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Queer in the caravan: The dangers LGBT migrants face in search for asylum
Irving Mondragón, a caravan leader who has accompanied LGBT contingents in the caravans traveling through Mexico, poses for a portrait at Casa de Luz, an LGBT friendly migrant shelter, March 15, 2019. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

The journey north for migrants traveling through Mexico carries multiple risks—food insecurity, exposure to elements, assault, injury and more. Traveling with a caravan offers a measure of safety against some of these dangers.

But for LGBT migrants making the 2,400-mile journey north, there are yet additional risks like discrimination and harassment from homophobic government officials, service providers and even from within the caravans themselves.

“In different caravans, we’ve suffered a lot of bullying, discrimination,” said Irving Mondragón, a caravan leader. “People have suffered rape and kidnapping attempts, or had everything stolen, or were forced off the path.”

A network of support has emerged, somewhat spontaneously, to advocate for the safety and rights of migrants traveling in the caravans. This network is largely made up of organizations and agencies. There are also individual volunteers who simply take it upon themselves to travel with the caravans to offer support. To the migrants these individuals are surrogate guardian angels. They provide moral support through accompaniment and procure resources for migrants as needs come up.

Mondragón is one of these guardian angels. He has traversed Mexico with the caravans at least three times—upon completing his second round, he turned around the following day and headed back to Honduras to immediately continue his third journey. Through all this traveling, Mondragón, who is a gay man himself, has tried out different strategies to guard the safety of LGBT contingents.

“The people at the front of the caravans—generally men who are healthy, traveling alone, with no family, no responsibility—these were the ones who often bullied us,” he said.

To stay away from these types, LGBT contingents intentionally lag behind (at times for up to three weeks) along with other more vulnerable members of the caravan, like single mothers with young children. But when they finally reach the shelters and free kitchens scattered along the migrant route, most have been depleted by the first waves of the caravan. “Since we were always last, there was no more support, there were no more blankets, no more beds,” said Mondragón.

During the most recent caravan, Mondragón and other members of the LGBT contingent set up a GoFundMe page to organize a traveling kitchen. The group offered up to three meals a day when possible, and cooked their way from the Guatemalan border city of Tecun Uman, all through Mexico City.

Besides filling empty stomachs, the kitchen had an unintended effect. “We achieved a respect we had not had yet,” said Mondragón. “People would say: ‘It’s the faggots that are making the food, meanwhile we are the ones who discriminate them.’ I think under different circumstances there would not have been this kind of empathy. The situation forced us to unite.”

But the struggle for LGBT migrants doesn’t end upon reaching Mexico’s northern border. In much of Latin America, homophobia remains deeply ingrained because of machismo culture, making discrimination rampant at every level of public and private life.

In May of last year, Mondragón was traveling with a group that had planned to stay at a shelter for LGBT migrants in Tijuana called Cáritas. But just days before their arrival, Cáritas was rendered uninhabitable after being the target of burglary, then arson on consecutive days.

The contingent had to scramble to find a new place to stay. Mondragón said the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which travels with the caravans offering support and advocacy, directed his group to a remote church in the city.

“They told us we would be accepted,” Mondragón remembered. “They put us in some transport traveling very far away. We reached some lost church.” But as soon as they entered the church, they were told by a female pastor, “You know that we don’t accept people like you.”

They turned to leave but the bus that had dropped them off was already gone. “They left us there,” Mondragón said. “We had to walk back the whole way.” The group eventually reached downtown, where they pooled together their limited funds to rent a hotel room.

Instances like these speak to the need for safe spaces in Tijuana for LGBT migrants. A few of these spaces, such as Casa de Luz, have opened in recent years, but these shelters face unique challenges.

Casa de Luz

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Before Casa de Luz shelter opened its doors last March, the property where it stands had been unoccupied for more than a year. The owner, Teresa Garcia Lopez, who has several properties in Mexico, was following news of the caravans arriving to Tijuana, and she felt obliged to help.

“It doesn’t matter what country we’re from, or what color we are, we are all children of God,” said Garcia. “I’d rather they be here, than for my house to be abandoned.”

