Latin American trans women seeking safe haven in The Netherlands

Latin American trans women seeking safe haven in The Netherlands

This is not a love story, even though there is love in it. But it isn’t a tragedy either, even when it has plenty of tragic moments. The story I will share with you, albeit sad, is about love for life and a very human resilience to survive despite the odds. My name is Alejandra. I am a 34 year old Mexican woman with a transgender (trans) history and a refugee seeking safe haven here in The Netherlands.

transgender refugee —

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to watch the multi-awarded film Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman, Chile, 2017). This is a movie that portrays the life of a transsexual woman in contemporary Chile, starring the trans actress, Daniela Vega. Vega went on to become the first ever openly trans presenter at the Oscars this year. Coming from Mexico, I was rather intrigued about watching a film that portrays the life of a trans woman in Latin America: Her dreams, her struggles and ultimately despite the odds, her success. Marina (Daniela Vega) lives through many hardships, such as: working towards a better future as an opera singer, being confronted and harassed constantly by the police. As well as having to undress against her will, for reasons I suspect a cisgender person wouldn’t have to.

Futhermore, she was harassed and disrespected by public servants. For example, once, a doctor suggested she was joking when she presented herself with a female name. She experienced the constant aggressions by the hands of her boyfriend’s relatives. She was kicked out of the apartment she shared with him after his sudden death; wasn’t welcomed at his funeral to mourn him, constantly called faggot and even being violently kidnapped. These events mirror the very real struggles that Latino trans face. Success, if we can call it that, is simply staying alive in a region where we are not understood and most definitely not welcome. The region with the highest trans murder rates in the world: Latin America.

‘Trans actress Daniela Vega and her alter-ego Marina (Una mujer Fantástica) are the exception in regards to the situation of most trans women in Latin-America.’

While those aggressions she endured touched me deeply and reminded me of why I left Mexico, part of me felt Marina’s life was a little too rose coloured. In comparison with what others and I had to deal with. After all, she was sort of accepted and tolerated by some among her social circle. She was able to study, to have a formal job and even had the support of her own family. Regarding this last point, I want to take the time to mention how Marina is a fair skinned woman, from a middle class background. Obviously educated; at least in the context of her interaction with close relatives who aren’t religious. I mention this because both Vega and her alter-ego Marina are the exception in regards to the situation of most trans women in this region. This is not a movie review, so I leave Marina to rest for now, and tell you more about what I know regarding Latin-American trans women.

Transgender refugee, Latin-American woman with trans history, seeking safe haven
Alejandra Ortiz, a Mexican woman with a transgender history,
seeking safe haven in The Netherlands. Writer of this story.
(Photography Jasmine de Vries)

In my case–and that of many others–my background is that of a dysfunctional family where violence and lack of affection were the norm. I possess no formal education, I grew up poor and started selling my body at age 13 in exchange for money or food. I left my parents one room house at 17, in part to mitigate the hunger. Running away from a toxic macho oriented family that kept on abusing me for being a (their words) faggot. My story, the story of a dark skin, mostly indigenous looking trans woman, is so common it’s become a cliché among us trans Latinas. Most of us are denied proper education. Even if some manage to earn a high school degree, getting a “normal job” is out of the question. Therefore, sex work (with all its dangers) or hairdressing become the only options available. Because of that, access of health services, housing, loans and changing our legal name and/or gender (things that are relatively easy to obtain for the cis-majority) become major challenges.

‘Violence is just around the corner and if your partner doesn’t kill you, your own family, the police, an angry customer, drug addiction and/or the HIV most likely will.’

The average lifespan for a trans person in Latin America is 35 years old. It doesn’t matter if you live in Tijuana, Tegucigalpa, Cartagena, Havana, Buenos Aires or Curitiba, the daily fight for survival is real. Violence is just around the corner and if your partner doesn’t kill you, your own family, the police, an angry customer, drug addiction and/or the HIV most likely will.

