Author Archives

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Photo by Alice Driver.

Alice Driver | Longreads | August 2020 | 9 minutes (2,482 words)

“We need to see the name of the person. We need to know who you want to attract,” the vendor told me as he held up a handful of dried hummingbirds, their four bodies dangling from his fingertips by red pieces of string, feathers worn but shimmering emerald in patches as if clinging to life via sheer radiance. He wanted to know the name of a man, but I was thinking of a painting.

Frida Kahlo wears a dead hummingbird around her neck. She painted Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird in 1940 just after she divorced Diego Rivera and ended an affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. The dead hummingbird is considered a love charm in Mexico, and it is one that would endure and eventually be exported to other countries.

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The Promised Land

Trans activist Karla Avelar poses for a portrait in San Salvador, El Salvador in 2018. (Danielle Villasana)

Alice Driver | Longreads | July 2020 | 16 minutes (3,906 words)

“Me with two suitcases, without knowing anything, so far away, not speaking the language, oh no, it was a total odyssey.” — Karla Avelar

* * *

Home was 16 by 26 feet. When Karla, 41, lay on her single bed at night, she could stretch out her left arm and grab her mother Flor’s* hand. She and her mother, who was 64, hadn’t lived together for 32 years: Now they practiced French together and her mother, who never learned to write, carefully traced the letters of the French alphabet in cursive well into the night. Neither of them had finished elementary school; Flor, born in rural El Salvador, was forced to leave school after first grade to work and help support her family and Karla was forced out of school in eighth grade due to bullying from teachers and students who told her she had to dress like a man in order to attend class, who once tried to hold her down and cut her hair and who frequently beat her up. Home was the name she had chosen for herself — Karla Avelar — one that was first legally recognized when she was 41 and requesting asylum in Switzerland. When the weight of memories of her previous life haunted Karla, she went outside to search for a place to cry alone.

When I first met Karla in San Salvador, El Salvador in July 2017, her home was a place I couldn’t safely visit. Karla, a renowned LGBTQ activist, had been nominated for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights, which would come with a large cash prize if she won. Members of the Mara Salvatrucha in Karla’s neighborhood, part of an international gang known as the MS-13, had become aware of the news and had threatened to kill her if she won and didn’t hand the money over to them. She had even been forced to change houses due to the threats, but she still felt her neighborhood wasn’t safe for me to visit, so we met at the offices of COMCAVIS TRANS, an NGO that was the culmination of her life’s work as an activist. Like so many trans women in El Salvador, she had survived more violence than most of us could imagine — rapes, assassination attempts, being unjustly imprisoned — and after being released from prison, she founded COMCAVIS TRANS as the first openly HIV positive trans woman in the country. I interviewed Karla for a story about the reasons why trans woman flee El Salvador, neither of us knowing that Karla would eventually become the story.

On October 6, 2017, roughly a month-and-a-half after we bid each other farewell in San Salvador, Karla and her mother flew to Switzerland to attend the awards ceremony for Martin Ennals Award nominees. When they arrived in Switzerland, Flor broke down and told Karla that members of the MS-13 gang had come to her house, beat her up and forced her to watch a video in which they were torturing a man, telling her that they would do the same thing to Karla. Before leaving, they told Flor that they would rape her in front of Karla and then kill her if Karla didn’t hand over the prize money. And then they asked her to confirm the date that Karla would return to El Salvador after her trip to Switzerland.

Karla relayed the threats to the members of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights who were worried that she would be assassinated if she returned to El Salvador. They encouraged her and her mother to apply for asylum in Switzerland. At the awards ceremony, Karla was recognized for her activism and awarded a monetary prize plus an additional amount to donate to the NGO of her choice. Karla and Flor didn’t have time to celebrate — they needed a few days alone to consider what it would mean to never return to the land of their birth. Karla was proud that she had lived honestly in El Salvador, not hiding her past as a sex worker, as someone who had spent time in jail and was HIV+, even when it put her at risk, but she also knew many trans women who had been murdered for their activism. Read more…

My Spoon, Your Bullet

Sebastián Villegas

Alice Driver | Longreads | December 2019 | 7 minutes (1,783 words)

 

We are hungry but we aren’t afraid

Young and rebellious

And the disappeared?