Garcia talked to her friend David Klages, a designer and builder, about her idea to turn one of her properties in Tijuana into a migrant shelter. Klages, a Californian, has been coming to Tijuana to do volunteer work for the last 30 years. He alternates between doing expensive renovations for U.S. clients and volunteering his time in Mexico with orphanages and shelters.

“I was raised as a quaker,” said Klages. “I don’t believe in the religion any longer, but the teachings of Christ stuck. You’re supposed to help people, everybody is supposed to be your neighbor.”

Klages was excited to transform Garcia’s property into a shelter, but they needed capital. That’s when Klages thought about his friend Vivian Farmery, a New Yorker he met when she was visiting Tijuana last fall to volunteer at the shelters.

Farmery has spent 30 years as a trauma social worker with a talent for fundraising. After witnessing Tijuana’s overburdened shelter system last year, she returned to New York and formed a nonprofit, Safe Shelters Inc., specifically to raise support and funding for the shelters.

The trio formed a perfect team: Farmery on fundraising and mental health services; Garcia managing everyday operations; and Klages on reconstruction and repairs.

With all the pieces falling into place, the three were eager to meet at the site and get things ready for their first group of residents. They only had about a week to prepare before Mondragón and the LGBT contingent arrived in Tijuana with the next caravan.

But they were shocked to find that squatters had taken advantage of Garcia’s prolonged absence from the property. The place had been turned into a drug den and the main house was full of trash. Doors, windors, sinks and other fixtures had been stolen.

On the day of March 11, the shelter was a whirlwind of energy. Klages and his construction workers were surveying the property and drawing up projects. Garcia was organizing the home and getting the new residents settled in.

The LGBT contingent led by Mondragón had arrived less than 48 hours prior and the shelter still needed a lot of work.

“We cleaned the house … boarded up windows and put on doors and secured the house in eight days, and the people arrived two nights ago,” said Farmery. “Last night we got a stove and hot water, so we’re making a lot of progress.”

They still needed beds, blankets and towels. They had no washing machine. Rain leaked through a rotting roof on the third floor. People had to sleep on cold tile floors, protected only by whatever cardboard or blankets that could be found.

Still, the group of 18 new arrivals seemed elated to be there. After weeks of a dangerous journey and sleeping in the street, they had a safe place to call home.

The new residents kept themselves busy organizing donations, chopping vegetables and doing small repairs. One person hand-washed clothes on a concrete slab using cold water from a hose. Another mopped the floors underneath the leaky roof. Everyone worked with a smile on their face.

Most shelters in Tijuana are set up as crisis shelters and meant to be short term, and are filled with people waiting for their U.S. asylum process. But Klages, Garcia and Farmery have a vision for Casa de Luz as a long-term community.

“This crisis shelter mentality doesn’t allow people to settle and to heal the trauma,” said Farmery. “The trauma of the voyage they’ve been through, as well as in their home countries has created a need for a stable healing community where they can…heal and recover and really find their true self, maybe some people for the first time.”

Almost three months since its opening, Casa de Luz still needs some work, but a lot has improved. The leaky roof is still in need of repair but a tarp now keeps the rain out. Doors and windows have been installed and a tomato plant thrives in the garden. And many from the contingent that arrived in March have been granted permission to continue their asylum process from within the United States.

Mondragón has emerged as a leader in the home, helping residents with their asylum applications, taking people to health appointments, procuring donations and generally ironing out the best way to organize and share the housework.

Recently though, disagreements have emerged about the best way to run the home.

While Casa de Luz is a safe space for LGBT migrants, the idea was never to separate that community from other populations.

When traveling in the caravans, LGBT contingents often welcome single mothers with small children. When the first group arrived at Casa in March, they were joined by a single mother and her two-year-old son with special needs. Soon, several mothers and their children were staying at Casa de Luz.

“It turns out that the LGBT community have excellent maternal instincts,” said Klages. “They help the families and the single moms a lot and it helps everybody’s mental health because it’s a nurturing environment.”