During the past Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) in Amsterdam; Yara (a 30 year old Colombian trans refugee) confided in me about several girls she knew that were missing from the Trans Murder Monitor list that names victims one by one. This isn’t uncommon. It happens because their deaths tend not to be reported or because they are classified as men (deadnaming the dead). She also told me how sad she feels knowing only she and another friend made it made it out of 30 of the original group of transgenders in her generation. You see, despite Colombia having enacted bills to protect the most vulnerable, trans murders, discrimination and violence are an everyday reality. That reminds me, soon I will be 35 myself. That means that if I hadn’t left my country almost three years ago, there is a real chance I’d be part of those statistics by now. I managed to survive (which is not the same as living) by going on stealth mode. By extreme means, I was able to change my identity, even though no provisions existed back then. Thanks to that I was able to have  a “normal job,’’ hiding in plain sight; performing a job in which most Mexicans can never fathom a woman like me working at: an office. YES, what saved me those years was that I was hiding in plain sight. I learned to become invisible by erasing my past as well as my trans identity. I passed as a cisgender woman by pretending being sick every 28 days, avoiding seeing a doctor and generally not participating in any event or situation that may give a clue about my real identity. By putting on an act every single day, I lived in constant danger. Many times my male colleagues made comments about hurting/killing trannies for tricking them into being perceived as women, when they are nothing but ‘chicks with dicks’. Many times my gay and female colleagues asked questions about my 168cm height (the average height for a woman is 158cm) my square jaw, and my shoe size, among other questions. So while I was able to hide, the price I had to pay and the toll it took on my mental health was too high. So years later I’m not sure if I have yet recovered from it. Because of that “normal job,’’ I was able to save money and leave Mexico. Lucky me. Most cannot and even if they could leave, that doesn’t necessarily means they are welcome anywhere else. Not even in the most LGBT friendly, tolerant and freedom loving country in the world: the Netherlands.

Mexico has always been dangerous for trans people, but after Mexico City enacted the equal marriage bill that allowed same sex marriages, things started to get even worse. In a macho oriented society, those who look or act feminine, will always be the first target of hate. Where I come from, most people can’t distinguish between gender preference and sexual orientation. Thus, queers and trans people alike have become the target of those thinking gay union is an affront to Christian family values and that all “gays” must be devious beings that ought to be punished. Gays, bisexuals and lesbians, to a certain degree, can hide behind their cis-gender or hetero-normative public behaviour, most LGB members can, to a varying degree, present a façade that is or can be considered ‘’normal.” For example, a man who looks and acts in a manly, hetero-normative way, is what society deems acceptable according to the binary way of thinking. We trans people don’t have that privilege for the most part. In Mexico (just as the rest of Latin America) we are the easiest hate target to spot. I lived near the ‘upscale shopping area’ during the day and ‘unofficial trans red light district’ by night in Guadalajara. I heard the horrors; death was one step behind me. With no family or prospects of living without severe danger, I made up my mind: I saved the money I could and left. Mexicans don’t need a visa to come to Europe, but for other countries it’s different. Then add how expensive it is to get a plane ticket, those who are barely surviving day by day can’t leave.

‘When I told the authorities that my height, my physique and my overall appearance were a giveaway of my trans identity in Mexico, they didn’t understand me.’

I came to the Netherlands in the autumn of 2015, during the height of the refugee crisis. I arrived at Schiphol airport. Immediately after requesting asylum, I was taken to a prison (common procedure for those seeking asylum at the airport). From the beginning, the authorities in charge of my case made clear to me their disbelief on how a trans woman could be running for her life from Mexico. After all, isn’t Mexico a tropical friendly paradise full of fiestas? Why, if I feared for my life, didn’t I go to America instead? Couldn’t I just move to another city? Mexico City legalised gay marriage, which means it’s a progressive country? I was even told I passed enough not to fear. As if their Dutch judgement on my appearance was a guarantee that I’d be safe in Mexico. Let me elaborate on this. Both the man who did my interview as well as the woman who was my interpreter can easily be 180cm in height, both were broader than me, their feet and hands obviously bigger than mine (they took the time to compare them). So when I said that my height, my physique and my overall appearance were a giveaway of my trans identity in Mexico, they didn’t understand me. Trying to explain the reasons that brought me here seemed futile. After 18 days in jail, I was put out on the streets. They argued that they couldn’t keep me at the detention centre in Schiphol, but also couldn’t provide me a place to stay in any of their open camps either. I didn’t know the country, I had no family and friends here. By staying at hostels I managed to survive. Weeks later, a judge ordered my case be looked at again and that I had the right to get accommodation and I ended up at an AZC in Echt, Limburg. There I had a 4 by 4 metre room that I shared with another person. The room has become my safe haven in the past 2.5 years. Things haven’t been positive at all: I have had many rejections from the IND on my process to register myself. Every time I get reminded by the authorities that I’m not welcome here and that I should go back to Mexico. Even getting hormones is an issue; it took six months to get them, thanks to a campaign organised by human right activists and TNN members Willemijn da Campo and Sophie Schers. That resulted on a compromise that allowed access to them by trans refugees. For those without documents, things began to change a few months ago, thanks to an initiative by activist Dinah de Riquet-Bons and PROUD, the sex-workers union. Blood tests are still problem; I haven’t had one. Don’t ask me why, because for months I have asked the doctor at the AZC to send me to get them, but I received so many rejections and excuses that I gave up. Psychological and mental help has been long in coming. Help finally arrived after 2 years full of uncertainty and depression. I’m now being treated by I-Psy in Amsterdam. These past 2.5 years have been challenging to say the least.