The revolution will educate your children

– Graffiti scrawled on buildings lining the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, Colombia during the national protests against the government in November 2019

* * *

You hold a spoon that has been worn down by the hands of your mother, of your grandmother. You hold a kitchen pot upon which is written the history of women who labored to feed loved ones. You hold a cheese grater, a measuring cup, a tin pitcher, a colander, a potato masher, a whisk, and you stand thousands upon thousands strong, banging your spoons in rhythm, dancing and singing as you face a repressive police force, riot police armed with tear gas, drones and helicopters following your movements from above. As days pass into weeks, you stand in defiance, spoon and pot in hand, demanding with every clang that the government elected by you the people listen to its people. This is a cacerolazo, a method of peaceful protest with deep roots in Latin America in which women — in the domestic space and in the streets — play a central role.

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¡Ay qué niñas!

Niños migrantes, algunos de los cuales son menores no acompañados, apoyados contra una cerca en la Casa Hogar del Niño en Reynosa, México. (Photos: Jacky Muniello)

Alice Driver | Longreads | Junio ​​2019 | 17 minutos (4,470 palabras)

AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH

“Yo con un mapa ya” anunció con firmeza Milexi, de 16 años. Me contó que su amor por los mapas le dieron la seguridad para recorrer ella sola los cerca de 2,300 kilómetros que hay entre El Portillo, Honduras y McAllen, Texas. Cuando la entrevisté en agosto de 2018, se encontraba en el Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos, CAMEF; su postura estaba algo rígida y su mirada fija en el luminoso patio del lugar. Llevaba partidura en medio y su cabello brillaba bajo el sol. “Mi sueño siempre fue viajar en “La Bestia””; como se le conoce al tren que atraviesa México de norte a sur, al cual los migrantes suben y bajan continuamente para conseguir trabajo y así poder costear su viaje en suelo mexicano.  A veces corren el riesgo de perder uno o dos miembros de su cuerpo si calculan mal el salto, ya sea para bajar o para subir.  Por su parte, Milexi logró llegar hasta Reynosa vestida de hombre; ahí la detuvieron y la llevaron al centro en el que llevaba ya 57 días detenida, y donde tuvo la oportunidad de hacer su solicitud de asilo en México.

Milexi se fue de Honduras porque su padrastro golpeaba a su madre y a uno de sus hermanos.

Me contó que él llevaba años golpeando a su madre, y que incluso llegó a fracturarle la rodilla a su hermanito de 11 años. Me dijo que ella empezó a cortarse desde los 7, pero que también estaba orgullosa de sí misma, porque a pesar de la ansiedad que sentía no se había cortado ni una sola vez desde el año pasado.

Después agregó un detalle: una noche en que su padrastro golpeó a su madre, ella esperó hasta que él estuviera dormido; fue a la cocina, tomó un cuchillo y lo apuñaló. “De mala suerte clavé el cuchillo en el lugar equivocado”, explicó sin pestañear. Su padrastro sobrevivió y ella decidió abandonar Honduras.

Milexi esperaba pedir asilo en Estados Unidos por motivos de violencia doméstica, quizá sin saber que las políticas de E.E.U.U. habían cambiado. En junio de 2018, Jeff Sessions, el entonces fiscal general de Estados Unidos, en una decisión titulada “Matter of A-B-” anuló un fallo de la corte migratoria que daba asilo a mujeres que huían de sus países por motivos de violencia doméstica. Un juez federal bloqueó la medida establecida por la administración de Trump, la cual ponía fin al otorgamiento de asilo por motivos de violencia doméstica. Sin embargo, la situación de los migrantes que ya lo habían solicitado por esos motivos aún sigue en el limbo y abierta a interpretación. Ashkan Yekrangi, abogado especialista en migración radicado en Orange County, dijo que las acciones de Sessions han creado un área gris en la que los jueces no están seguros de cómo manejar las solicitudes de asilo basadas en alegatos de violencia doméstica. Según Yekrangi, actualmente ” la mayor parte de los casos son rechazados, porque tanto los jueces como el Departamento de Seguridad Nacional se están basando en la medida “Matter of A-B-”. Read more…

Oh, Girl!

