobody has won asylum, not even bail, only deportations.”
Conclusive proof of the judge’s extremism came one day when another judge ran the hearings and the migrants who presented their cases that morning received asylum. The example could not have been more illustrative.
Douglas Puche Moxeno, a 23-year-old Venezuelan man who has spent nine months in Louisiana, also said the detainees “did not receive more information on how the process should be followed and how one should do it.”
“I don’t know if they explained to us the ways to obtain a conditional release,” he says.
In relation to their hearings, Douglas says “the judge told me that he knew the real situation in Venezuela, but he did not grant me asylum because I am not an extreme case. He is waiting for someone to come to the United States without an arm or a leg to be accepted.”
The migrants in Louisiana are trying every way possible to be released. They have made these complaints on television stations and have even gone to Cuban American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“We have reached the point of filing a lawsuit against ICE,” Douglas explains. “A team of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center have proposed a lawsuit seeking a reconsideration of parole. This is one of the most hopeful ways that we have to obtain freedom. If we are successful, the benefits will be for everyone.”
“Various protests to pressure authorities and to reclaim our rights as immigrants have been organized,” says Douglas. “Relatives, lawyers and various institutions have come together in Miami, Washington and even here in Louisiana to make ICE aware of the injustices that have been committed against us for more than a year.”
‘This is not your country’
Bossier is a jail deep in Louisiana, hidden in the woods that surround it. Each day inside of it is a constant struggle for survival that takes a huge toll on my physical, psychological and above all emotional capacities. More than 300 migrants live in four dorms in cramped conditions with intense cold and zero privacy.
My stay here reminds me of the school dorms in Cuba where we were forced to share smells, tastes and basic needs. Here we also share Hindu, African, Chinese, Nepali, Syrian and Central American migrants’ beliefs, cultures and ways of life.
My personal space is reduced to a narrow metal bed that is bolted to the floor, a drawer for my things and a thin mattress that barely manages to keep my spine separated from the metal, which sometimes causes back pain. The most painful thing, however, is the way the officers treat us. For “better or for worse,” you feel as though you are a federal prisoner.
“According to ICE, we are ‘detainees,’ not prisoners, but we have still suffered physical and psychological abuses,” says Arnaldo. “I remember one time when an official dragged a Salvadoran man to the hole for three days simply for eating in his bed. They don’t offer anything to us and they don’t talk to us, they yell. They wake you up by kicking the bed.”
“The slightest pretext is used to disconnect the microwave, the television or deny us ice, affirming this is a luxury and not a necessity,” alleges Arnaldo. “When we complain about these situations. They tell us, ‘This is not your country.’”
Smiles are not common inside the dorm. The faces of affliction and sadness predominate. Good news is almost always false and the frustration and stress this confinement causes us therefore returns.
“I feel very sad, afflicted here, as though I had killed someone because of the mistreatment that we receive, the place’s conditions,” declares Damián Álvarez Arteaga, a 31-year-old man who has spent 11 months as a prisoner in the U.S.
“Freedom is the most precious thing a human being has,” he adds. “I hope that I will receive a positive response to my case after spending so much time detained. We have demonstrated to the U.S. that we are truly afraid of suffering persecution or torture in Cuba.”
Hours in here seem to have no end: They stretch, they multiply, but they never shorten or pass quickly. Our only contact with the outside the world are telephone communications or video calls (at elevated prices) with relatives, friends or lawyers and sporadic trips to the patio to greet the son and take fresh air.
“In all of the time that I have been here, I have seen the son a few times and only for 15 minutes and this is because we have complained,” recalls Arnaldo.
The yard, as we also call it, is a small rectangle of fences and surveillance cameras with a cement surface at the center of it where some of us play soccer when they give us a ball. I roll the pants of my yellow uniform up to my knees to allow the sun to warm my extremities a bit while my eyes wander towards the lush forest that is a few meters away from me. I admire the sky, the few vehicles that are driving on the nearby highway and I take deep breaths of oxygen because I know I had just come out of the deep sea and desperately needed air to keep me alive.
“Everyday is the same here from the same food to the same activities,” says Douglas. “This prison does not have sufficient spaces to accommodate so many people for so long. We don’t have a library or family visits.”
‘Soup is currency’
My day at Bossier begins a bit before 5 a.m. With the call to “line-up,” I receive a plastic tray with my breakfast. Today is cereal day, low-fat milk, bread and a small portion of jelly. The menu is the same each day of the week. I always save part of it because there is nothing more to eat until midday.
“The food is not correct,” opines Damián. “My stomach is already used to that small portion. A piece of bread with hot sauce and some vegetables or mortadella cannot sustain an adult man, nor can it keep you in shape to resist such a stressful process.”