But as Farmery has sought to legitimize Casa’s non-profit status in Tijuana, she discovered the city’s shelter system is rigid about keeping different demographics separate. “One of the rules for shelters in Tijuana is that you can only serve one population,” Farmery said.

Officially recognized shelters are listed by the Tijuana Strategic Committee for Humanitarian Aid (CEAHT). Being recognized by the organization would give Farmery “the ability to raise attention and funds in bigger networks and potential to scale-up dramatically to help many more people than the little shelters can.”

But for Casa to be recognized by CEAHT, it would have to follow the city’s shelter rules and separate the single mothers and their children from the LGBT community they’ve come to know as a family.

“As there are numerous family shelters and few LGBT ones, we are dedicated to the LGBT community,” said Farmery. “It would not be our preference [to separate populations] but it is a necessity in order to go forward.”

But Mondragón doesn’t think separating the group in order to gain access to more funds is a good trade-off. “We are community, we are inclusive, and that’s how life should be,” he said. “Maybe there are really good reasons and good causes but I’m lacking the understanding.”

He knows that compliance with the city’s shelter rules would mean greater access to resources, but he feels the rules imposed by CEAHT come from a heteronormative, homophobic,  perspective that insists children and LGBT residents should not mix.

Being recognized by CEAHT would also mean adhering to a traditional shelter structure where rules come from the top and residents must abide. But Mondragón prefers a co-op system of running the home, where decisions and rules are agreed upon democratically.

In the almost three months since the contingent arrived to Casa, the residents have built a routine that integrates the needs of both the LGBT community and the single mothers and children they’ve become family to. They even set up a classroom for the children who have to miss school during their journey north.

“I don’t get paid, my friends don’t get paid,” said Mondragón. “We’re cleaning, developing the house because we have arms, legs, motivation, because we want a home … because we thought that they were really going to allow us to have these people there.”

On June 5, Farmery told El Tecolote that she could not reach an agreement with the residents at Casa de Luz. She didn’t achieve the shelter listing under the CEATH rules due to what she described as an inability in “complying with regulations in the present circumstances,” said Farmery. “We have ended our involvement there.”

For now, her nonprofit Safe Shelters Inc., will “continue to be committed to supporting LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana.”

Mondragon said he was grateful for the initial support Casa de Luz received from Farmery, but he looks forward to keeping the community together, even if they now have to go forward without the support of Safe Shelters, Inc.

Across town another space serving a similarly marginalized community of LGBTs and migrants is Jardin de las Mariposas.

Jardin de las Mariposas

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Before she opened Jardin de las Mariposas—Tijuana’s first drug and alcohol rehab center for the LGBT community—Director Yolanda Rocha remembers a conversation that made it shockingly clear how much a place like hers was needed.

A friend of Rocha’s who ran a rehab space once called her asking for help: “Hurry up and open your [LGBT] center, because something just arrived here and I don’t know where to put ‘it,’ with the men or with the women,” said Rocha’s friend.

“This hurt me very much, because she was a transgender woman,” said Rocha. “That’s when I realized that many of these rehab centers do not understand. They’re not prepared for sexual diversity.”

A lot of recovery programs in Tijuana are faith based. They receive people from the LGBT community, but they treat them as if they have dual diseases: addiction and homosexuality. Bullying and harassment are common.

The experience can be especially traumatic for trans women in recovery. They are told they are men, and that they to dress and act like men if they want to be part of a program.

Before she came to work at Jardin’s kitchen, Angie had a hard time finding a job where she wasn’t told to suppress her gender identity. This led her to sex work in Tijuana’s gritty red light district, which led her to drug abuse.

She tried recovery programs that denied her gender identity. “They wanted me to cut my hair, they wanted me to talk about God,” remembered Angie. Five years ago, a friend told her about Jardin. “I came here and doors were opened to me, they told me I could wear makeup, I could be who I wanted to be, express myself.”

