The Road to Asylum

Trans women migrate to escape violence and stay alive. Alice Driver accompanied one of these women on her journey.

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,300 words)

DISPONIBLE EN ESPAÑOL

“I want to finish elementary school.” — Karla Avelar, 40, founder of the Comcavis Trans Association, which advocates for LGBTI rights in El Salvador

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“Women, don’t be deceived,” boomed the weary, yellow-eyed preacher, his sombrero tipped forward with a drama fitting for his bus-ride sermon, one that would last all the way from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to Guatemala City. As he made his way down the aisle of the bus, he stopped to touch women and girls on the head or the arm. “Don’t let men trick you,” he shouted, holding his bible up so high its well-worn pages brushed the roof of the bus. He didn’t touch Marfil Estrella Pérez Méndoza, 26, whose chosen name translates to Ivory Star. As she rested her round, hopeful face on the bus window, dark eyes peering out into the rainy grayness of early morning, the preacher passed by without laying a hand. “How do you say asylum in English?” she whispered.

Marfil Estrella was born in Cuscatlán, El Salvador, in a body that never felt like her own. She was assigned male at birth, and at 15, she came out as gay to her family. Their response was to disown her. “They told me that I brought shame on the family, that I should forget about them, and that I needed to leave,” explained Marfil Estrella. Like many members of the LGBTI community in El Salvador, her family forced her onto the street, and her schooling ended abruptly at ninth grade because she had no money to continue. She fled to San Salvador and slept in a park where she met other gay boys. “I saw a transsexual, and I said, ‘I want to be like her! I want to be like her!’” she recalled. She lived on the street, grew out her hair, and began to dress in women’s clothes, but she had no way to earn a living and consequently became very thin. Eventually she started to do sex work, one of the only options available to trans women in El Salvador to earn money.

Lacking the money and medical care to transition, Marfil Estrella did what many young trans women do: consult with friends on the street. “I saw that my friends injected hormones, and I asked them how they got breasts,” Marfil Estrella explained. At first she didn’t have money for hormones, so she grew out her hair and started to dress like a girl. “I started with girl’s pants. I was between being a girl and a boy and wore men’s shirts and girl’s pants. I did it little by little because I feared people. I was quite scared when people were looking at me like I was weird — like I was a weirdo. I was between being and not being, between being a boy or a girl,” she explained. Her friends advised her to get injections in her nipple — the substance of the injection unknown — a common, cheap procedure, often performed by friends, that trans women desperately seek to help them feel more at home in their bodies. After the injections, Marfil Estrella experienced cold sweats at night, and she became worried, but her friends assured her that the fever was normal and that soon her breasts would grow. As the days passed and Marfil Estrella didn’t see any results, she asked another friend to inject her four more times. “At night I had a double fever, everything, a headache. I was sweating, and she advised me not to continue because it was very dangerous for my health.” After that experience, Marfil Estrella began to inject what she believed were hormones into her gluteus without a prescription or the help of a doctor, because even though in theory trans people have the right to go to the doctor in El Salvador, in practice doctors routinely refuse to treat them. Marfil Estrella spoke of women who injected oil, silicone, and other substances, and described a friend who had injected oil as having breasts that were “rotting, purple, and oozing white pus.”

Karla Avelar, 40, the founder of Comcavis Trans, an NGO that provides services and support to the LGBTI community in El Salvador, wanted to introduce me to Marfil Estrella. One night, Avelar directed our taxi to several street corners where she thought Marfil Estrella might be working. We cruised by trans women in tube tops and colorful skirts who flitted in and out of the shadows. Eventually we found Marfil Estrella on a corner wearing a black dress cut just above the buttocks and matching platform heels. When we invited her for a coffee, she produced a pair of pants from her purse and slipped into them.

