Credit: Amy Lieberman
PUEBLA, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)-- Maricela Moreno Ortega hatched a plan to leave her hometown of Puebla nearly 11 years ago. She sold her hair salon and made plans with a friend, also a transgender woman, to meet early one morning and travel together to cross the Texas border.
But her mother intervened the day before Moreno, now 43, was set to depart this colonial capital of the state of Puebla, with a population of about 1.5 million, two hours outside of Mexico City.
"My mom stopped me from going," said Moreno, speaking from her salon, adorned with ceramic frog statues. "There had been all of this conflict in my family and I was feeling very disillusioned. But my mom said that if I left, I was going to abandon the family."
So Moreno wound up back in her salon.
"For trans people who do not have the support of their families, the majority of them want to leave, but it's not so easy, if they don't know how to read and write, or there is the question of English," said Salvador Meta Ortiz, a local LGBT activist who conducts HIV-prevention and treatment outreach through two nonprofit groups. "There is the fear of the migration itself -- the police they could encounter, the other migrants, other risks they could face along the way. It's a lot to consider."
In interviews, 10 transgender women said that if they don't leave, their employment options in Puebla mainly boil down to sex work and bar tending. Only if they are as fortunate as Ortega-- with either money or family support-- can some become hair stylists.
These three occupations--either dangerous or siloed from the rest of society--are understood across Mexico to be acceptable entry points of employment for transgender women.
Employers in factories here -- the production of metals, electrical goods and textiles make up a bulk of the state's economy -- are likely to shy away from hiring a transgender woman, say trans women in Puebla.
Stigma would also apply in other fields, like in education or law. One transgender woman interviewed said she abandoned plans to study law once she decided to transition as a teenager, aware that she could not pursue both paths.
High Murder Rate
Puebla is among 22 of Mexico's 31 states that do not consider sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination to be illegal. People who identify as transgender or transsexual do not have the legal right in Puebla to change their gender on ID cards or official documents.
Four homicides of transgender women have been reported in the local news media since June 2012, says Meta.
In March 2012, a well-known transgender activist named Agnes Torres Sulca was also murdered in Puebla.
Against this backdrop, stories and hopes of migration abound among the transgenders who work in two downtown Puebla bars frequented by older men and in scattered hair salons in the city's outskirts.
Nearly every trans person interviewed reminisced about broken plans to, at some point, leave Mexico, which has the second highest reported rate of transgender murders in the world.
Some of those who say they have not considered leaving Mexico have already undergone an internal migration, reaching Puebla from nearby smaller towns, the coastal state of Veracruz or the northern state of Sonora, where transgenders can face even worse danger and restrictions.
Yokzana Martinez Balez transitioned at the age of 15. Her family reacted negatively and she was forced to leave her parents' home in Puebla shortly after. She left high school and went north, to Sonora, where she worked as a sex worker.
"I returned because it was very ugly there in the streets," said Martinez, who is 18 now and works at a bar and also some nights still as a sex worker.
Martinez has thought of leaving Puebla again. Without the support of her family, finances are tight, and she has heard that she could earn more working in the United States. Still, she is unlikely to take that step.
"I'd like to go to the U.S. and spend my life there and have a family. My brothers migrated when I was young and are doing well there. But it is much harder for a trans person to migrate. I fear I will get killed if I go," she said, speaking at the bar counter before her evening shift started.
Credit: Amy Lieberman
School on Hold
Gaby Morales Arellano was also kicked out of her parents' house as a teenager, shortly after she began to publicly transition as a woman. That snuffed the idea she'd had, at age 17, of becoming a lawyer. Instead she put school on hold and held random jobs and shared a bare room with friends. Unable to secure a steady job or support from her family, she had also considered leaving Puebla and Mexico.
"There is a lot of discrimination when you come out of the closet and you face all of these critics, first your family and your neighbors who say, 'Why is he like that? He should be normal.' My family thought they could beat me and correct me," said Morales, who now owns her own hair salon.
After a few years, Morales, now 35, improved relations with her family and counts herself among the lucky few transgender people she knows who are not alone.
"I took the same fear I felt and thought, 'I am going to use this emotion and take the situation by the horns and demonstrate that I can stay here and experience life as it comes'," she said.
Allison Castillo Luna, 24, is a native of Veracruz who left an unsupportive family behind in that city to come to Puebla, where she splits her time as a bartender and a sex worker. She does not think about leaving Mexico.
"I say to my friends who have migrated, 'Why are you going? You want work? Here there is work. It's fine here'," said Castillo, sipping a cocktail.
But her insistence faltered at the mention of Torres, the murdered transgender activist who was a licensed psychiatrist, but was working at the time of her death also as a waitress at a bar to supplement her income.
"It's heavy work, there's no question," she said. "When you go with a client you know with maybe 50 percent certainty that something bad is not going to happen to you, that that person is not homophobic or transphobic, that they will not have this instinct to kill you."
Amy Lieberman, the U.N. correspondent for Women's eNews, is a journalist based in New York City. She is reporting from Mexico as part of a reporting grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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