Author Archives

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)


“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…

No Journalist Should Have to Know How to Survive in Prison

Courtesy the author

Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,616 words)


“Welcome to the Democratic Dictatorship of Myanmar,” said a slight, young woman on the street in Yangon, Myanmar. She was referencing the number of journalists in the country who had been threatened or jailed by the theoretically democratic government. Yangon is tangled roots and the shade of 100-year-old trees; it is the sound of hundreds of wings flapping as young men feed pigeons, their feathers flashing golden in the early-morning light; it is journalists imprisoned for speaking truth to power.


When I arrived in Yangon in January 2018, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been in prison for a little over a month. Much had changed since I had lived in the city in 2006, volunteering at an international high school with my best friend Tien, both of us living at a government-run hotel and eating Hershey’s chocolate bars out of her suitcase.

In 2015, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, swept elections, and both citizens and the international community had high hopes that she would support press freedom. At a press conference a few days before the election, Suu Kyi referenced a “communications revolution” as millions of citizens watched her via Facebook, which at that time also promised to be a beacon for democracy. Facebook arrived in Myanmar in 2011, and since that time has racked up at least 14 million users, 93% of whom accessed it on their mobile phones.

In a country where burgeoning press freedom and the appearance of Facebook coincided, media literacy has proved a challenge. During my time there in 2006, I helped students apply to colleges in the United States and Australia — basically anywhere outside of Myanmar, which at that time had a dysfunctional university system. One of the students I worked with ended up attending Berea College, my alma mater in Kentucky, which I had encouraged her to apply to since they provide funding to low-income students. Yangon University, which was once Myanmar’s most famous university, reopened for the first time in two decades in 2013. Between the lack of independent media and the lack of access to higher education during the years before the democratic opening, it didn’t surprise me that media literacy was low.

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‘Forgive Yourself. And Forgive Me.’

Uncle Lee, photo courtesy the author

Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2018 | 10 minutes (2,574 words)

“I didn’t choose. I walked backwards till it came around front.” — Uncle Lee

I sipped my Uncle Lee’s favorite gin martini made bitter with the taste of three pearly onions at The Alley Cantina in Taos, New Mexico. The mother of my long-lost cousin Julianne stepped up to the microphone in front of the gathered crowd and told the story of their brief love affair and how Lee “loved women.” I’ve never been to a funeral like the ones on TV where you go to a cemetery and cry while watching a casket go into the ground. My family does these storytelling gatherings with food and drink, and we bask in the memory of the ones we loved in sharp and detailed pain and glory.

I didn’t know that Julianne existed until I was in my 20s. My Uncle Lee, who died at 73, was a tall willowy, half-bent figure who had two sons and a daughter. As a young man, he had survived several diving accidents, which according to another uncle, Larry, left him a little bit crooked in posture. Uncle Lee disclosed Julianne’s existence to some of the family over the years, but that news reached me late. It hit me like a wave rolling me under the currents — took my breath away — because she had my green eyes, and the tall, lean Driver build. In another universe, she could have been my sister. We had followed parallel tracks, both spending much of our 20s living and working in Latin America. She eventually settled in Bolivia, married, and had a daughter.

At my Uncle Lee’s memorial, Julianne read a letter she had written to her 22-month-old daughter about Lee, who she came to know as her biological father when she was a teenager. Before his death, he had traveled to Bolivia to spend time with her, and she held close those memories of getting to know him as a father. Tears ran down my face and into my bourbon and ginger ale as I watched Julianne read from her journal. Following Julianne, a woman got up and told the story of my Uncle Lee making the French doors for her house. He was a fine woodworker specializing in spiral staircases. Before sitting down, she said, “We weren’t lovers.”
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The Mutilated and the Disappeared

Kidnappers on the migrant trail murdered his two brothers, but Miguel Ángel Rápalo Piñeda, 20, survived. The two bullet entry scars on his back are still visible, and the bullets remain inside him. (Cambria Harkey)

Alice Driver | Longreads | January 2018 | 21 minutes (5,284 words)


“It is very easy to disappear people.” — Aracy Matus Sánchez, director of Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated along the migrant trail

* * *

Through the fist-sized security opening, a mouth appeared, then an eye, surveying. The migrant, his body shaking, stood there, eyes wide, holding his arm, whimpering. “What do you want?” asked the voice behind the metal door. “I … I … Somebody beat me up,” said the migrant, who was maybe 25 and all folded into himself as if being compact could protect him.

