JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — Boys are supposed to be boys in rural El Salvador, so for more than a decade, Tania Rivera suppressed her desire to be a girl.
It wasn’t until well into adulthood that, working as an accountant’s assistant in the city of Santa Ana, she felt strong enough to express her gender identity. That’s when the violence began.
Rivera says she was insulted and mocked on her way to work each morning. Then gang members started to chase her. The last straw was when three men got off a car to abduct her, telling her she would die that day. She was able to run away once more. Since then, her legs have carried her 2,000 miles north.
“El Salvador is a very old-fashioned country. Trans girls are not accepted. We are rejected, we are discriminated and some of us are murdered,” she said. “I want to live in a place where I don’t feel threatened while going to work or going out for a walk. I want to live in a place where the law is on my side, not against me.”
Rivera, 24, is part of a group of 19 transgender women from Central America who have arrived in Juarez in the past few weeks to seek asylum in the United States. Another group of 17 is on the way from southern Mexico, says Grecia Herrera, director of the city’s only shelter for transgender migrants.
“It is a big group and we want to make sure they are safe and well cared for. If they need a doctor, we’ll get them to a doctor. If they need psychological help or legal advice, we’ll get them to the right people,” said Herrera, a nurse and municipal worker. Her refuge is hosting 40 transgender migrants at the moment.
Her shelter, Respettrans (a portmanteau for “respect” and “transsexual”), opened last year at the height of the Central American migrant surge and has assisted about 400 migrants. Many of those transgender asylum petitioners are already in the United States either at detention centers or have received parole and have been placed with sponsors, she said.
Her shelter has become internationally known and a destination for transsexuals who hear about violence perpetrated against their kind in other staging points into the United States, like Tijuana or Nuevo Laredo.
Herrera says transgender migrants continue to make their way to the border despite Mexico’s military crackdown at the border with Guatemala because they continue to face violence and death threats in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Rivera said one of her acquaintances was murdered last year — one of several hate-crimes she has heard of during her stay in Santa Ana.
Herrera said she continously gets calls and emails from parents in Central America asking if she has come across their transsexual daughters.
“We call them the missing caravan girls. When the big caravans formed, many (trans) girls were assaulted and murdered on the way. Some were even murdered in border cities like Tijuana. Many just didn’t make it (alive),” she said.
The trans women at her shelter told Border Report they knew they put their lives at risk trekking to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But as Angie, a 23-year-old transgender woman from San Salvador put it, “we risk our lives in Mexico on our way to a better place (the United States). In our countries, we risk our lives for nothing. There is no hope there.”
Angie, who declined to give her last name, said she left El Salvador after suffering traumatizing violence. She said the son of a Protestant pastor fell in love with her and his family beat her when they found out.
“They set a trap for me. They knew I would go to their house, then they confronted me, they beat me, they stripped me and they hurt me in the genitals, then they threw me out on the street in my underwear. I had to walk home two miles and people, instead of helping me, made fun of me and insulted me,” she said.
Angie said she hopes to present a strong asylum case in U.S. immigration court because she does not intend to go back to El Salvador.
“They say our countries are becoming better educated, that they’re passing new laws. But at home, people still have their same beliefs. That has not changed. The doors are still shut for people like us,” she said.
“If I get asylum, my plan is to grow as a person, to show that a person’s capabilities are not in her looks but in her work and will to do better. Then I will help others like me. I will tell them that people have no right to set your limits, that if you say, ‘I can do this, I will do this,’ you will be able to prove them wrong.”