If you're trans and escaping one of the deadliest countries in the world, where do you go?
Daniela Colucci (L) and Francia Camila in a Tijuana beauty salon. All photos by Meghan Dhaliwal
It’s Francia Camila’s day off from her job at a Tijuana beauty salon, so she’s spending her day at another beauty salon—this time, as a customer.
It’s a small room awash in sunlight and the smells of hair dye and nail polish. Customers and employees chatter in Spanish. A little boy watching Pokémon holds one end of a hot pink leash; at the other is Nikki, a dog with long, tangled fur and a yellow hair bow.
A woman cups Francia’s head in her hands, guides it into the sink, and massages her scalp, rinsing out excess brown dye. Francia closes her eyes. She and the stylist, Daniela Colucci, are old friends, both from El Salvador. Observing this peaceful scene, it’s hard to imagine the journey that brought them to this salon, in this city, in this country.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world that’s not an active war zone, and for years, the country and surrounding region have suffered a refugee crisis of staggering scale and scope. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, gang violence, economic unrest, and government corruption drove a 658 percent increase in asylum applications from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras citizens between 2011 and 2016. The problem is particularly acute for Salvadorans, who submitted more than 17,000 asylum applications to North and Central American countries in the first six months of 2016—a 76 percent increase from the previous year.
According to activist Karla Avelar, of the El Salvador-based Association for Communicating and Training Trans Women (COMCAVIS Trans), El Salvador is a particularly dangerous place for transgender women like Daniela and Francia.
Averlar said her organization has documented more than 160 cases over the past two years where queer Salvadorans, most of whom were transgender, have been forced to seek asylum abroad. Contributing factors include “persecution by gangs and uniformed police officers”; “psychological, physical, sexual [abuse]”; and “extortion, murder attempts, or persecution,” she explained.
Hate crimes against El Salvador’s transgender community take place with remarkable impunity. COMCAVIS, which tracks LGBTQ hate crimes in the country, has recorded more than 600 such murders between 1993 and April 2016. A representative of Colectivo Alejandría, a Salvadoran trans advocacy group, told the Washington Blade that their organization records an average of 16 murders of transgender Salvadorans each month. Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project counted 30 murders of trans and gender-diverse people in El Salvador from 2008 to 2016. If those numbers vary by a wide margin, it may be because these murders frequently go unreported, for fear of retaliation by the police or gangs, who are often the perpetrators.
“People say Tijuana is dangerous,” Francia said, “and I’m like, ‘You should see El Salvador.’”
In 2015, El Salvador took a step to protect the LGBTQ community by passing laws that would penalize hate crimes more heavily. But, as in many countries, transgender Salvadorans are left particularly vulnerable to violence by a dearth of opportunities for jobs and education. Though the country has taken steps to mitigate gender-based discrimination in recent years—it passed an Equality, Equity, and Eradication of Discrimination against Women law in 2011—gender nonconforming individuals are technically not protected under the law, because the state doesn’t consider transgender women to be women.
These economic disadvantages are compounded by legal obstacles. Salvadorans are rarely allowed to legally change their names, and typically are able to do so only if the new name corresponds with the gender on their identification documents. So the IDs of transgender people are often inaccurate, making it more difficult for them to “vote, study, and work,” according to a COMCAVIS study.
“We do not have access to academic training,” Avelar said. Though Francia went to high school, she ended up turning to the underground economy to make money.
In her early teens, Francia said, she was a sex worker. But according to Francia, sex work in El Salvador is often closely tied to gangs, and she said she was forced into the dangerous drug trade. Her sister eventually paid to put her through beauty school, and Francia became an in-demand stylist. But she still feared for her life, and said she received at least one death threat.
So in September 2016, Francia left El Salvador, along with her 23-year-old niece, Rosa Elena España, and Elena’s three-year-old daughter, Melissa Nicet Gaitan. Elena fled for her life as well: She had been in a relationship with Melissa’s father, a gang member who eventually threatened to kill her. The three traveled by bus to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. They asked for temporary asylum immediately, but Francia said documentation took three months. She tried to work as a stylist in Chiapas, but said she was told that salons would “only hire women,” so she turned back to sex work to survive.