Migrant children, some of whom are unaccompanied minors, lean against a fence at the Home for Children in Reynosa, Mexico. (Photos by Jacky Muniello)

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2019 | 21 minutes (4,024 words)

DISPONIBLE EN ESPAÑOL

“I will go with a map,” decided 16-year-old Milexi. Her love of maps, she said, was part of what gave her the confidence to migrate roughly 1,460 miles from El Portillo, Honduras, to McAllen, Texas, alone. When I interviewed her in August 2018, she sat, her body tense, her gaze direct, on the sunlit patio of the Border Youth Care Center (CAMEF El Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos) in Reynosa, Mexico. Milexi’s hair was parted down the middle, and it shined in the sun as she said, “My dream was always to travel on the Beast,” as the train that runs from one end of Mexico to the other is known; migrants hop on and off it as they work their way through the country, sometimes losing a limb or two if they miscalculate the jump onto or off of the train. Milexi dressed as a man and made it as far as Reynosa before being caught and turned over to the Center, where she had then spent 57 days and made the request to receive asylum in Mexico.

Milexi left Honduras because her stepfather beat her mom and one of her brothers. She said that he beat her mother for years, that he fractured her 11-year-old brother’s knee. She said that she started cutting herself at age 7, but was also proud of herself because, for the past year, despite feeling anxious, she had not cut herself once.

Then she added a detail: One night her stepfather beat her mother. She waited until he was asleep then got a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him. “I had bad luck and the knife struck in the wrong place,” she explained without blinking. Her stepfather survived and after that, she decided to leave Honduras.

Milexi hoped to request asylum in the United States on the grounds of domestic violence, perhaps unaware that U.S. policies related to domestic violence had changed. In June 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a decision titled Matter of A-B- vacated an immigration court decision to grant asylum to a woman fleeing domestic violence. A federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s policy ending asylum for those fleeing domestic violence, but the situation for migrants who request asylum based on domestic violence claims remains in limbo and is still open for interpretation. Orange County–based immigration lawyer Ashkan Yekrangi said that Session’s actions have created a gray area in which judges are unsure of how to treat asylum cases based on domestic violence claims. For now, according to Yekrangi, “The majority of cases are still being denied because judges and the Department of Homeland Security are relying on the Matter of A-B-.” Read more…

Mothers are the Backbone of the Revolution

Lizeth Dávila, 39, holds a photo of her murdered son Álvaro, 15, in her hands. All photos by Jacky Muniello.

Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1957 words)

She will tell the story of her child’s murder as many times as needed. She will tell it until her voice breaks, until her eyes no longer fill with tears, until her demands for justice are met. She could be the mother of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Alyssa Alhdeff in Parkland, Florida, or Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila in Managua, Nicaragua. The history of mothers as activists in the Americas is firmly rooted in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, a group of hundreds of mothers who marched weekly in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to protest the murder and disappearance of their children under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. These mothers, bound together by the private pain of witnessing a child’s murder or disappearance, turn their anguish and rage outward into public movements to demand justice, often at great risk to themselves.