“I’m leaving on the bus at 3 a.m.,” said Marfil Estrella, a thick, jagged white scar on her neck visible under the harsh fluorescent lights of Mister Donut, a popular hangout in San Salvador. “I hope to have a business, a restaurant, to work. I don’t know, something different. I don’t want to live the life I lead. I want to study. I want to be someone,” said Marfil Estrella. Avelar sat on a stool by her side, a sugared donut between her fingers. Avelar, who has wildly curly hair and radiates empathy, was the one of the first trans women in El Salvador to make her HIV status public for political reasons. She has helped trans women like Marfil Estrella prepare all the necessary paperwork to request asylum in the United States. A man with an ice pick had attacked Marfil Estrella one night when she was walking home from work — just one story of violence in a lifetime filled with such stories. “I thank God that I’m still alive to tell my stories,” said Marfil Estrella.

At Mister Donut, I sat across the table from Avelar and asked Marfil Estrella if I could join her on her journey to the United States. Marfil Estrella, who had tried to migrate before but had faced violence, said my presence would make her feel safer. I agreed to accompany her to Tapachula, Mexico, via bus, then she planned to spend a few months there getting her papers in order to legally pass through Mexico. Avelar, who had helped Marfil Estrella in the process of preparing paperwork for asylum, said she remembered that Marfil Estella had said to her when they first met, “I want to leave here because the streets right now are a time bomb. I don’t want to be left lying in the street, as so many have been left. I want to seek freedom. I want to seek peace.”

According to a 2014 study, the average life expectancy of a trans woman in the Americas is 30–35 years. Trans women routinely encounter sexual violence and Avelar’s experience had been no different. Avelar understood Marfil Estrella, and she knew how to read her scars like a script. Born in 1978 in Chalatenango, Avelar knew at an early age that she was a girl. Her family was not supportive of her identity. By the time she was 10, she was raped twice by her cousin. She fled the violence at home for the streets of San Salvador. Avelar survived the first six months in the city by scavenging food from the trash. She found a job doing domestic work that offered her a place to stay, but the son of the woman she worked for also raped her. One day while going about chores in the neighborhood, some 15 gang members approached and raped her.

Shortly after that, she befriended a trans woman who showed her the ropes of sex work, which offered a way to make some money and have what she felt was a small measure of control over her body. Of that time, Avelar reflected, “In spite of all that, I wanted to live, to fight, and that gave me the strength to survive again and again even though people want to make you think that you don’t belong, that you are an aberration simply because you have a different sexual orientation and gender identity from the heteronormative.”

As a teen, she survived an attack by a man who fit the description of a notorious serial killer known as the Matalocas, who was one of several serial killers in El Salvador in recent years who have focused on exterminating the trans population. The man shot her nine times, and she spent two months in a coma in the hospital. When she came out of the coma, the doctor informed her that she was HIV-positive. Four years later, Avelar found herself refusing to pay the extortion that local MS-13 gang members required of all sex workers. Gang members shot her five times. She survived, and around that time, she and another trans friend were attacked by three men who tried to kill them. In the process of defending herself, Avelar stabbed one of the men. For defending herself, Avelar was sentenced to four years in at Sensuntepeque men’s prison. Avelar believed that the judge, due to his Christian beliefs, was unable or unwilling to recognize the violence a young trans woman like herself would experience at a men’s jail. Avelar was particularly afraid because she knew several men at the prison. They were gang members who had previously raped, stoned, or tried to murder her.

Avelar says she was raped nearly every day for four years until she was released in 2002. She was also denied medical attention — a common plight for the trans population in prison. “I left prison weighing 75 pounds — all bones. I had advanced HIV, tuberculosis, syphilis, herpes, hepatitis, and a lot of other things that I don’t even remember,” recounted Avelar, sitting in her office at Comcavis Trans. Her mother, a devout Catholic who hands out cards with photos and quotes from saints to everyone she meets, nursed her back to health. After years of barely communicating, the two became close again.

Over coffee at a local mall, Avelar told me about founding Comcavis Trans in 2008. Initially, its mission was to provide support to trans women with HIV, although it later expanded to provide support for the entire LGBTI community. “In the end, what made me a human rights defender was the experience of jail. It was there that I truly understood the harsh reality and pain that discrimination can cause and the lack of will and the lack of commitment of the state to guarantee the human rights of all citizens,” she explained. Avelar said that as of August 2017, she and her seven colleagues at the NGO had helped 132 members of the LGBTI community. She then abruptly added, “I think I have cancer.” When I asked her why, she pulled down the collar of her shirt and exposed the scarred and oozing flesh of her breasts — the product of an injection of something she referred to as some type of oil. She stood up and lifted her shirt to expose a thick, cavernous scar running up the middle of her stomach punctuated by the scars left by bullet holes. “If you don’t believe my story, my body says everything.”

