Two years ago, smugglers buried a woman named Joselyn in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that attracts immigrants waiting to cross into the United States. Several men encased her body in dirt, covered her face with leaves and told her to wait until Border Patrol agents had disappeared to dig herself out.
For Joselyn, who is transgender, the process of being buried alive was nothing new. Growing up in Guatemala, she had suffocated beneath a barrage of insults and physical attacks from her family, her neighbors and her peers, she said. And with Mexican gangs moving south, violence against gays and transgender people was becoming more frequent. So at 19, Joselyn set off on an 18-day journey to the United States and eventually made it to New York City.
She spent 10 months alone. “I isolated myself from everyone,” Joselyn, who asked that her last name not be used because she is here illegally, said in Spanish. “I said, ‘What’s the point? If my mama didn’t even love me, why should I seek help?’”
But this summer, she met another transgender Latina who encouraged her to join a support group started by the AIDS Center of Queens County. “I felt like a bird when someone opens its cage and it can fly,” she said.
Since 2008, a growing number of transgender Latinas have gathered in Queens every Friday night, discussing challenges unfamiliar to many New Yorkers: Where do I buy female hormones without a prescription? How do I avoid the police when reporting a drug overdose? Who can help me find a lawyer familiar with asylum petitions?