And while the center was focused on meeting the needs of people in recovery, they soon expanded to include other services that can be hard to procure for poor LGBT folks, like HIV testing and access to hormone treatment for those undergoing gender transition.

When the caravans started arriving to Tijuana, it was difficult for LGBT migrants to feel welcome at many of the available shelters. About a year and a half ago, some of them started messaging Jardin’s Facebook page asking for help.

Soon after, Rocha started coordinating with leaders of the caravan’s LGBT contingents and made connections with organizations like Al Otro Lado to offer legal assistance to those applying for asylum in the United States. Rocha estimates 400 migrants have gone through Jardin since she started receiving members of the caravans.

And while the two main populations served by Jardin (migrants and people in recovery) have very different needs, Rocha focuses on their commonalities under the LGBT spectrum to build a bridge between the two groups.

Both a are “coming from rejection, from humiliation, discriminated against,” said Rocha. Migrants staying at Jardin must also stay clean, even if they didn’t come to Jardin with an addiction.

Avoiding drugs means avoiding trouble with the law. For those planning on seeking asylum in the United States, this can set them on a positive path towards their goal. “The United States is a country of laws, if they’re drunk, drugged, they’re gonna get sent back,” said Rocha.

As one of the first organizations of its kind to serve the LGBT community, the center has gradually expanded their range of services to respond to the needs of a population that is chronically underserved. As a result, the population served by Jardin has grown faster than its resources.

Most residents are unable to contribute financially to the center-turned-shelter. Many migrants don’t have a Mexican work permit. People in the early stages of recovery can’t leave the center, and it can take them three to four months to detox and get to a place where they can reintegrate into society.

Rocha is constantly networking for support, but it takes its toll. “I can’t do this by myself, sometimes I’ve wanted to throw [in] the towel, said Rocha. “But then I think, ‘Where would I leave them, in the street?”

The center has an ideal capacity for 25 people, but when a caravan arrives, the number of residents can swell up to 70. A few weeks ago, Jardin received a generous donation that will solve at least one problem: the lack of space.

In mid April, Equality California led a delegation of more than 30 LGBT representatives, including elected officials, artists and activists, through a visit of several shelters in Tijuana.

In the delegation was Scott Wiener, California State Senator and former San Francisco District 8 Supervisor. Others included California Insurance Commissioner (and the state’s first openly gay person of color elected to the California State Senate) Ricardo Lara; NBA star (and first active NBA player to come out as gay) Jason Collins; and interior design power couple Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent.

Berkus and Brent were so moved by the extreme need and resiliency of the people at Jardin, they made a pledge to pay two years worth of rent for a new, larger home for Jardin.

But financial resources alone can’t guarantee equal treatment in a country where homophobia and prejudice against Central Americans is still rampant. “Searching for a home is very draining. And then to get rejected… us LGBT’s can’t now imagine adding migrant diversity. This is why we have to lie,” Rocha said, explaining her decision not to tell the landlord that Jardin serves Central American migrants and the LGBT community.

She said only that it was a rehab home and left it at that. Then, on the week they were set to move, the landlord contacted Rocha to take back the offer. Rocha believes it was due to prejudice against either Central American migrants, or the LGBT community, or both.

But Rocha persisted and just a few days later found another landlord who is accepting of Jardin and all of its residents. She was getting desperate and had to choose a place that’s over budget. The donation from Berkus and Brent covered two years worth of rent at $1000 per month, but the place Rocha found is $1600, which means the donation will only cover 15 months of rent instead of 24.

There will also be new expenses associated with the move, like additional furniture and appliances. Rocha hopes to eventually move towards a more self-sustaining model.

After a meeting with Jardin residents, there was a vote to establish their own beauty salon. “This way we don’t have to rely on government, or donations so much, because sometimes we run out of everything and we wait and wait,” Rocha said.

Another long-term goal of Rocha’s is to purchase a property for Jardin so they don’t have to worry about rent anymore. She dreams of “a place that is fenced, where we won’t be bothered. And we won’t bother anyone, we’re peaceful people who just want to be well, live well and be at peace.”

Story by: Mabel Jiménez