Floriberta Roberto, 37, has a shy smile, but when 28-year-old Kataleya Nativi makes her laugh, Roberto opens her mouth to reveal the letters F and R in gold, punctuated by a zirconia stud on her two front teeth. Roberto, who is from an Indigenous community in rural Guatemala, had never had an interaction with a trans woman before meeting Nativi, who is from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and is wearing a skort with her name painted on it in rainbow colors on this day in August. The two met in Tapachula, Mexico, at T’ja Xuj, which means “House of Women” in the language of the Indigenous Mam of Guatemala.
Tapachula, a city of more than 300,000, is about 20 miles north of the Guatemala border. About 900,000 migrants are projected to pass through Mexico in 2019, and many of them arrive in Tapachula. To travel through Mexico legally, they must apply for immigration paperwork. However, given how understaffed the immigration bureaucracy is in Tapachula, many migrants experience monthslong wait times to be able to request visas, temporary visitor permits, refugee status or departure documents. Some migrants even said they had been told not to return to the Mexican National Immigration Institute until 2020 to request their documents. Because migrants often have little money or access to financial stability, many were forced to live in the streets, and in August 2019, hundreds of Africans, Haitians, and Indians were either sleeping in local parks or living in tents. Longtime residents of Tapachula often blamed migrants for local crime, leading to an increasingly tense situation in the city in which migrants, many of whom spoke no Spanish, looked for organizations or individuals who could provide them with financial and emotional support. For some migrant women, that support can be found at T’ja Xuj.
On the third floor of a historic building on the main plaza of Tapachula, migrant women from all over Central America gather each Sunday and have made a home. From the terrace, the women can look down at the town square, a place where many of them have been forced to engage in sex work by economic constraints and the need to support children. What began in 2012 as a space funded by Doctors of the World to educate migrant women about their sexual health was turned over to Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova in 2014. As Fray Matías, the facility expanded its services to provide migrant women with a safe gathering place each Sunday where they could learn about human rights, teach each other skills, cook, and create a community where their hopes, dreams, and bodies would be safe.
“How can you translate being worn down by an infinite wait?”
“All the women who I have talked to have suffered gender violence at some time, and all have suffered sexual violence at least once in their lives. Every single one of them,” explained Ana Elena Barrios, 37, a new mother who has spent the past three-and-a-half years working as a psychologist at Fray Matías. She provides emotional and psychological support to hundreds of migrant women each year, many of whom get stuck in Tapachula for months or years while they process the paperwork and save up the money needed to continue their journey to elsewhere in Mexico, the U.S., or Canada. “How can you translate being worn down by an infinite wait?” asked Barrios, who knew how unpredictably immigration officials processed asylum requests and humanitarian visas, and also how little training those same agents had that would allow them to understand the gender-based violence that many women were fleeing.
Barrios lamented the apparent priorities of the Mexican government, which chose to send about 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexico-Guatemala border, while failing to provide funds to standardize the asylum process for women fleeing violence. Migrant women who came to Fray Matías for help told Barrios that speaking to her was the first time in their lives that anyone had listened to them, or had cared to find out the reasons they fled their home countries.
“Beautiful Inside and Out”
Glenda Diana Cruz, 37, from San Salvador, El Salvador, fled the country with her partner after the two were threatened and then kicked out of their own home by a gang for being lesbian. Cruz and her partner had been coming to T’ja Xuj every Sunday for four months, and Cruz said she had learned to open up a little more emotionally and share her story with others. “With everything that happened to us, I could not speak. I was just crying,” she explained one Sunday in August, as she sat on the patterned, burnt-orange and red tiled floor of T’ja Xuj.
That Sunday, roughly two dozen women from Central and South America gathered around noon, some with their children in tow, and greeted each other with kisses on the cheek. A few walked toward a room with a telephone to put their names on a list—they were each allowed to make a free 10-minute call to loved ones. Once inside the house, the children ran to the back room where the toys were stored. Some women sat on couches or on the floor, closing their eyes to rest in what might be their only unguarded moments all week.
Many of the women gathered at T’ja Xuj survive by doing either live-in domestic or sex work. On the first Sunday of each month, the migrant women vote on the schedule of activities for the coming month, organizing themselves into committees to cook food, clean the house, and raise money to support small business enterprises launched by other women in the house. For many, T’ja Xuj was the only place where their voice and opinions were valued in decision-making.
The workshops at T’ja Xuj aim to remind the women that they each have talent and knowledge to share—that their stories and their lives, beyond the pure value of their bodies as objects, are valued.
On August 25, the women sat cross-legged on the floor of a room with a large window facing the plaza. Some of them thanked Nativi for a workshop she and other trans women held the previous Sunday on makeup and self-care. Nativi looked up from the glittery nail polish she was using to paint her toes. “If we knew that we are beautiful inside and out, there is no way that we would have low self-esteem,” she said. “You must have very high self-esteem, so that no man can tell you anything—because we live in a very macho society, where when they see you dressed up and pretty, they think it is for them, but it’s not.”