At work, Avelar provided Marfil Estrella and other trans women information about what documents they needed to prepare to migrate: a passport application, copies of police and court documents, and a plan for how to cover the costs of migrating to the United States. On the topic of migration, Avelar commented, “It is not only modern slavery — it is sexual slavery,” and went on to discuss the role of human trafficking, which for trans women often means being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Marfil Estrella had attempted to migrate once before, but due to the sexual violence she experienced, she turned around after reaching Tecún Umán, Guatemala. Avelar, who had heard many stories from trans women migrants, said, “The violation of human rights does not end when a person leaves her or his country. I believe that it is just beginning, because the migratory route is a cruel. When a person is LGBTI, Indigenous, has HIV, is extremely poor or is illiterate, they are subject to sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, unpaid work, torture, kidnapping.”

After arriving in crossing Tecún Umán, Guatemala at night, Marfil Estrella crosses the Suchiate River to via inner tube raft and arrives in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

Although LGBTI migrants who reached the United States had greater legal rights, Avelar was worried about the U.S. political stance on LGBTI issues. She explained, “I don’t want to be so emphatic to say that the decisions that Mr. Trump has made, for example, condemning and reducing the human rights of LGBTI people, are the sole cause of this situation, but the result is fewer human rights. Other countries could replicate the actions that are currently being undertaken by that official [Trump].”

When I arrived at the San Salvador bus station at 3 a.m., Marfil Estrella was sitting in a plastic green chair, her face and dangling diamond earrings lit up by the electronic light of her cell phone. She had spent all night doing sex work to have more money for the trip and had not slept. As she boarded the bus that would take her from San Salvador to Guatemala City — a six-hour trip — she looked around, scanning the other people on the bus for signs of danger. It started to rain as the bus drove into the early morning darkness, and Marfil Estrella looked out the window with tenderness and yearning.

Crossing the border into Guatemala, we had to get off the bus and present our passports. To walk with Marfil Estrella was to feel the skin-prickling third sense that every eye in the territory was on you, with looks that showed evident disgust or desire. Men brushed by Marfil Estrella or approached her and whispered things in her ear. In Guatemala City, the bus abruptly turned into a small parking lot and passengers began filing off. As we exited, currency exchangers, men with fists full of cash, circled us like vultures. None of us had expected to end up at a tiny bus station that offered no connecting bus to Tecún Umán, where we would cross the border into Mexico.

An older woman who had sat near Marfil Estrella on the bus asked if she needed help and offered to accompany her to the next bus station as soon as a friend arrived. As the minutes rolled by, all the passengers disappeared and only the hungry-looking money men remained, staring. A young guy holding up a cell phone in Marfil Estrella’s direction sat down and slouched in a plastic chair. She paced. We became worried. The friendly lady typed on her phone, presumably texting her friend. When the friend arrived, Marfil Estrella looked relieved. We followed the old lady and her friend as they made their way into the crowded streets, where we immediately attracted attention. The friend wanted to go to the metro which was some distance away, but as the scene around us became more hectic, we convinced her that it would be better to take a taxi to the bus station where we could catch our next bus. As I squeezed into the back seat of the taxi with Marfil Estrella, the old lady’s friend shouted in my ear, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Does she believe in God?” pointing to Marfil Estrella.

