my time with lgbtq migrants in mexico city
By Joshua Allen
March 13, 2019
Photos are courtesy of Collectivx.
In the fall of last year I traveled to Mexico City to meet Las Soñadoras de Centroamérica. A group of over 100 LGBTQ migrants traveling in one of the largest ever recorded caravans. Las soñadoras, or ‘the dreamers’, were traveling mostly on foot through Mexico to seek asylum and refuge at the border of the United States. Many of them fleeing nightmarish conditions like gang violence, violent persecution based on gender or sexual orientation, and extreme poverty. With the dream of a better and all of their life’s possessions sometimes stuffed into a singular bookbag, they made the journey north.
I arrived in Mexico City on a rainy and chilly night in November, and got word that the Las Soñadoras were wearily walking and hitch hiking through a southern state in Mexico called Veracruz. The route they took is known colloquially as the “route of death”, a long stretch of desert with few places to find water or hide from lurking gangs who often target vulnerable migrants for human trafficking or ransom payments.
I sat by my phone waiting to hear from organizers of Diversidad Sin Fronteras, one of the only organizations in the United States that accompanies LGBTQ migrants seeking refuge through Mexico to ensure that this vulnerable population can legally apply for asylum. I remember doing a lot of pacing and hand wringing that night. Praying that las soñadoras made it safely. Fundraising using my personal venmo and cash app accounts to physically buy them necessary supplies for survival like food, water, dry clothes and medicine as soon as they arrived.
I got a call late the next night that they arrived in Mexico City. Many of them physically exhausted, sick and afraid. At around midnight I got in a cab with my friend Jessica Marjane, founder of Red de Juventudes Trans México, an organization in Mexico City that supports and defends the human rights of transgender youth. We headed to Magdalena Mixhuca stadium, the official campsite that the local government erected to house the migrants as they moved through the area. What I saw blew my mind.
Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City is huge. In fact, it was used to host the 1968 summer olympics. We’re talking big, big. As we wandered through the sports stadium to locate las soñadoras, I saw thousands of people stuffed into makeshift tents or sleeping with their children under the open sky. Lines wrapped around the corner where people waited to access desperately needed services such as medical attention, food and port-a-potties. Everyone seemed to have a cold-cough and for a group of people walking hundreds of miles a week, there was a surprising lack of sneakers.
When we finally reached the group it was an emotional meeting. I didn’t really know what to expect from the migrants. Would they like me? and would we get along? were two of the questions I stayed up late the night before thinking about. Although we had never met, from the first moment we laid eyes on each other it felt like a family reunion. There were hugs, tears, laughs, and smiles. Many of las soñadoras showed off their linguistic skills, thanking me for my support in stellar English. I was surprised that anyone who had made such a journey could still be bothered to smile or share pleasantries. A group of people I expected to be hopeless displayed a mind-numbing sense of optimism and kindness.
Over the next few days I got a chance to know the migrants better. Each day I would sit with my notebook in the makeshift tents of the campsite and ask them what things they needed. Although I expected things like food, water and shoes, many of the trans migrants were desperate for gender affirming supplies. Makeup, hair or womens clothing, anything that made them feel more like themselves. People needed condoms too, bad. Clean underwear. Legal support, calling cards to get in touch with their families, many of whom hadn’t communicated in weeks.
During many of our informal chats I got to know more about where they came from. I learned of rural villages in Guatemala where the only hope at feeding yourself was to work as a housekeeper or dishwasher. I met trans women the same age as me who were kicked out of home as teens and forced into a life on the streets. Sex work, gang rape and sleeping outside were just the beginning of some of the horrors I heard. As I learned some of these stories a phrase kept on coming up in conversation: “El Exodo” which translates to “The Exodus” in English. They were referring to the phenomenon of shifting populations in Central America. People leaving their homelands by the thousands because their homelands are no longer habitable.
In sharing their stories, they explained to me that this exodus will never stop. That just like butterflies flying south, or enslaved Africans trekking north towards freedom, that any border separating people across land will be transgressed until all people are free to survive and thrive.
On more nights than one I was brought to tears. Not only by sad stories, but also by the bravery and courage of so many of the young LGBTQ migrants. The more time we spent together the more I saw myself in each of them. By day 5 in Mexico I was surrounded by new friends who were smarter and more talented than most people I know here in the United States. Young people with the limitless potential to be the world’s greatest artists, activists, politicians, leaders, parents, lovers, neighbors and friends if only given the opportunity.
My time traveling across Mexico with Las Soñadoras taught me three simple, yet profound truths. First, that we all more or less want the same things from our lives. A safe place to live, food to eat, and the freedom to be our truest selves. Second that migrant caravans are not just a political wedge issue to be debated on cable news, but rather are a continuation of a centuries long legacy of human migration. The deliberate transgressing of borders in search of a better and safer life. And lastly, I learned that there is no one in the world inherently better, or more deserving than anyone else. Regardless of where you were born, the language that you speak or how much money you have. The only thing that separates us, from our Central American counterparts, is opportunity. It’s time that they are finally given theirs.
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