Kataleya Nativí Baca escaped a life of threats and abuse in Honduras, but she didn’t expect her journey in search of a better life to last two years. US photojournalist Danielle Villasana documented Kataleya’s journey across the Americas in the hope of fulfilling her dream of living in the United States.
New York, U.S. – “I’m calling because I have great news for you. You’ve earned your humanitarian parole. Show up the day after tomorrow at the San Ysidro checkpoint,” said the voice on the cell phone.
On April 6, 2021, Kataleya Nativí Baca was just beginning to cook grilled meat with beans for lunch when she received the call she had been awaiting for over a year. She was about to set foot on U.S. soil for the first time.
“Humanitarian parole” would allow her one year’s time to complete her permanent asylum process in Washington, DC.
One of her biggest dreams had just come true; “I am going to stop suffering after so many things that have happened to me. God heard me,” she told her lawyer in Tijuana, crying.
“I got nervous. I didn’t even remember the food I was making,” says Kataleya, unable to control her emotion as she recounts how she gained entry to the United States after two years of uncertainty. “I was crying.”
At the same time it was a bittersweet moment because she knew she was going to have to leave her beloved partner Angel and her cat Michu behind in Tijuana. “Don’t cry, Angel, I told him, because you know this was my dream and God is allowing me to achieve my goals.”
Kataleya is a trans woman originally from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. After receiving multiple physical, verbal and emotional assaults from her family and gang members, she was left with no other choice than to embark on the arduous journey to the United States on May 9, 2019 in search of a safe and dignified life.
“I left as a fugitive,” she recalls.
She didn’t say goodbye to her mother, who didn’t accept her, or to her brother, who had threatened to kill her. She left her twin sons in Honduras, not knowing when or how she would be reunited with them. There were no other possibilities left to her – she knew her life was in danger if she stayed in the country.
At that time, Kataleya didn’t know her journey would take almost two years, but her faith in God and the people who accompanied her gave her the strength to keep fighting and achieve her dreams.
In The “Cold Room” at the San Ysidro Border Crossing
She didn’t sleep a wink. At five-thirty in the morning on April 8, 2021, two days after the call that sealed her fate, Kataleya woke up with a whirlwind of emotions. She didn’t know what awaited her on the other side of the border.
Even her cat Michu realized that day was going to be different from all the previous ones because she didn’t want to get out of bed; “he’s a very sensitive cat.”
As she left the house, she didn’t get to say goodbye to her boyfriend Angel. With the words “I love you,” she left him in Tijuana.
To enter the United States as a migrant or asylum seeker, one must pass through an almost endless series of checkpoints. Even when the entry is fully sanctioned by law, as in Kataleya’s case, the movement of people across borders is treated like a crime.
According to a study conducted by UCLA, it is estimated that between the years 2012 to 2017 approximately 11,400 people in the LGBTQ+ community have sought asylum in the United States. Among them, more than half of the total applications were from the “northern triangle” of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Kataleya waited in line with a Guatemalan mother, her two children, and a boy of African descent. She knew she was stepping on U.S. soil for the first time, but at the same time she was a long way from finding her freedom.
At the first checkpoint she had to take everything off: “My belt and all my belongings. I even took off my hair clip.” She was searched by an officer, who discriminated against her for being trans.
After all the bureaucratic red tape, she was taken to a waiting room, where she sat in front of the US flag.
She never imagined what awaited her at the next checkpoint. She was held in a “cold room,” a sort of windowless cell or quasi-torture chamber with none of her belongings – nothing but a cold mattress.
In the cold room Kataleya lost track of time. “I didn’t know if it was day or night. At the last minute they brought me [a] burrito and juice. I realized It must already be night because in the morning they gave me [a] sandwich.”
She doesn’t know exactly how long she stayed there, but estimates that it was about twelve hours. “At the last minute I knelt down on the mattress and asked God to give me the strength and courage to endure it.”
Desperate, she prayed that her time in the cold room would be over soon. An officer came through her door and called out her legal name. “’You’re out now,’ he told me. ‘Welcome to the United States,’” Kataleya recounts.
Now, sheltered at Casa Rubi in Washington, DC, Kataleya knows that her new life has just begun. She will soon file her case for permanent asylum in court.
Now, she says, her biggest goals are to learn English and finish high school. She hopes to support her father in Honduras, who has been in the hospital since 2019 with meningitis.
He warmly accepts her as his daughter.
A Journey Filled With Disappointment, Joy and Challenges
Her family was the first to reject her and, as happens in many cases of violence against trans women, their hostility towards her only intensified with time.
When a mother or father throws their LGBTIQ+ son or daughter out of the home, they abandon them “to a life of hardship and contempt,” writes Iris Rivera in an article for The New Gay Times Magazine.
Every time she left the house, Kataleya was threatened by the gang members that sought to exert their dominance in the Rivera Hernandez district of San Pedro Sula.
“Men can do anything they want to women in Honduras,” feminist activist Neesa Medina told abc News, describing the “macho” culture of Honduran gangs. For these groups, any deviation from heteronormativity, such as being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, represents a threat. “I was raped,” Kataleya says, without going into more details.
