Derogatory comments, blatant job and housing discrimination, violence — these are the norms of living while transgender in Mexico.
But when a candidate for governor in Baja California began making bigoted remarks about transgender people and said they didn’t deserve rights in 2011, Ishalaa Ortega, a long-time and well-known trans activist, fought back.
Ortega, from Tijuana, condemned the candidate swiftly and frequently through her various platforms, and called on people to uphold universal human rights.
That’s when the death threats arrived.
“I started receiving these phone calls,” she said, referring to people who threatened to kill and otherwise silence her. “They were scary, but I didn’t consider it a reason to leave. But when someone approached me to repeat to my face what I was receiving in phone calls, that’s when I became afraid of getting killed.”
Within a month, Ortega realized she had to flee for her safety.
There are 32 federal entities in Mexico, and only one — Mexico City — has legal protections for transgender people.
But even in the country’s capital, enforcement of these laws is rare, and discrimination, harassment, and violence against transgender people remains a constant problem, according to the Transgender Law Center.
“The worst discrimination in Mexico is towards transgender women,” Ortega told Global Citizen.
She went on to describe how transgender people are prevented from going to school, getting jobs, using bathrooms, attending public events, and even walking around. The vast majority of transgender women, she said, are forced to engage in sex work because all other opportunities are closed off to them.
Living while trans is difficult enough, but because Ortega was passionate about human rights, she dedicated herself to fighting for legal protections and social acceptance, exposing herself to even more backlash and threats.
In 2011, while working as a community activist, she went on a reality television show to inform people about the transgender experience and talk about how to access HIV treatment.
The experience brought her a degree of fame, and she went on to co-found an LGBTQ rights group called Comunidad Cultural Tijuana LGBTQ and speak at rallies across the country. But the growing fame was double-edged.
When she challenged the political candidate in 2011, the hollowness of her notoriety became apparent — even though her life was at risk, there was no legal recourse. The regional police were too corrupt or indifferent to trans rights to care about Ortega’s plight.
So she packed a bag and traveled north to the US border, where she turned herself over to immigration officials for asylum, beginning what would soon become a new chapter of torment.
When Ortega arrived at the US border in 2011, she made her case for asylum, citing the death threats she was facing by people seemingly connected to the politician in Baja California.
She assumed the gravity of her story would be appreciated, and she would be given a court date and granted temporary safety in the US.
But she was brought to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California. She was taken to a room, told to strip down, and was held there with no opportunity to sleep for three days.
“Every single person who came in there hit me and laughed about me,” she said.
Then she was given a choice — either join the men’s holding area, or be held in solitary confinement.
Ortega didn’t want to be locked in a cell by herself, so she joined the men’s side, where she was regularly taunted by both guards and inmates.
“They don’t call you by the name you go by,” she said. “They make sure your first name is loudly being called and everyone else is called by their last name. If you said your name is Jose but you go by Maria, they would call you Jose.
For around two months, she was detained and put to work for eight hours a day, while earning $1 per shift, she said.
“You’re forced to take the work, because it’s the only way to get food,” Ortega said. “Food isn’t served until 5 p.m., then isn’t served again until 5 a.m.”
The whole experience was dehumanizing, she explained.
“I expected that this country would actually take into consideration the 30 articles of the human rights declaration because they signed it,” she said.
In this photo, Roxana Hernandez, a transgender woman from Honduras, sitting at left, checks her cell phone while her friends dance at the community center called El Caracol, where legal aid was being offered to migrants by volunteer US Lawyers, in Tijuana, Mexico. The 33-year-old Hernandez died Friday, May 25, in an Albuquerque hospital, where she was admitted after showing symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV. Authorities listed the woman's name as her pretransition name when she was taken into custody in San Diego. She was later transferred to El Paso, Texas, and then to a detention center in New Mexico where she was housed in the transgender unit.