The last meal of the day is at 4 p.m., and because of this it is a fantasy to be in bed at 11 p.m. with a full stomach. I reduce the hunger pains with an instant soup to which I add some carrots and a hot dog that I steel for myself from the day’s meals.
Since I still have some money, I can buy soups and extra things to make Bossier’s bad food a little better. Bossier classifies those who don’t receive economic support from their families as “indigent” and they are forced to clean up for their fellow detainees in exchange for a Maruchan soup. Here soup is currency. Everything begins and ends with it, the savior of hungry nights.
“You can buy these and other things at elevated prices in the commissary, the only store to which we have access and for which we depend on everything,” says Damián.
Bossier’s medical services on the other hand are so basic that there is not even a doctor or nurse on call, nor is there an observation room for patients and consultations only take place from Monday to Friday.
“One who gets sick is put in punishment cells, isolated and alone, which psychologically affects us,” notes Arnaldo. “People sometimes don’t say they don’t feel well because they are afraid they will be sent to the ‘well.’ In extreme cases they bring you to a hospital with your feet, hands and waist shackled and they keep you tied to the bed, still under guard. I prefer to suffer before being hospitalized like that.”
Yuni Pérez López, a 33-year-old Cuban, experienced this unfortunate situation first hand. He was on the hole for six days because he had a fever.
“I felt as though I was being punished for being sick,” he says. “And even when the doctor discharged me, they kept me there. It was like being in an icebox: Four walls, a bed, a toilet and a light that never turns off. To leave from there I had to stop eating for an entire day to get the officials’ attention and they returned me to the dormitory.”
Bossier also leaves you chilled to the bone because we cannot use blankets or sheets to cover ourselves from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is not a question of esthetic or discipline because the officials are not interested in whether your bed is made well. The only thing that bothers them is when we are cover ourselves from the dorm’s intense cold.
The migrants interviewed by the Washington Blade are those who have been at Bossier the longest. They are all appealing Crooks’ decision not to grant them political asylum. I have not presented my case yet, so I am still a little hopeful that I will receive the protection of the U.S. Like them, I am trying to get used to this harsh reality and be strong, although most of the time sadness consumes me and erases positive thoughts.
The U.S. to me — like for many — does not represent a comfortable life, the newest car or McDonald’s. None of this will ever be able to fill the void of my family, friends or passionate love that I left behind. The U.S. represents the opportunity to LIVE, so I will hold on to it until the end.
Melani Sofía Rosales Quiñones, a transgender woman from Guatemala City, was beaten, threatened and discriminated against in her country simply because of her gender identity (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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.
Crossing this wall and safely entering U.S. territory is the dream of the thousands of migrants who are stuck in Tijuana. They are only looking for an opportunity to live in the U.S. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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.”
LGBTI members of the caravan that arrived in Tijuana were housed at the Benito Juárez Sports Complex that had been converted into a shelter. They were discriminated against by their fellow migrants. The LGBTI migrants were forced to take down their gay flag. They were also not allowed into food lines and were the last ones to use public showers. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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.
Paolo González Morena, a 27-year-old gay man from Guatemala, was a sex worker in his country and was constantly extorted and mistreated because of his sexual orientation. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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.”
At same migrants who receive services at Enclave Caracol have cooked and organized their lives there. Donations from members of civil society in various cities have made it possible for Enclave Caracol to provide assistance to the dozens of migrants who are taking shelter there. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)
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.”
The Mexican LGBTI community has high expectations for the country’s new president, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador.He won the community’s sympathy as the first president to include a message of equality in his victory speech. López Obrador reaffirmed it in his first message to the Mexican people during his inauguration.
López Obrador, a member of the National Regeneration Movement who is known by the acronym AMLO, was elected this year with more than 50 percent of the vote, becoming one of the most popular presidents in recent Mexican history. During his campaign, he promoted zero-tolerance for corruption, lowering levels of poverty in order to allow the country to begin a “fourth transformation,” a change that AMLO himself has made a top priority for the Aztec nation.
López Obrador in his inaugural speech that he gave in the Mexican congress before senators, representatives and invited guests reiterated “he will represent the rich and poor, believers and free thinkers and all Mexicans, regardless of ideologies, sexual orientation, culture, language, place of origin, education level or socioeconomic position.”
For Leonardo Espinosa, an activist from Guadalajara, this affirmation is a positive gesture and brings visibility to the community, “but it is also a call to follow up on these speeches and turn them into action and public policies.”
Alex Orué, executive director of It Gets Better México, an online video channel that promotes LGBTI rights, described AMLO’s speech as historic and “a signal that the agenda of the LGBTTTI+ Mexican coalition’s agenda has a good chance of advancing.”