The door closed with a click, and the migrant swayed from side to side, then crumpled neatly toward the ground. He kept his body just rigid enough at the last second to sit down, teetering on the cement steps. He held his left arm, which had a visible protrusion below the elbow, and although he took jerky breaths, his eyes remained dry. After several minutes, he got up again and went over to a second door on the side of the building and knocked timidly. Again, he waited, holding his arm, his eyes glassed over, and leaned against the door. He began to hyperventilate, his breath seemingly caught in his birdlike chest and desperately needing to escape. Still the door remained closed. He looked down at his muddy feet, toes spilling over thin flip-flops.

When the door opened a crack, the voice once again dispassionately asked him why he was there. As the door eventually opened wider, the migrant stumbled into an office and fell onto the nearest couch. The man who had been guarding the door disappeared and was replaced by a woman who looked at the migrant and said, “Are you hungry? You can go join the others at breakfast.” She didn’t seem to notice that he was in a state of shock. After a few seconds, a stuttered “Ye— yee— sss” escaped his mouth, and she pointed him in the direction of the dining room at the migrant shelter Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, the only shelter in Mexico for migrants who have been mutilated along the migrant trail. Read more…

Los mutilados y los desaparecidos

Secuestradores en el camino migratorio asesinaron a sus dos hermanos, pero Miguel Ángel Rápalo Piñeda, de 20 años, sobrevivió. Las dos cicatrices de bala en su espalda aún son visibles, y las balas permanecen dentro de él. (Cambria Harkey)

Alice Driver | Longreads | Enero ​​2018 | 21 minutos (5,284 palabras)


“Es muy fácil desaparecer gente.” — Aracy Matus Sánchez, directora de Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, el único albergue en México para migrantes que han sufrido mutilaciones a lo largo de la ruta del migrante.

* * *

Una boca apareció del otro lado de la rendija de seguridad que era del ancho de un puño; le siguieron unos ojos vigilantes. El migrante, cuyo cuerpo temblaba, permaneció de pie con los ojos bien abiertos y se agarraba el brazo gimiendo de dolor. ¿Qué quieres?, preguntó la voz detrás de la puerta metálica. “Yo… yo… alguien me golpeó” dijo el migrante, que parecía tener unos 25 años y se inclinaba sobre sus muslos, como si esa posición compacta lo hiciera estar más protegido.

La puerta se cerró con un sonido sútil, mientras que el migrante se balanceaba de un lado a otro para luego desplomarse estruendosamente en el suelo. El muchacho permaneció lo suficientemente rígido como para poder sentarse, aún vacilante, sobre unos escalones de cemento. Sostenía su brazo izquierdo, el cual tenía una protuberancia debajo del codo, y aunque su respiración estaba entrecortada, no derramó ni una sola lágrima. Después de varios minutos se levantó de nuevo, se dirigió a la segunda puerta que estaba a un costado del edificio y tocó tímidamente. Una vez más esperó mientras agarraba su brazo, se recargó contra la puerta, sus ojos no tenían expresión alguna. Empezó a hiperventilarse, parecía como si su respiración estuviera atrapada dentro de su pecho de ave y luchara desesperadamente por escapar. La puerta seguía cerrada. El muchacho dirigió su mirada a sus pies llenos de lodo, sus dedos se desbordaban sobre un par de chancletas muy delgadas.

La puerta se abrió brevemente y otra vez se pudo escuchar a aquella voz indiferente preguntar al muchacho por qué estaba ahí. Finalmente, cuando la puerta se abrió lo suficiente, el migrante entró en una oficina y se tumbó sobre el sillón más cercano. El hombre que cuidaba la puerta desapareció, y en su lugar apareció una mujer que miró al muchacho y le preguntó: “¿Tienes hambre? Puedes ir con los demás a desayunar” La mujer no parecía notar el estado de shock en el que el joven se encontraba. Después de unos segundos él respondió con un tartamudeo “í”, y ella señaló el camino hacia el comedor del albergue para migrantes Jesús el Buen Pastor del Pobre y el Migrante, el único albergue en México para migrantes que han sufrido mutilaciones a lo largo de la ruta del migrante. Read more…

Father of Migrants

Father Javier, who has directed the migrant shelter in Juárez for seven years, sits in his office among his books. Photos by Itzel Aguilera.