The landscape of Rivera Hernández, to the east of San Pedro Sula, is hostile and barren. It’s highly vulnerable to flooding and experiences high crime rates due to unemployment, gang activity and drug trafficking.
Honduras is a country where LGBTI people like Kataleya have limited civil rights. They are forbidden from changing their names, marrying, adopting, have no social protection for their partners and no right to intimate visits.
According to the network Sin Violencia LGBT at least 1,300 LGBT people have been murdered in Latin America since 2014, with 86% of cases coming from Colombia, Mexico and Honduras, including close to 500 trans women.
On April 20, 2019 Kataleya’s own brother physically assaulted her. “I wasn’t accepted by my brother” for being trans, she says, “that’s why I couldn’t stand it anymore. I didn’t want to be in Honduras anymore because of everything that was happening to me.”
Despite everything, Kataleya took advantage of her time to educate herself, joining several LGBTIQ+ rights organizations. “I belonged to Cepres and ended up in AFET,” she says.
For Kataleya, her brother’s attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back of the violence that had begun with the death of her partner, who was killed during a robbery in February 2009.
Before leaving Honduras she only got to say goodbye to her two sisters, her brothers-in-law and her nephews and nieces. Her eldest nephew hung around her neck, begging her to please not leave.
They were all in tears as Kataleya explained to them that it was necessary to leave if she wanted to have a future and to help them overcome poverty. “My sister lives in a very humble wooden house with her husband. My other sister has a small house made of material [bricks] and wood.”
“We wish you the best on the road” was the last thing they said to her before Kataleya began her adventure along the migrant route on May 9, 2019.
Kataleya in Tapachula: Unemployment and Police Harassment
In Tapachula in southern Chiapas, Mexico, on the Guatemalan border, Kataleya’s employment prospects were severely limited. Without the right documents, “the only thing she could do was sex work.
In the city nicknamed “the migrant’s prison,” Kataleya was granted a humanitarian visa to move around, but not to work. Despite the limitations, in Tapachula she had access to her hormones and she was not rejected or discriminated against when she went to a Chiapas hospital to have her collarbone treated.
Kataleya dismissed the possibility of becoming a sex worker, but that’s an option that most Honduran trans women looking to make a living cannot afford.
Kataleya knew the risks of sex work in Honduras, and promised herself that if she left Honduras, “I would not do it in Mexico.” But she speaks respectfully of the trans women who engage in it on Honduran soil. “The work doesn’t dishonor anyone and I don’t discriminate against them because it’s a job,” she says.
Without a penny in her pocket, Kataleya would go “to the river because we had nowhere to wash our clothes and bathe”. At least she could stop worrying about having a place to sleep. She stayed at a UNHCR hotel where a group of Jesuits helped her.
She remembers with pleasure those days in Tapachula when she lived with many Central American women: “It was a very nice experience,” she says. But danger still lurked around every corner.
“A policeman became obsessed with me and drove his patrol car at me as if he wanted to kill me. Then I decided that Tapachula was no longer my thing because my life was in danger.”
The policeman was loitering near the apartment Kataleya shared with two companions who hosted her when she was left on the street.
Nervous and afraid for her life, she had no choice but to leave Tapachula on September 4, 2019.
Kataleya in Tijuana: “Tianguis” and Hunger
Four days later, on September 8, Kataleya got off a bus in Tijuana, on the U.S.-Mexico border. She had just barely enough money to survive. She was carrying the humanitarian visa she had obtained in Tapachula, but no visa protects against all the dangers of the migrant route. Even less so if the traveler is a trans woman.
In Tijuana she was lucky enough to meet other LGBTQ+ people who reached out to her. She made a friend, “who was already in the United States.” She always told her “’don’t give up, Kataleya,” – “and this is what I have always done,” she recalls.
For the first month Kataleya lived with a Honduran woman who gave her “a place to sleep and a plate of food,” in exchange for selling products all day at the stand at her “tiangui,” – a Mexican marketplace. She was never compensated for her labor and recalls having to wake up at 4am every morning.
The situation became unbearable for her in October. “There were days when she wouldn’t leave me money for food or the keys to the house. They wouldn’t let me have access to food. I said ‘this is changing with me. I’m going to leave.'”
Kataleya spent the next year and a half moving from one migrant shelter to the next, never quite fitting in.
From One House to the Next
At first, everything seemed to be advancing as it should. Kataleya was given a number – 4,050 – for when she would be allowed to enter the United States and present her asylum case before a judge. Thanks to the Trump era MMN (“Remain in Mexico”) policy she had to wait in Tijuana before being called, but that shouldn’t be more than a couple of months.
But that was before the pandemic, and in March of 2020 everything shut down. At the start of Covid the US-Mexico border, like most of the world, came to a standstill.
Then the Trump administration introduced a rule known as Title 42 that uses the excuse of the health crisis to “circumvent US and international law protecting refugees” by preventing any and all persons from seeking asylum or otherwise immigrating to the United States. The rule, which has come under fire from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, has not yet been reversed by the Biden administration.
