Latin America has the highest rate of reported murders of transgender people of any region worldwide. Because of that violence, many trans Latinas choose to flee their countries for the US. For those who successfully migrate, the fight is often not over. In the latest episode of Broadly and VICE's LATIN-X, which explores underrepresented stories about the Latinx community, host Paola Ramos speaks with trans Latinx migrants and activists in Arizona about the obstacles they face because of their identities—and what they're doing to fight for one another.
One of the women Ramos interviews is Karolina Lopez, who migrated from Mexico in 1995 and spent three years in detention before being granted asylum in 2012. Lopez is the coordinator of letters and visitation for the program Mariposas Sin Fronteras, which helps LGBTQ migrants in detention connect with people on the outside and get on their feet once they've been released.
Lopez spoke to Broadly to share more details of her migration story, talk about her advocacy work, and give insight on what keeps her going.
Interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.
BROADLY: Why did you migrate to the United States?
KAROLINA: I came to the United States in 1995 in search of freedom of expression to be who I am, a transgender woman. I always had the mentality [that I needed] to be able to live free with dignity, because in my country, I did not.
What was your reception upon arriving in the US?
I was in search of freedom from homophobia, transphobia, [and the] rejection of my personhood. But when I arrived here, I found the same things. And I realized that wherever I go, in any part of world, I’m going to encounter the same things.
After being released from detention, which obstacles did you face?
Unfortunately, I've met and had to overcome so, so many obstacles because I am a transgender woman. Since being released from detention seven years ago, I haven’t been able to secure "normal” employment anywhere, like in a factory or hotel. They have rejected me solely on the basis of my being transgender. I’ve kept going because of Mariposas Sin Fronteras, the group that I belong to. Thanks to that group, I've been able to survive.
Tell me about Mariposas Sin Fronteras. How did you join them, and what do you do with them?
My answer to that is a bit long. I have always been a transgender woman—I was never in the closet. I’ve always been so feminine, and that has caused me many problems and experiences of being rejected. I ran away from home at 10 years old. I was living alone in the streets of Mexico City until the age of 12. I was about to turn 13 when I left for the United States, thinking that I could finally find the freedom to be who I was. I didn’t want to continue being rejected, and I had heard that the United States was a country where you could be free—a country filled with opportunities.
My sister was living in Phoenix, Arizona and invited me to live with her. So I came. But, upon [my] arrival, she realized I was a different person and she rejected me, too.
I was working, but, unfortunately, the anti-immigrant sentiment is severe. There are so many checkpoints here in Arizona. One day, I was simply walking on a street the police were staking out to arrest prostitutes. Since they didn’t find any, they started to arrest any woman who was passing through the area and charged them with prostitution that night. I was incarcerated for nothing—just for passing through that street. Since that moment, I stopped believing in the government and law enforcement. I realized that there are so many innocent people in the system; the system is broken.
I was detained for three years in Lubbock, Texas—three years where I didn't have any support. I was totally alone. I fought alone, although a pro-bono lawyer group in Tucson, Arizona helped me out. When I was released, my outlook was completely different. I learned about Casa Mariposa. There were two people living there who were forming a group called Mariposas Sin Fronteras, which I belong to now. They invited me by telling me that I had a lot of insight about how a transgender woman could survive in a detention center. In the detention center, I met so many people who didn’t have anyone. Even though people had family in the US, the family members were undocumented. So once a person was detained, the undocumented family members were afraid to answer them.
And the undocumented family members didn’t have any way to help?
None. I said to myself, We have to help these people whose family members don’t answer them. We have to help them get proof, or be the intermediaries between them and their families. And that’s how the group was formed, with my ideas too. For example, getting letters of recommendation, proof of addresses. We bought the house Casa Mariposa, so that people who don’t have a home [when they are released from detention] can live there. Our group focuses on helping LGBTQ people, who are the most vulnerable group in or out of detention centers. We also pay bail when we have capacity and money for it. We visit detention centers, which is so important for us. When I was inside, it was so important to me to receive a visit because I felt so alone. No one visited me. Letters were also so important for my survival in detention. Letters are a link to community, and a reminder that someone is waiting for you on the outside, helping you. If you have no one when you’re detained, you start thinking about things you never thought of before, like committing suicide.
After being released and getting to meet so many other people who didn’t have any support, and who are also LGBTQ, I was inspired to help. When I visit with people and hold their hands, I feel like I’m inside with them. I know how to speak with them, so that they don’t have to hold in all the pain of being detained.
What is your vision for Mariposas Sin Fronteras in the future?
I would like to close all the detention centers and all the jails. No human being should be locked up. Not even animals should be locked up, much less a person. My vision is for every person to lift up their voice, to make a life and live with dignity, without oppression, without machismo. For the homophobia and transphobia to end. That’s my vision. I’m thinking of the people who can’t or don’t have a voice. Lift your voice. Don’t be silenced. We are part of this world, and there’s no reason to be rejected or seen differently. I have suffered through that so much. and I’m tired of that suffering.