TIJUANA, Mexico – Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender and intersexual migrants from Central America face distinct challenges on their journeys to Tijuana in search of asylum across the border in the United States.
The so-called migrant caravans that have arrived in Tijuana on a regular basis over the past year aren’t particularly safe or welcoming for this population, and sometimes LGBTI migrants are refused entry to shelters or designated rest zones on their journey north through Mexico.
Making matters worse, there’s been a recent spike in anti-gay and transphobic harassment and assaults in Tijuana, adding to the psychological burden for the LGBTI people who already have to cope with the trauma of ostracization and attacks in their home countries, says a spokesman for Jardin de las Mariposas (The Butterfly Garden), an organization that offers substance-abuse rehabilitation, shelter and other services primarily to that community.
A report by Amnesty International says LGBTI migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which make up the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, face multiple forms of hostility in their homelands: at home with their families, at work, on the street and by local governments.
Police in those countries often behave indifferently to reports of homophobic and transphobic assaults, LGBTI migrants and their advocates say.
Fleeing those countries poses a whole new set of obstacles.
At Jardin de las Mariposas, I met Yeni Rodriguez, a 31-year-old lesbian from Honduras who said she had been deported from the United States back to her home country twice when she was younger.
Since she can’t live in the United States, Rodriguez has dedicated herself to assisting other migrants from the gay community on their journeys to Tijuana.
“I want to help others fulfill their dreams,” she says in Spanish.
She says that in October, she helped lead a caravan of about 15 LGBTI migrants on a separate, safer route through Mexico — on foot and by hopping trains. They slept on the beach once they reached Tijuana.
She’d been back to southern Mexico to meet and escort LGBTI migrants twice by the time we spoke. She had just returned from one of those trips, which takes about a month to complete.
Rodriguez turns up the soles of her pink and blue Crocs. They’re full of holes from all the walking.
When everyone from her most recent group of travelers receives permission to enter the United States to pursue their asylum claims, she’ll head south again to escort more migrants.
In Tijuana, Rodriguez is caught between a country to the north that she’s afraid to sneak into again and the country of her birth that she’s afraid to go back to because of her sexual identity. She panhandles in Tijuana to make a few pesos, not enough to help her impoverished family back home.
“I know God is watching me help other people,” Rodriguez says. “I’m waiting for him to let me know how to achieve my own dreams.”
Britani Nicol de Castillo, a 33-year-old trans woman from Guatemala, told me her story four days after arriving in Tijuana and seeking shelter at the small house where Jardin de las Mariposas is located.
The house was also hosting more than a dozen other migrants. Food, medical supplies and other basic necessities appeared to be scarce.
Castillo says that back in her town, Esquintla, trans people have to deal with locals yelling at them and screaming homophobic insults at them in the street. Sometimes they throw rocks and physically attack their targets.
She’s well-known in her town for helping the sick as well as families mourning deceased loved ones — and for making sequined and beaded corset dresses by hand and doing makeup for local beauty pageant contestants.
Like Rodriguez, Castillo didn’t want pictures taken of her for safety reasons, but she looked proud to show images of some of her handiwork stored on her mobile phone.
Two years ago, she says she was sitting outside her house when a car came up. The driver pointed a gun at her legs and opened fire, hitting her three times in her left calf. She takes her leg out of her pants to show the scars.
Castillo says a trans friend had to be sent into hiding after she survived a kidnapping, rape and beating by men in her town.
The final straw came in January. Castillo says she was walking down the street after a party one night when a car pulled up beside her. There were two drunken men with machetes inside. They told her they were going to cut her in pieces.
Strangers, who recognized her, helped her get away.
The night of the death threat, she was advised to go to the police and file a report, but she knew the authorities wouldn’t do anything.
Castillo says she’d had enough. She gathered some personal belongings, said goodbye to her family and left.
She walked and hitchhiked alone at first, then joined with a group of about 10 gay, lesbian and trans migrants for the rest of the way to Tijuana.
Walking through the desert in Northern Mexico, she came down with a stomach bug. The colder climate of the region caused muscle aches in the leg that was wounded in the shooting, making it hard to walk.
Mexican officials gave her a residency visa while she tried to win asylum in the U.S. She says she has a friend on the other side of the border who’s willing to help her, if she can make it across.
She was too fearful of harassment in Tijuana to venture out into the city.
“I’m basically living the same as I did in Guatemala,” she says.
Because of a backlog, and metering of asylum requests by the U.S. government, migrants arriving in Tijuana can place their names in a notebook outside the immigration office at ports of entry that function as informal, numbered waiting lists.
Castillo wasn’t able to do much but wait until her number came up.
More than 400 people were on the list in front of her.
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