I grew up believing I deserved nothing (common thought among transgender people, especially those coming from dysfunctional families), so it wasn’t a surprise as to how bad I was being treated. At one point, I did think that perhaps those in charge of my life were right: that I did deserve nothing. That as a trans woman, I had all that I needed and I was living overtime. That I was asking too much by seeking an opportunity to live, without having to watch my back every minute.

‘At first, I thought that I maybe didn’t suffer enough in order to be eligible to get refugee status.’

At first, I thought that I maybe didn’t suffer enough in order to be eligible to get refugee status. As time passed I started meeting other Latin American trans people, at refugee camps and LGBT related events. As we got to know each other better, I learned that no matter how horrific each one of their stories were, the Netherlands (which presents itself on a regular basis as “the most friendly LGBT country in the world”) shut it’s door to them as well. It happened to Yara, who, despite coming from such a dangerous country and after having outlived all her trans friends, received a rejection. Francesca (22) from Venezuela was expelled at school age 16 for refusing to cut her hair. She was then kicked out by her mother and did sex work to survive. Just like Yara, Francesca also got a rejection from the Dutch authorities. She’s waiting to make an appeal before a judge. Something similar happened to 23 year old Liza (who bears a 30+ centimetre long scar on her back made by a man who tried to kill her) and Tanya, a 22 year old, who was abused by the police, boyfriends and customers many times. Then there’s 30 year old Bella: at one point she was taken forcefully from her home to a police station, where an officer shaved her head to look like the man he said she was). Liza, Tanya and Bella are all from Cuba. All three carry the stigma of sex work, HIV and a transgender status that has blocked them from obtaining education, healthcare and safety as the Netherlands deems Cuba to be a progressive, socialist, paradise. They not only received negatives, one of them was even forcefully expelled from the AZC. One of my closest friends, Adriana (35) from Honduras, got her head cracked open by a policeman in her country and received continuous threats from gangs as well. When she asked for asylum, the people in charge of her case suggested she go stealth as a man and that perhaps she could find and LGBT friendly gang she could join in order to be safe (feel free to laugh at the last argument, we all did too).

‘ We Latin American trans people are stuck in a never-ending cycle during seeking asylum, or out in the streets surviving as best as we can.’

With these women, I have learned to give new value to our fight, making the best of out of the worst of the circumstances. Despite the negatives, despite whole countries against us: we have not given up, we still wake up in the morning and greet life with a smile. We dance, we sing, we do each other’s hair and nails. We love, we talk about men, about our families and our dreams of a better tomorrow. Our countries have turned against us but we remain loyal to ourselves. We endure the extremist odds and situations. “Somos unas mujeres fantasticas”. Fantastic women are we, yes. Compared to other groups (like Africans or those from the Middle East) we are such a small group, a minority within a minority. Maybe that’s why the Netherlands hasn’t really paid attention to our pleas for help. Maybe that’s the reason we are either stuck in a never-ending cycle during seeking asylum, or out in the streets surviving as best as we can.

Last year, I asked for help from four prominent figures within the Dutch LGBT circles; a gay activist, a trans activist, a COC board member and a lawyer. The answers I received from them varied from ignoring my plea, saying I’m so sorry it’s happening to you, to juxtaposing gay issues in a trans context. I’ll explain: I was told that Latin America has a progressive agenda regarding gay rights, therefore transgender people should be okay. It was no use telling them that in Mexico after the gay marriage bill was approved, the killing of trans people raised as a consequence of being more visible. She also told me nothing could be done. While the lawyer’s response was that unlike Middle East LGBTs, we trans Latin Americans can at least still survive. The last two made clear to me our issues were of no interest to them. I felt so small and so hopeless for my sisters and for myself.

I want to close with the following; The Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice has to rethink and review their very mild evaluation of Latin American Countries. They have to guide the IND to weigh the situation more severely: in practice, Latin American trans people are outlawed. Latina trans cannot claim any justice to all the violence and discrimination when the police just arrest and mistreat them. The police are part of the problem. And even if laws are partly in place, society can still do endless harm to us.

To COC, TNN, Trans United and other organisations and individuals who are passionate about making this a better world, please put our struggle on your agenda; please help us raise awareness to those in charge of making laws, please.

My name is Alejandra Ortiz, I am a Mexican woman with a transgender history, I am a refugee seeking safe haven in The Netherlands.  Now I ask this country that has proved to help other vulnerable groups in the past: please look at me, look at us. We have potential; we just need to be given the chance we never had. We have fought for survival so long and we are tired of surviving. We now dare to live, let us live…life.

Alejandra Ortiz

All names and ages of trans refugees mentioned have been changed to protect their identity. All except my own.

Every two years the Roze Lieverdje is awarded to an Amsterdammer or initiative, who makes extraordinary efforts, on a voluntary basis, for the LGBTIQ + community. Alejandra Ortiz was nominated in 2020.

Watch the official trailer of Una Mujer Fantastica (A fantastic woman) here.