The taxi entered an underground concrete structure filled with old school buses from the States, and Marfil Estrella worried that none of the buses would have air-conditioning. She was right — and, had our schedule been more flexible, I think she would have tried to go to another bus station in search of air-conditioned buses. It was nearing midday and we were sweating as we settled into our next bus, which had smaller seats and less personal space. The ride would last six hours in which time we would be entertained by a young man walking down the aisles with enlarged photos of different types of stomach parasites. After trying to convince everyone that they had a parasite, he then walked around selling a medicine to kill those parasites. It was an effective campaign. At some point, a man stood up and came to sit by Marfil Estrella. He spoke to her low and very close, and I watched his body language, trying to read it for threatening signs. Eventually he moved. Everyone was sweating in the midafternoon heat, and traffic was almost at a standstill as we neared the Guatemala-Mexico border. If we didn’t arrive before dusk, that would mean crossing the Suchiate River on an inner tube raft at night, which was dangerous. I crossed the same river from Tapachula to Tecún Umán with migrants during the day just a month and a half earlier. I had no idea I would be back so soon. Gangs controlled both sides of the river, and as traffic slowed and the sun set, having eaten almost nothing during the journey, we became grim. “I’m scared to cross the river because there are a lot of men there, and the last time they started yelling things at me and I was afraid. That’s where I feel afraid,” said Marfil Estrella.

A young boy pedaling a bicycle taxi, working furiously to get us up the dirt track leading to the river, dropped us on the banks. It was dark and void of people. The last time I had crossed the river, I had been among hundreds of people and dozens of rafts. A man and a boy stepped out of the shadows near an inner tube raft and motioned to us. Marfil Estrella got on the raft first and sat down on the wooden slats covering the inner tube. I followed. The river was quiet except for the sound of the raft moving through the water. Once we reached the bank on the other side, we scrambled off the raft and walked quickly up the hill and through the market that would lead us to the town square in Ciudad Hidalgo, in Chiapas, where we could catch a ride to Tapachula, 40 minutes away. I accompanied Marfil Estrella to her hotel, where she would stay in a dank room with peeling walls, and we hugged each other goodbye. Marfil Estrella would spend the next two months in Tapachula getting her paperwork approved to pass through Mexico legally.

Karla jokes with friends Nicole, Sadira and Amy, who are roommates and trans sex workers, while at a local festival in San Salvador.

I spent the next two days on buses returning to San Salvador, where I had promised to meet Avelar and three of her friends — Sadira Saldaña, 30; Nicole Rosales, 22; and Amy Jeilyn Beckers, 27 — trans sex workers who lived together.  I met them at a local park, and as they walked through the dappled sunlight, Nicole slipped her hand into Sadira’s, clasping it tight and close. The three talked about their lives as trans women, and Nicole shyly admitted to being in a relationship with Sadira.

Sadira, who is tall and has wide-set brown eyes and long, wavy hair, told her family at age 7 that she wanted to be a girl. “They wanted to kill me at first, and then they kicked me out of the house,” she explained. She started her transition at age 12, and got injections in her breasts on the street. “The truth is that I didn’t know what I was injecting,” she admitted. Asked to imagine her ideal future, she said, “I would study law or become a lawyer or a prosecutor, but right now I survive day-to-day. There are no options for the future.”

Amy wore her short hair in a tight bun and periodically shouted at men who stared at he as they walked by, admonishing them for their disrespect. She knew at a young age that she liked wearing skirts and high heels and that she was attracted to boys. First, she came out to her family as gay, then later as trans. A lack of educational opportunities led her to sex work. “The truth is that I wish that I knew that tomorrow, as a trans person, I could finish my studies and I would have a safe place to do it. But in this society, how is that possible? You can’t,” she admitted.

Nicole, whose direct gaze and warm brown eyes are framed by lush lashes, decided at 15 that she was a trans woman. Her parents had been imprisoned when she was young, and she had inherited their house. But a local gang threatened to kill her if she didn’t leave it, so she ended up homeless. “According to society we are worthless, right? But there are many transsexuals who have shown society what we are worth,” Nicole explained. She had tried to migrate to the United States once but only made it as far as Chiapas before turning back. Like Marfil Estrella, she ran out of money and was afraid of being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. She also worried about gangs like the Zetas in Mexico, who were known to prey on trans women — many of whom had never had access to the surgery necessary to achieve their desired body — to get them working in gang-run prostitution rings. Nicole talked about how the Zetas had tried to recruit her friends by offering to pay for plastic surgery so that they could have their dream bodies. However, they’d be forced into sex work, essentially selling their bodies until they died. Nicole said she wouldn’t try to migrate again, and when she and Sadira left the park, they walked away hand in hand.