Francia’s day off is a Wednesday; weekends at her own salon are so busy, she sometimes doesn’t have time to eat. She’s a hard worker, she said, so it suits her.
“The time goes so fast,” she exclaimed.
Back at the salon in Tijuana, Francia holds a shiny pile of hair extensions in her hand, her fingernails life jacket orange. Elena sits in a chair by the front door, calmly watching Melissa careen around the room in tiny black ballet flats.
The process of applying hair extensions takes hours. At one point, Melissa clambers into her great-aunt’s lap to cuddle; Daniela, her focus on Francia’s head, is unfazed. Lazily, Francia braids Melissa’s ponytail and wraps it into a high bun. For a few moments, they form a stair-step chain of women, holding each other’s hair.
Daniela used to work as a stylist at a television station in El Salvador. Though she took hormones and identified as a woman, Daniela said the station made her dress like a man at work. She hasn’t been able to afford her hormones in Mexico, and said she’s researching options to get the treatments she needs.
Transgender women are an especially vulnerable population in Mexico (and, it’s worth mentioning, in the United States too). A July 2016 study in The Lancet found that nearly half of transgender people there used hormones without medical supervision. The country’s transgender community is also subject to frightening levels of violence; according to the most recent report of Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring project, Mexico trailed only Brazil in the incidence of transphobic crimes in Latin America between 2008 and 2016. (On a per capita basis, however, El Salvador had the region’s highest rate of anti-trans murders.)
And a 2016 human rights report by the Transgender Law Center and Cornell University Law School LGBT Clinic found that police and military officials do not adequately protect transgender women in the country, noting that these officials are, as in El Savaldor, “often the perpetrators of violence” themselves. Five out of sixteen Mexican women interviewed for a UN Refugee Agency study who had experienced police abuse were transgender.
Francia, Elena, and Melissa did try to leave. Francia has a sister in the US who told them to cross the border. In mid-January 2017, they came to Tijuana and, in search of a better life, asked for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry. According to Gabriela Martinez, a journalist who accompanied them, they were immediately rejected by US Customs and Border Protection officers, who did not know they were asylees in Mexico and therefore would have no legal reason to reject an asylum claim. Such rejection of asylum seekers has appeared to increase this year in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration.
Because Francia, Elena, and Melissa technically already had asylum in Mexico, it’s not clear how far they would have gotten with their asylum process in the US. Instead, the family stayed in Tijuana and began to assemble their lives in Mexico.
They’re not alone in that decision: With fear of deportation driving a decrease in asylum seekers at the US border, thousands have chosen to stay in Mexico and build lives there instead. And though Tijuana has seen a recent uptick in overall violence, mostly drug-related, Francia said she feels safer here compared to the country she left behind.
“People say Tijuana is dangerous,” Francia said, “and I’m like, ‘You should see El Salvador.’”
Over the course of the afternoon, the women chatter and gossip. They talk about how cops and gang members kill one another back home. They discuss how expensive it was to live in El Salvador, because Salvadoran prices are in US dollars. Francia said she used to spend $130 USD on groceries every week, but in Mexico, her grocery bill runs about 600 pesos, approximately $31 USD.
Elena offers everyone plates of Chinese food, and Daniela and the other salon employee take a break from Francia’s hair to eat. They huddle around Francia’s cell phone, flipping through photos and smiling. They’re looking at pictures of Salvadorian food. They say they miss pupusas, that the enchiladas are different here.
For now, Francia plans to stay in Mexico. Things are far from perfect, but despite the hardship she has faced, she seems genuinely content and happy there. She lives in a little house with Elena and Melissa and Daniela. She has friends and a social life. She can pay for groceries with a job she loves.
The sun drops in the sky. Daniela heats up a curling iron and goes to work on Francia’s long, new locks. Francia clasps a hand mirror and watches, holding her head carefully, the way people do when they look at themselves in mirrors.
“I came to Tijuana to start a new life,” she says. “I love it so much here, the life that I started.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed reporting to this story.
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Meghan Dhaliwal and Amanda Ottaway’s reporting from Tijuana as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.