Restoring Ties Broken by Violence
The women moved into deep breathing exercises and meditation before breaking for lunch. Cruz, who cooked that week, served chicken and mole, as the women and their children gathered at a common table set up in the patio of the building.
While eating, Blanca Lidia Enríquez Cruz, 43, shared her story of why she fled San Vicente, El Salvador. After completing courses in women’s studies with a focus on politics, she had gotten a job with the Salvadoran government promoting youth literacy in a dozen nearby communities. She loved the work, but discovered almost immediately that local gangs such as Barrio 18 and MS-13 believed that her work threatened their recruitment. She soon began to receive Whatsapp messages from gang members who said they knew where she and her son lived; later the gang members sent photos of armed men who they claimed could find her. After months of threats, she fled the country with her son on April 11, 2017. Later that year, she arrived in Tapachula, where she began the process of requesting asylum. Confronted with a lack of work and the reality that processing asylum in Mexico can take months, Enríquez Cruz felt she had no choice but to do sex work to support herself and her son. She described that time as “the worst experience, the ugliest” of her life. She discovered T’ja Xuj on the recommendation of those at Fray Matías. She credited the women of T’ja Xuj for helping her gain the financial stability and self-confidence to quit doing sex work. “Since then, I haven’t stopped helping these women,” she said, looking at those seated around her.
After lunch, the women attended a workshop on sexual and reproductive health. The threat of sexual violence against migrant women is constant. The vulnerability of being undocumented and impoverished can lead others to see these women’s bodies as public property, and the women themselves often have little or no legal or social recourse to such abuse. “Their body is always a body to work, and to provide service, and to absorb violence,” Barrios explained in her office at Fray Matías. T’ja Xuj provides a space for migrant women and their children that is free of violence, a place where the women have agency to decide what to do with their time, while navigating a border city and immigration bureaucracy that can run them ragged.
T’ja Xuj provides a space for migrant women and their children that is free of violence…
The first order of business during the workshop was to learn about the female condom, which many women had never seen, given that it costs upwards of USD $2.50, when most male condoms cost USD $0.20. Each participant gets to keep the female condom, but first those unfamiliar with it wanted a demonstration of how it worked. Cruz offered to show the other women how to squeeze the ring at the closed end of the translucent pouch, and then mimicked the motion to insert it in the vagina. Everyone laughed at the pantomime, but then women began yelling out questions about its effectiveness, including how long before sexual contact the condom could be inserted, particularly in the case that they were afraid they would be raped. Even when the women were laughing, the threat of violence was a heavy undercurrent to every conversation.
“[These women] come from a context of brutal violence, and they find that here in Tapachula,” Barrios said. “I believe that [this house] is a very important seed, because it is a home that restores the ties broken by violence; violence that breaks the bonds of trust and makes it impossible to meet and build relationships with others.”
During a break, Cruz and her partner walked out to the terrace and embraced one another, a quiet moment with the skyline of Tapachula stretching out behind them.
For the final activity of the day, Enríquez Cruz and Nativi put together a skit where they pretended to be a couple who just arrived home after work. As the storyline evolved, the audience learns that Enríquez Cruz has been cheating on Nativi, but Nativi is aware of the cheating and feels empowered to protect herself by using the female condom. The women in the room seem familiar with some components of the situation being presented—primarily the infidelity—but are also excited to see the couple played by two women.
Seeking a Better Future
The next day, Nativi picked up her hormones at Una Mano Amiga, an NGO that serves the LGBTQ migrant community, including many women who participate in T’ja Xuj. Like many undocumented trans women, Nativi has been unable to find stable work, but she declined to share what she was doing to survive. Nativi sat on a light blue couch with Giovana and Lia, both trans women from Cuba, and Ramiro Hediberto, who was originally from Guatemala and who recently decided to transition, but was still using male pronouns. A scar was evident on Hediberto’s face—a result of being shot five times by a gang member who shot him for being gay. The gang had pursued him since he was 12, tried to run him over with a car twice, and eventually led him to flee the country at age 22. Giovana and Lia, who were from the same town in Cuba, fled discrimination and harassment on the part of the Cuban police. They wanted to be able to live life without fearing persecution and violence for their identity.
After the four picked up their hormones from Una Mano Amiga, Nativi invited them to visit T’ja Xuj on Sunday. But Nativi would not join them that next Sunday. By then, she had taken a bus north and arrived in Tijuana. She hoped to request asylum in the U.S., and had faith that her request would be granted, given the scars she bore, and the hospital and police reports she carried with her to document the violence and discrimination she faced in her home country and along the journey.
As they walked down the dark stairs of Una Mano Amiga into the unforgiving sun, Lia pulled out a patterned red and black umbrella, which she opened and tried to share the shade with everyone. The friends strolled through the street, bought Japanese peanuts, looked at used clothes and talked about the future: one in which they could study and work; a future without having to worry about the safety of their bodies; a future in which the world had become more like T’ja Xuj.
Alice Driver is a writer based in Mexico City whose work focuses on migration, human rights and gender equality.