Sadira, Amy, and Nicole, like Marfil Estrella and Avelar, had not had the opportunity to finish high school in a society where trans women are routinely denied equal access to both education and health care. All of them ended up doing sex work to survive while dreaming of another life. Avelar promised to introduce me to Bianka Rodriguez, 24, the trans woman in charge of communications at Comcavis Trans. Rodriguez had attended college, which had afforded her more options in life.

Bianka, who is in charge of communications, at work at Comcavis Trans in San Salvador.

Rodriguez has delicate features, brown eyes flecked with brown and blond hair, and is soft-spoken yet assertive. She sat at the boardroom table in the Comcavis Trans office, her hands clasped together as she told me about her childhood. “I discovered my gender identity when I was five years old,” she said. “When I was five years old, I used the gestures of a girl. My mother exercised physical and psychological violence toward me for demonstrating those gestures at an early age. She reproached me for being too feminine and said that these things were an aberration and that she had had a boy, not a girl, and that I had to behave as such.” In 2009, when she was 15, she ran away from home and found a job at a bakery. The owners of the bakery, a couple, promised her that she could live her identity as a woman and offered her a place to stay. However, upon moving in with the couple, she was forced to sleep in the storage room and was essentially enslaved. “My bed at that time was made of sacks of flour used to make French bread, and the bags of sugar served as my pillow,” Rodriguez recalled. Given that she didn’t have anywhere else to go, she stayed and worked every day from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. for two years. When she managed to escape, she tried to press charges against the couple for never paying her, but they threatened to harm her family, so she relented.

Eventually, with the encouragement of her grandma, Rodriguez pursued an education. When she went to enroll in high school, she was informed that she would have to cut her long blond hair and dye it dark brown, and she would have to wear pants. Because she wanted to study, she agreed to the terms. Upon her graduation she enrolled in college, initially in an industrial engineering program. However, a professor in the engineering department told her that he would not allow a trans woman to graduate, and she was forced to switch majors, which is how she ended up studying communications.

After college, she worked for a literacy program for seniors in her hometown of Cuscatancingo. “I supported my community, and I fought to help them, and that is where I discovered my potential to fight for human rights. After that, I signed up to volunteer at Comcavis, and now I am the director of communications,” she said. The difference between Rodriguez’s life and Marfil Estrella’s illustrates the power of education and family support. Marfil Estrella, before migrating to Mexico, had said she had one piece of advice for trans women and girls: study as much as you can. “I already believe that I have reached an age where if I start studying, I won’t finish until I’m sixty,” she said. “I will fight to study because the only way you can get ahead is by studying.”

As Rodriguez was talking, a slight young man with a beard stopped by and introduced himself as Gabriel Escobar. “Do you want to interview me?” he asked. Gabriel, a 22-year-old trans man, works at Comcavis to help keep track of violence against the LGBTI community in El Salvador. When asked about his experience transitioning from a woman to a man, he said, “My friends congratulated me. In my house, nobody says anything to me. They do not mention it — it’s like, they let it be — and in the neighborhood nobody says anything. I know that if I were a trans woman, something would have already happened to me. It is easier for us to be trans men because of the very ideology in this country about men and masculinity. If a man wants to be a woman, it is humiliating and degrading, but for us, the change is not.”

Gabriel, who started out as an intern at Comcavis Trans, is now a full-time employee.

Rodriguez nodded as Escobar spoke, and added, “It’s different, as Gabriel said. He was congratulated because he changed from the weaker sex to the stronger sex.” Escobar said he planned to go to the university to study psychology “to be able to support trans girls and boys.” When his parents sent him to a psychologist as a child, the psychologist told him that he was wrong to feel that he was a boy. “They don’t know how to approach you as a trans person, and that’s why I want to change that reality,” Escobar said. In the future, he said he hoped that the government of El Salvador would provide the trans population with health coverage for hormone treatment and also that the law legislating gender identity be changed to allow trans people to change their names on legal documents. When employers discovered that the gender expression of the person didn’t match their birth name, the result was usually discrimination in hiring. “I have been lucky because I have never suffered violence and I haven’t been discriminated against much either,” Escobar added.