Orué, at the same time, hopes this new government will lower rates of violence that disproportionately affect members of the community.
“It is vital that they confront hate speech from the state, that institutions like the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) are strengthened and emphasize the development of employment opportunities for diverse talent,” he adds.
Espinosa, for his part, hopes “discourse that speaks about our communities and needs…(that will become part of) all public policies” will take place during López Obrador’s six-year term. Espinosa also said he hopes “the citizenry gets involved and we increasingly see the words sexual orientation, lesbians, gays, transsexuals, transgender, intersex people, queer and diversity in the president’s speeches.”
“The reality of the country has never been favorable to our rights, so we are open to the possibility of improvement,” Espinosa told the Washington Blade.
López Obrador during his campaign avoided LGBTI issues because of his ties with the most conservative elements of Mexican politics, such as the former Social Encounter Party (PES), a party founded by Christian evangelicals that opposed previous efforts to legalize same-sex marriage federally. Given this scenario, a setback in the progress made on LGBTI-specific issues would not have been an unfounded fear.
“We must not forget that the former Social Encounter Party left many candidates in positions of popular election and people who were members of this party were never seen as supporters of human rights and equality,” says Espinosa.
The most concerning thing for Orué, however, is that AMLO has never retracted his statements about putting the human rights for LGBTI people up for a popular vote and “now that these consultations appear to have been legitimized in the political life of this new administration, we must not let our guard down.”
While the movement remains on alert, Orué does not think a reversal of these guarantees that have been won is possible, because “his right-hand person will be lawyer Olga Sánchez Cordero, his Cabinet’s Interior Secretary. It does mean that we have some assurance that not only will that not happen, but, the agenda will even move forward. She herself in her recent statements has reiterated that human rights should not be put up for a consultation.”
Sources with whom the Blade spoke said LGBTI issues, such as an increased focus on how to reduce the inequality gap for trans people, became more visible and were part of the public agenda during former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government that just ended. Doubts in the country among activists nevertheless continue to persist.
“The only thing that Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration did that could have been seen as a success is he came out in support of human rights for LGBTIQ people in 2016 in a formal ceremony that marked May 17 (the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia), where he announced he would send a variety of pro-LGBTIQ initiatives, a marriage equality one among them, to Congress,” maintains Orué.
The activist lamented these promised initiatives died in Congress.
Orué and Espinosa told the Blade that visibility and security for the community, laws that penalize discrimination in all states, violence motivated by homophobia and transphobia, as well as limited employment opportunities, access to health care, justice, gender identity laws and recognition of marriage equality recognition throughout Mexico are among the pressing issues for AMLO’s administration.
“Mexico is a country where LGBTIQ issues were totally erased from the political sphere, where advances in terms of legislation have taken small steps forward,” concluded Espinosa. “It is expected there will be more changes to laws, but they come from social change. Mexico, as a country, is not homogeneous and while there are places where social change already exists and laws have already been changed, discrimination continues to be something normal in other places.”
Mexico in context
Only 15 of Mexico’s 32 states allow marriage equality. Statistics indicate 10,216 of these unions have taken place.
“There is still a long way to go for these unions to be recognized as families with all the rights that this entails,” says the newspaper Publimetro in an article that documents the “slow” implementation of marriage equality since its legalization (in Mexico City) nearly nine years ago.
Same-sex couples can legally adopt children in Mexico City and in Coahuila. There have been, as of now, 17 adoptions of children by gay and lesbian couples. Upwards of 3,230 transgender people have had their gender identity recognized.
The number of reported incidents of discrimination motivated by sexual preference or sexual orientation has decreased by 4.6 percent from 2013-2017, according to the results of a discrimination survey.
Mexico, nevertheless, remains a violent country for sexual minorities. A report that Letra S, an advocacy group, published in May notes 381 murders took place during the last five years under Peña Nieto’s government. The situation in 2018 is not very encouraging because the same organization said at least 24 LGBTI people were killed during the first three months of the year.
LGBTI Mexicans, among others, gathered in Mexico City’s Zocalo square on Dec. 1, 2018, to watch President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s inauguration. (Photo courtesy of Jesús Chairez)
In spite of this wave of homophobia, Letra S General Director Alejandro Brito told the EFE news agency there are significant advances, such as a more pronounced position abroad in defense of rights and the recognition of marriage among same-sex couples in various entities and the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling that declared state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Furthermore, many states’ now include hate crimes in their penal codes. The attorney general last February implemented staff protocol in cases that involve sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The challenge is how to apply it,” he noted.
CONAPRED President Alejandra Haas, for her part, told Publímetro her organization has received 1,185 complaints related to gender identity, sexual preferences and workplace discrimination over the last seven years. These problems, if proven, can affect a person’s mental health.