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The American Way

All photos by Alice Driver

Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (5,502 words)

Dusk is closing in. As we drive along the border in El Paso, Texas, ShiQian, a sound engineer from Beijing, sings, “Where the road is dark and the seed is sowed / Where the gun is cocked and the bullet’s cold,” as he plays his guitar sitting in the back seat of our rented van. Liu Xiaodong, the Chinese painter who has organized this eight-day 1,530-mile border trip in conjunction with Dallas Contemporary museum, sits in the passenger seat, looking out at the border wall and wondering out loud in Chinese, which his assistant for this trip, Marco Betelli, who is from Italy but lives in China, translates into English: “Is this the wall Trump says he is building?” I explain that the 18-foot-high metal fence we are viewing that separates El Paso from Juárez was built in 2008. Yang Bo, a Chinese filmmaker, documents all Xiaodong’s international projects on migration. He sits in the back seat next to ShiQian filming everything as Flavio del Monte, an Italian who serves as Xiaodong’s artist liaison at Massimo De Carlo Gallery, drives. From the back seat, ShiQian’s voice rings out with warmth, “Now I been out in the desert, just doin’ my time / Searchin’ through the dust, lookin’ for a sign / If there’s a light up ahead well brother I don’t know,” as we hug close to the border, to a wall that exists in some places and is absent in others and to the Río Bravo — the “fierce river” — which is little more than a trickle running down a concrete channel.
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When You Carry All That You Love With You

Photos by Alice Driver

A photo essay by Alice Driver.

 


1. Your hands are still warm from walking dozens of miles under the scorching sun when you cradle your baby cousin. The two of you have walked 654 miles together since you left Honduras, your lives intertwined as you flee a territory where daily violence marked your life. You feel his heart beating as you cradle him and you know that you both made the right choice to walk toward the unknown.
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El camino al asilo

Cuando amanece, Marfil Estrella mira por la ventanilla del autobús que la llevará desde San Salvador, El Salvador a la Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala. (Fotos: Danielle Villasana)

Alice Driver | Longreads | Junio ​​2018 | 21 minutos (5,300 palabras)

AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH

“Quiero terminar la primaria.” — Karla Avelar, 40 años, fundadora de la Asociación Comcavis Trans, que lucha a favor de los derechos LGBTI en El Salvador.

* * *

“Mujeres, no se dejen engañar” vociferaba el cansado predicador de ojos amarillentos, su sombrero apuntaba hacia adelante con dramatismo, ideal para su sermón sobre ruedas, el cual duró todo el camino desde San Salvador, capital de El Salvador, hasta Ciudad de Guatemala. El hombre recorría el pasillo y se detenía a tocar a mujeres y niñas en la cabeza o en el brazo. “No dejen que los hombres las engañen” gritaba elevando su biblia tan alto que las gastadas hojas rozaban el techo del autobús. Sin embargo, no tocó a Marfil Estrella Perez Mendoza, de 26 años. La joven descansaba contra la ventana su rostro redondo y lleno de esperanz y observaba lluviosa mañana gris mientras el predicador pasaba a su lado sin ponerle la mano encima. ¿Cómo se dice asilo en inglés? preguntó Marfil en un susurro.

Marfil Estrella nació en Cuscatlán, El Salvador, en un cuerpo que nunca sintió suyo. Al nacer se dijo que era varón, y a los 15 se declaró gay ante su familia, quienes, en respuesta, optaron por desconocerla. “Me dijeron que era una avergüenza para mi familia, que me olvidara de que tenía familia, que me olvidara de ellos, que me fuera entonces,” explicó. Como le sucede a muchos miembros de la comunidad LGBTI en El Salvador, su familia la echó a la calle y sus estudios se se interrumpieron de manera repentina cuando cursaba tercero de secundaria, pues no tenía el dinero necesario para seguir estudiando. Huyó a San Salvador y se quedaba a dormir en los parques, donde conoció a otros chicos gays. “Vi a una persona transexual y dije ‘yo quiero ser como ella, quiero ser como ella,’” relató. Durante la época en que Marfil vivió en la calle, dejó crecer su cabello y empezó a vestirse con ropa de mujer, pero no tenía un medio para ganarse la vida, por lo que comenzó a perder mucho peso. Con el tiempo se convirtió en trabajadora sexual, que es una de las pocas alternativas que tienen las mujeres trans de El Salvador para ganar dinero. Read more…

The Road to Asylum

As dawn arrives, Marfil Estrella looks out the window of the bus that will take her from San Salvador, El Salvador to Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photos by Danielle Villasana.

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

* * *

“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. Read more…