Victoria Orellana, a Honduran transgender woman, was walking the streets of Tegucigalpa in mid July last year when a dark pickup truck stopped next to her. Two men and two women got off the car and started insulting her, punching her and scratching her face. She tried to defend herself, but her aggressors threw her on the ground, stabbed her in the arm and put a gun against her head.
Victoria had already embraced death, asking God to accept her in his kingdom, when she saw the tires of a small white car. The driver came out and started recording what was happening. So her assailants got scared and fled the scene, leaving her stranded on the sidewalk.
Less than two weeks later, Victoria packed her bags and made her way to New York City. She had put on a brave face through constant death threats and the murder of her best friend. But after being so close to death, she knew next time she was not going to walk away.
Like Victoria, many Latino transgender women come to the U.S. escaping the discrimination and violence faced in their home countries. However, many of them end up living in predominantly Latino neighborhoods where they are exposed to the same prejudices they were trying to leave behind. LGBT rights expert Carlos Quesada explained that immigrant communities from Latin America often retain homophobic attitudes and the allegiance to the Catholic Church, which preaches against homosexuality.
“These girls are attracted to areas of Queens, like Jackson Heights and Woodside, because there they can speak Spanish and find people, food and music from their home countries,” said Cristina Herrera, president of Translatina Network. “But this comes at a price because we do find that they are vulnerable to violent crimes.”
More than twenty transgender Latinas, including Victoria, have been victims of verbal and physical attacks in Jackson Heights and Woodside since the beginning of last year. Latino men under 35 were responsible for the majority of these crimes, according to Make the Road New York, an organization that advocates for Latino immigrants.
Six months ago, Victoria was walking home at night when a Latino man approached her, demanding sexual favors. When she refused and kept walking, the man came at her with a bike chain and hit her in the back and neck.
After a long quarrel with the man, he finally left. But not without threatening her.
“I know who you are, I am going to look for you in the trains, in the streets and all over Jackson Heights, and I am going to kill you,” he said to her.
Family Rejection and Violence
In addition to the violent attacks, transgender Latinas also experience high rates of family rejection and violence. Almost half of them are forced to leave their homes because of their gender identity and 35 percent of them have been abused by family members or significant others at least once in their lives, a 2012 report shows.
After being kicked out of her mother’s apartment in Greenpoint, Mexican transgender woman Joselyn Mendoza moved to Woodside, where she endured the abuses of an Ecuadorian boyfriend.
“Once, he tried to chop my fingers off to prevent me from leaving the apartment. Some other night he was missing some money and he thought I had it, so he cut my eyebrow with a piece of glass,” she said. “But the worst one I remember was one night that he got home very drunk. I told him he shouldn’t drink so much, so he stabbed my leg. He said I shouldn’t mess with his business,” Joselyn added.
Forms of isolation and mistreatment like the ones suffered by Victoria and Joselyn often pull these women into deep depressions that end in suicide attempts for almost 50 percent of them, according to the 2012 report.
As Quesada explained, the depression and suicidal tendencies often reinforce the stereotypes against them. Their lives are chaotic, they fall into substance abuse and, in some cases, they develop aggressive behaviors.
“In this way, they end up being segregated even by those who are segregated,” Quesada, said, referring to other members of the LGBT community. “These women are confined to a ghetto inside a ghetto.”
Homosexual, bisexual and lesbian Latinos tend to discriminate against these women because “they are the ugly face of the LGBT movement,” Quesada, said. They are often forced to the streets at a very young age, which makes them poorly educated and pushes them into illegal occupations, he added.
Like Joselyn, transgender activist Bianey Garcia also makes part of the 32 percent of transgender Latinas who have been compelled to sell drugs or do sex work at some point in their lives.
Bianey was kicked out of her house in Veracruz, Mexico, when she was only 14. After working odd jobs for a few months and being repeatedly raped by a middle-aged man, she crossed the border to the U.S. But when she got here, she was abducted by a child pornographer from Colombia. The then 15-year-old managed to escape once again. This time, she ended up in Jackson Heights, where the circumstances quickly dragged her into the sex trade.
Bianey said she is not ashamed of her six years as a sex worker because that is often the only way transgender Latinas can survive.
“If the community around us doesn’t open a door for us and says: here is a job, you can change your life, we will continue to do the same thing.”