Rodriguez, whose face adorns the posters that Comcavis Trans created to advocate that the law legislating gender identity be changed, also hoped that the state would respect and protect her legal rights to live out her identity. Until that time, she, Avelar, Escobar, and other members of the staff would both advocate for legislation to protect their rights and help those members of their community threatened by physical violence to migrate. “We support LGBTI people who decide to migrate, we don’t encourage them to do it. We explain the process and give them advice about what they will face. In many cases their lives are in danger, which is mostly reflected in the cases of trans women who must migrate in order to stay alive,” explained Rodriguez.

Bianka holding hands with her grandmother.

In order to challenge the law legislating gender identity, Comcavis Trans helped Alessandra Jiménez, a 32-year-old trans woman from Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, prepare a case to be presented at the Supreme Court. Jiménez, who has lived in Milan for 11 years, returned to El Salvador in August 2017 to present her case. Of her childhood in El Salvador she said, “I remember when I was seven years old in first grade here in El Salvador and I told a girl, ‘I wish I had been born a woman.’” When she was 19, a friend of hers — another trans woman — was murdered. With the support of her family, who she said had always wanted to see her live peacefully, she emigrated to Italy. Jiménez said she wished her fellow Salvadorans would understand that “we were born into a body that we didn’t want, but we are human beings and we have value.”

Avelar, who has helped prepare similar cases to challenge the law, was worried. She knew that the court would submit Jiménez to a degrading doctor’s assessment to confirm that she had undergone sexual reassignment surgery. “Trans women are leaving the country for different reasons — not only because of discrimination from their family but also because of the lack of compliance by the state, including the lack of laws guaranteeing human rights for these populations and the lack of opportunities to study and work,” explained Avelar. “Attempts at assassination, persecution, and extortion come from uniformed agents in some cases. Currently gangs are talking about exterminating LGBTQ people.” Avelar knows these threats well — due to an increase in death threats, she requested and recently received asylum in Switzerland.

Three months after leaving El Salvador, Marfil Estrella wrote to me on Facebook. She had arrived in Mexico City, but had run out of money and wanted to know if I could lend her some. I sent her the links of organizations that helped migrants, knowing very well that many of them turned away trans women, but hoping she would find the support to finish her journey. On October 19, 2017, Marfil Estrella crossed the border at the San Ysidro port of entry and requested asylum in the United States. It took me several weeks to confirm that she had been taken to the Otay Mesa Detention Justice Center. Given the Supreme Court’s recent ruling denying bail hearings for immigrants, essentially allowing for their indefinite detention, it was unclear how long Marfil Estrella will be held or when her request for asylum will be reviewed.

The only way I could communicate with Marfil Estrella was to write her a letter and hope that she would receive it and call me. The detention center did not allow calls from outside, so all I could do was wait. On April 4, 2018, my phone rang, and through a crackling line, I heard her voice, a soft whisper, and I asked if she was doing OK. She told me that from October to January, she had been housed in the men’s section of the detention center, and while detained she had experienced violence. In February, they had moved her to a cell with a trans roommate. “I don’t know when I will get out of here,” Marfil Estrella said, her voice so low and sad that I had to strain to catch the last word. Just as I was about to respond, the phone cut out and the line went dead.

In May 2018, Marfil Estrella was granted a court date for her asylum hearing. She stood in front of the judge in prison-issue clothes and bright white tennis shoes and told the story of why she fled El Salvador: “I knew if I stayed, I could lose my life.” At the end of her testimony, the judge meditated for a moment and responded, “I grant you asylum because I find your testimony credible. The government was unable or unwilling to protect you from acts of violence in El Salvador.” Marfil Estrella left the courtroom, her long hair flowing and scar faintly visible, a marker of violence survived.

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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is the author of More or Less Dead, and a 2017 Foreign Policy Interrupted Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Lenny Letter, The Guardian, and Pacific Standard.

Editor: Mike Dang
Photographer: Danielle Villasana
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Translation: María Ítaka