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
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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…