Programming note: For more about the border, watch the season 3 premiere of “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Nikolle Contreras says she is about to make her third attempt to cross into the United States – her first since she came out as a woman. And one way or another, she says it will be her last.
She tried to cross the border for the first time in 2016, she said. She tried again the following year, attempting to swim across the river from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. She nearly drowned, she says, and spent two days in a coma. After a brief hospital stay, she was detained and deported back to her native country of Honduras.
After she returned, she decided to start living openly as a transgender woman. It didn’t take long for her to realize that, in order to continue doing so, she needed to leave Honduras – one of the most dangerous countries in the world for transgender people – even though it would mean leaving her beloved family.
“I’m making this trip out of necessity, you could say,” she said in an interview in Mexico City, the latest stopping point on her journey.
Contreras is one of roughly 25 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals who have joined a caravan of Central American migrants planning to cross through Mexico to the US border. On the journey, they have found safety in numbers and solidarity – no small thing for a community that faces high rates of violence and persecution in their home countries and along the migrant trail.
Like some caravan members, she hopes to apply for asylum or some form of refugee status when she reaches the border. But even if they make it across the border, American lawyers say their fate remains uncertain.
“When they are in US land we will be able to help them … but we also cannot predict what will happen,” said Flor Bermudez, legal director of the Transgender Law Center. The group is providing legal assistance to migrants and recruiting lawyers and volunteers to work on their behalf.
Contreras is not sure what lies ahead. But she knows it can’t be much worse than what she’s leaving behind.
“Discrimination because of my sexuality, lack of work, discrimination within my own family for being gay and worse, for being a trans person,” she said. “It’s very, very difficult.”
Keeping her true identity a secret
Contreras has always known she was assigned the wrong gender at birth. Growing up, she tried on women’s clothes in secret, but never told her mother or five siblings about her true identity until last year.
Her family supports her, she says – to a degree.
“My family is the love of my life,” she said. “But they would say, ‘we love you for who you are, but without the dressing (as a woman).’”
She would leave her family’s home dressed as a man. But she would change and put on makeup at friends’ homes to go out, she said. She avoided posing in photos with friends or posting images of herself online.
After she came out, she said she tried wearing makeup and women’s clothes to her job at a clothing factory. She used extensions in her hair and grew her nails long. But her supervisors harassed and humiliated her, she said.
She said they brought nail clippers to her work station and told her to trim her nails so she wouldn’t rip the fabric. They told her the makeup would stain the garments, she said, and that her hair would get caught in the machines. But they only said it to her, she remembered – not the other women with long hair.
“They look for excuses that make no sense,” she said.
Finding a community in an unlikely place
Contreras said she struggled with the idea of leaving her family. But she knew she had to do it for her own sake.
She left Honduras on January 29 and arrived on January 31 in Tapachula, Mexico, a key entry point to Mexico from Central America. Initially, she said intended to seek asylum in Mexico. Then, on March 25, she joined the annual caravan organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which offers safety in numbers for migrants fleeing their native countries in search of safer, more stable lives.
She soon realized she was not the only transgender or gender nonconforming person along for the journey. Several said they joined the caravan because it was safer than traveling alone.
Organizers have welcomed them into the fold, even if they have been on the fringes at times.
By the time the caravan reached Matias Romero in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the transgender and gender nonconforming people had organized their own bus, joined by friends and allies. With a sign bearing the pink, white and blue colors of the transgender flag declaring “transmigrating for freedom” taped to its side, bus #14 stands out from the 17-vehicle caravan.
After the group arrived in Puebla, an organizer called everyone outside to be counted. Bleated instructions through a crackling megaphone, he told them to line up under a blue and yellow striped tarp, in one line for men and another for women and children.
Uncertain where they belonged, Contreras and others from the bus stood to the side and made their own line. Then, as organizers tallied the number of men, women, babies and children, a woman hesitantly asked where to put Contreras’ group. After a momentary pause, the organizers decided to create a separate category for them.
The next day, a local volunteer brought a speaker and started a makeshift dance party. The group was finishing a lunch of tortillas, rice and chicken – for many, their first meal in two weeks of something other than fruit, bread and vegetables. A few bashfully joined as the volunteer coaxed people into dancing. Then, a Honduran punta dance song came on and people paired up as Contreras and her friends circled them. Suddenly, a man grabbed one of the trans women and a whoop shot up from the crowd. She smiled, swiveled her hips and joined for the rest of the dance.
An uncertain future
As groups have broken off throughout the journey, remaining members of the caravan arrived in Mexico City on Monday. Plans are still in flux as organizers attempt to figure out what’s next – especially what happens at the border.
The legal options available depend on each person’s individual circumstances, and even then, there are no guarantees about what will happen, said Bermudez of the Transgender Law Center. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for the members of the caravan.
“The most important piece is that transgender people should be aware that crossing the border will not automatically grant any status and that they are going to be mandatorily detained for an indefinite amount of time.”
The migrants are staying at a shelter in the Gustavo a Madero neighborhood, with armed guards standing at both entrances.
Contreras and others from the transmigrating bus huddled together on the second floor of one of the shelter buildings. Clothes, makeup, shoes, medication bottles and food crowd the space. On Tuesday morning, most of the women were downstairs, doing their hair and makeup, including Contreras.
A man from the caravan yells “Ay mami!” as one of the women walks by him, fixing her hair. She rolls her eyes and doesn’t bother to turn around. Moments like this make Contreras grateful for the security of the large group, even though she, too, has been on receiving end of catcalls from other migrants. But it’s better than being alone.
Contreras hopes she makes it into the United States – maybe to Nashville, where she has a friend, or New Jersey, where a lawyer has told her she could find a good support system. Already, after three months living as herself, she feels like a new person – “transformed,” she says.
If she doesn’t make it, she’ll go back to Honduras and resume dressing like a man – for her safety and for her family.
“I would not want to disrespect them dressing as a woman, and I would not want them to disrespect me,” she said. “I just ask God that everything ends up well.”
Khushbu Shah reported from Mexico City and Emanuella Grinberg wrote from Atlanta, Georgia. Mercedes Leguizamon Azpelicueta and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.