The US-Mexico border has received heightened scrutiny over the past year after the administration of US President Donald Trump enacted a “zero tolerance” policy, calling for the absolute arrest and detention of migrants, and the separation of families.
But the border has long been the site of human rights abuses and the general mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers have been uniquely victimized at the border, which is supposed to be a threshold for relief and assistance. In fact, LGBTQ people are 97 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in migrant detention facilities in the US than their cisgender peers, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for American Progress.
And that’s just one kind of abuse inflicted upon LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers. Recently, a transgender woman named Roxana Hernández died from HIV-related complications after being denied medication while held in an “ice box” detention room.
The withholding of hormonal, HIV, and other medications in migrant detention facilities is a routine occurrence, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It’s really awful for folks who experienced persecution who now get retraumatized in these facilities,” Jackie Yodashkin, the public affairs director of the LGBTQ legal nonprofit Immigration Equality, told Global Citizen.
“There’s such heavy PTSD, it makes it really hard to fight for yourself and make your case for asylum,” Yodashkin said. “Because you have to file all this information, and you don’t want to talk about past persecution as you’re being re-persecuted.”
After spending years fighting for human rights, Ortega was familiar with grim stories and statistics. But she was unprepared for the level of abuse she would receive in a US detention facility.
Eventually, Ortega was brought before a judge and her asylum plea was entered into a byzantine system with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases.
She was free to leave detention, but she had to go through a years-long process of getting a work permit and a social security number.
Ortega had certifications in apiculture (beekeeping), professional make-up artistry, and supervision, and she also had experience running organizations. But without documentation, she had few opportunities.
During that time, she couldn’t legally work, receive welfare benefits, or apply for housing. She had to depend on donations from nonprofits, the help of charitable people, and theater performances.
“Even if you are the smartest person, if you don’t have a social security, you won’t be able to work in your field of expertise, and you end up being a dishwasher or cook,” she said. ”There is a lot we can contribute to society, but if they don’t allow us, we will never be able to accomplish what we want to in life.”
Ortega made it to New York, where she once again became active in human rights circles. She began volunteering and doing local outreach for the Audre Lorde Project, Translatina Coalition, the Transgender Law Center, and other organizations.
When her work permit finally came through in 2015, she enrolled in classes at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, and began working full-time at various jobs.
She was also able to link up with Immigration Equality, becoming one of the few asylum seekers who are able to obtain a lawyer and navigate the legal process.
“Having a lawyer really changes your chances,” said Yodashkin, of Immigration Equality.
“Just think about it,” she added. “If you’re coming to the US, you’ve experienced horrific persecution, don’t necessarily speak English, don’t know the laws of [the] US, don’t know how to make the case for asylum. You’re going up against someone who has trained their entire career to deport you, the odds are stacked against you, there are barriers to getting help. If you want to build a case, you need to provide why you need asylum, anything you can get to document the persecution you’ve experienced — photos of you with a partner, letters, anything that can substantiate what you’ve been saying.”
Ortega won asylum and has already earned an associate degree in political science. She’s currently working as a supervisor at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and got accepted to another university program for a degree in language studies.
The past six years have been challenging, but they’ve only renewed her sense of righteous indignation at all the injustices in the world.
Photo of Ishalaa Ortega by Immigration Equality
On the phone, she spoke with fiery determination about ending human rights violations in the US and abroad, weaving stories of personal tragedy into a global tapestry of failed morality and imagination.
“The law itself has to change worldwide to protect everybody, and that’s my goal,” she said. “The [UN] human rights list is only for a white, male, heterosexual person, not the rest of people. I don’t think that at any point in my life it has been fully implemented anywhere in the world.”
A lifetime of overcoming discrimination has emboldened her to think big, and she ultimately wants to get a degree in international human rights law to right wrongs around the world.
“My story is a successful story, even though I went through a lot, being who I am,” she said. “And that makes me a person who wants to make a difference, to correct these problems for future generations.”