Kataleya’s case was in limbo, and for a while she didn’t know if she would ever reach the United States.
Starting in October 2019 and throughout the pandemic, Kataleya moved from one migrant shelter to another and in each one she alleges she was harassed or threatened.
She went from Casa Arcoiris, where everyone was “very nice” and “we had several parties,” she recalls – but when she was threatened by a “gay man from Guatemala” she left for the Casa Mariposa.
In February, after a bad case of bronchitis led her to seek medical help she took her things and went to Casa de Luz. It was there that Kataleya fell in love with Honduran-born Ángel Ortiz from Tegucigalpa. She sealed her relationship with Angel in the least expected place: next to the wall that divides San Diego from Tijuana.
“I went to see the wall for the second time and there he asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. It [was] very nice because we were on the beach, the pandemic hadn’t started yet. I told him yes at the wall,” remembers Kataleya.
For five months, from February to July 2020, Kataleya stayed at Casa de Luz. After that time she and Angel lived together in an apartment that they rented.
Thanks to the work of her lawyer from the Transgender Law Center, Kataleya was finally allowed to enter the US on April 8 2021, after President Biden issued a memorandum instructing border agencies to prioritize the cases of LGBTQ+ assylum seekers.
Kataleya and Danielle
On her journey from a neighborhood in a conflict zone in Honduras to her new life in the United States, Kataleya has had to leave many things behind. Despite the distance, she doesn’t forget the places she loved in Honduras and her family members. Nor has she forgotten Danielle Villasana.
Nothing foreshadowed that one hot afternoon in April 2018 a special bond would be born that remains to this day and overcomes adversity in a journey in which two women have traveled across half of America.
A cisgender woman, Danielle Villasana, and a trans woman, Kataleya, met three years ago at the Museum of Anthropology and History in the center of San Pedro Sula.
They met at this historic site, surrounded by guanacaste trees, after being connected by the director of the independent digital media company Contracorriente, Jennifer Avila, and LGBTIQ+ activist Osman Lara.
Avila and Lara put them in touch because Danielle was doing a photo story on trans women in Honduras.
The pleasant microclimate of the museum where they met contrasts with the scorching heat of the two districts that make up the area known as Rivera Hernández, where Kataleya lived for 20 years.
“I was going to meet Jennifer Avila and Kataleya was with her,” Danielle recounts. “That’s how we met, but we didn’t stay in contact. In 2019, when I was in Honduras again, our mutual friend Osman Lara put us in touch because Kataleya was already thinking about leaving.”
Osman knew about Danielle’s project, which consisted of documenting trans women’s communities. The project began in 2012. Danielle has been photographing trans women’s communities in Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico for almost ten years.
She focuses on the issue of trans rights because “there is a lack of awareness in society. There is a lack of education on the issues due to transphobia, rejection and lack of access to jobs and health care.” “The traditional media always focus on only one part of their [trans women’s] lives, perhaps the most sensationalized.”
A Bond That Crosses Distances
LGBTIQ+ activist Osman Lara told Kataleya what Danielle’s project was about and she became interested in having her photograph her.
“That’s when we started writing to each other,” Danielle recounts, “but the first photos I took of her were that night when her brother beat her up. She called me from her house after that happened and I found her at the police station.”
Perhaps the most special thing about Danielle’s gaze is her way of documenting the daily lives of her subjects. She does not do so with the purpose of showing only the banal or getting lost in all the atrocities faced by trans women. In that way she avoids re-victimization.
Kataleya’s journey is that of so many Honduran women and men displaced by violence inside and outside the home.
Luckily, fate put an “angel as beautiful as Danielle” in her path, says Kataleya. “I have a lot of love, a lot of affection for her. I love and cherish her like a big sister. There have been difficult and beautiful moments I’ve had with her during this journey,” Kataleya says.
Danielle’s work is focused on the “everyday life” of Kataleya and other LGBTIQ+ people, focusing on “the consequences of transphobia. Not just sex work.”
What Danielle seeks with her photos is to “try new narratives to make people more aware and understanding that trans women are very dynamic people, [with] lives full of richness, not just tragedy,” but at the same time she doesn’t “avoid the challenges, because they exist.”
Women like Kataleya are, for Danielle, “very inspiring. They have taught me a lot. They have a lot of courage, they are very strong. I am very impressed by their courage and all that they have overcome despite the fact that almost all of society is against them, especially in Latin America”.
Faith is the light that has illuminated Kataleya’s path. “I can kneel anywhere and ask God,” she says. “I bring a backpack of dreams. I have to achieve everything I want in my life.”
Dashiell is a graduate of Reed College where he studied Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. At Latina Republic, Dashiell elevates the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Mexico. His work contributes to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.
Dunia Orellana is a journalist, documentary maker from Honduras and director of Reportar sin Miedo. She works for investigative journalistic media such as En Altavoz, Reporteros de Investigación and Presentes. Her investigation “The 280 deaths of Vicky” served as the basis for the Inter-American Court to carry out a trial against the Honduran State for the systematized murder of LGBTI people during and after the 2009 coup.