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2017 | 22 minutes (5,698 words)


“What good is a border without a people willing to break it wide open?”
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, quote from live storytelling at California Sunday Popup in Austin, Texas on March 4, 2017

* * *

On the edge of the promised land dust storms rise out of the desert, obscuring everything, even the migrants waiting at the gate in front of a complex surrounded by a chain-linked fence topped by barbed wire. But Father Javier Calvillo Salazar is from Juárez, Mexico and he is used to it all, and to those who arrive after what is sometimes thousands of miles and hundreds of days with a collection of scars, broken bones, and missing limbs to match the inhumanity encountered along the way. They arrive weeping, they arrive stony-faced, they arrive pregnant, they arrive with venereal diseases—sometimes they arrive telling García Márquez-esqe stories of witnessing a crocodile eat a newborn baby in one swift bite.

Nicole was delivered at a hospital into the arms of her mother, Ana Lizbeth Bonía, 28, who arrived at the shelter in Juárez after spending nine months traveling north from Comayagua, Honduras. She showed up at the migrant shelter Casa del Migrante Diócesis de Ciudad Juárez with her husband Luis Orlando Rubí, 23, and her underweight son, José Luis, 2, who had saucer-like eyes that glistened with emotion. Ana, who had grown up selling vegetables in the street since the age of 4, had never finished elementary school.

The migrant shelter in Juárez is so close to El Paso, Texas that migrants feel the bittersweet pull of land they can see but likely never legally inhabit. The shelter has 120 beds for men, 60 for women, 20 for families, and one separate area where transgender migrants can stay if they choose. Most migrants who arrive at the shelter are single men, and in interviews migrants mentioned that President Trump’s threat of separating women from their children had led to a decrease in migration by those groups. Each migrant is initially limited to a three-day stay, but they can extend that time depending on their condition, as in the case of Ana, who needed time to rest and recuperate after giving birth to Nicole. Read more…

El Padre de Los Migrantes

El Padre Javier, director del albergue en Juárez durante los últimos siete años, sentado en su oficina entre pilas de libros. Fotos de Itzel Aguilera.

Alice Driver | Longreads | Junio ​​2017 | 22 minutos (5,698 palabras)


“¿Qué tan buena es una frontera si no hay gente dispuesta a abrirla de par en par?”
— Hanif Willis Abdurraqib *cita del relato en vivo en el “California Sunday Popup” en Austin, Texas, 4 de marzo de 2017

* * *

A la orilla de la tierra prometida se levantan tormentas de polvo provenientes del desierto obscureciéndolo todo, incluso los migrantes tienen que esperar frente a un complejo rodeado por una valla metálica coronada por alambre de púas. Pero el Padre Javier Calvillo Salazar es oriundo de Ciudad Juárez, México, y está acostumbrado a todo esto, así como a todos aquellos que llegan después de una jornada en la que bien pudieron haber transcurrido miles de kilómetros y cientos de días, casi todos llegan cubiertos de cicatrices, con huesos rotos o sin alguno de sus miembros, con heridas que dejan en evidencia la falta de humanidad que se encuentra a lo largo del camino. Son personas que llegan llorando, con rostros endurecidos, con embarazos, con enfermedades venéreas y hasta con historias que remiten a las de Gabriel García Márquez, en las que cuentan haber visto con sus propios ojos a un cocodrilo devorar a un recién nacido de una sola y tajante mordida.

Nicole fue entregada en los brazos de su madre, Ana Lizbeth Bonía de 28 años, en un hospital de la frontera norte de México. Después de una travesía de 9 meses, que inició en Comayagua, Honduras, Ana Lizbeth llegó al albergue de migrantes Casa del Migrante Diócesis de Juárez con su esposo Luis Orlando de 23 años, y su desnutrido hijo José Luis de 2 años, que tenía unos ojos redondos como platos que brillaban con emoción. Ana nunca terminó la primaria, y pasó su niñez en las calles, vendiendo verduras desde los 4 años.

El albergue para migrantes en Juárez está tan cerca de El Paso, Texas, que los migrantes sienten el agridulce llamado de una tierra que pueden ver pero en la que difícilmente pueden vivir de manera legal. El albergue cuenta con 120 camas para hombres, 60 para mujeres, 20 para familias, así como con un área aparte en donde los migrantes transgénero pueden quedarse si así lo desean. La mayoría de los migrantes que llegan son hombres solteros, y durante las entrevistas realizadas ellos mencionaron que la amenaza del presidente Trump de separar a los niños de sus madres ha provocado una caída en la migración de estos grupos. Inicialmente, cada migrante tiene permitida una estancia no mayor a tres días, pero pueden quedarse más tiempo dependiendo de su condición, como es el caso de Ana, que necesitaba tiempo para descansar y recuperarse después de haber dado a luz a Nicole. Read more…