A Light Inside

Danielle Villasana

2013 - Ongoing

Lima, Peru

I first met Tamara on the streets of downtown Lima, Peru, in 2013. She was 27 and the first trans woman I started photographing. Tamara had struggled with her identity since elementary school where she was bullied so intensely by peers that she dropped out. At 16, she began sniffing glue to deal with depression and loneliness. At 18, she began working as a prostitute. Tamara often told me she wasn’t going to live past 30. How could she, she defiantly asked, when society treats her as less than human?

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Tamara's death this year due to HIV and Tuberculosis came less than a month after her 30th birthday. Her death at such a young age is tragically common as most trans women in Latin America die or are murdered before they reach 35. Latin America leads the world in homicides of transgender people (80% of global trans homicides occur in the region) and HIV prevalence among trans women is nearly 50 times higher than the general population. Through years of documenting the hardships trans women face, I’ve realized that an early death is more common than a long life.

The human rights violations perpetrated against trans women throughout Latin America are the result of toxic societal forces. The region’s highly machismo, conservative, religious, and transphobic culture ostracizes and stigmatizes them, posing a serious threat to their health, social security, life expectancy, and employment prospects. With few options or support, many practice prostitution. As sex workers with no legal protections, they're at greater risk of violence and sexual and substance abuse, and are less able to protect their health. Without legal protections, many cases of violence and murder go undocumented. Because most governments throughout Latin America and the world continuously fail to protect trans women, I’m determined to continue documenting how these largely ignored injustices often lead to deadly consequences.

With the support of the PH Museum Women Photographers grant, I’ll add new chapters to my ongoing project by reporting from Mexico and El Salvador where I’ll focus on how violence, death threats, and extortion from gang members and police is causing trans women to flee their homes by migrating to Mexico and the U.S. and how they often put their lives further at risk as trans immigrants.

In El Salvador, trans women are especially vulnerable to the country’s endemic violence and in a recent report, more than half say they’ve survived death threats or murder attempts. Because many incidents of violence against trans women are committed by police officers and gang members, cases go undocumented or are falsely reported by officials. In El Salvador, I’ll work with NGO COMCAVIS, which has documented around 600 cases of murder and assault against LGBTQIA people since 1993. The founder herself has survived attempted murders and a kidnapping.

Though trans women flee El Salvador seeking refuge, most encounter more challenges along their journey, with many becoming targets of sexual assault and harassment. Once trans migrants arrive in Mexico, they are often met with closed doors as many religious-affiliated shelters don’t accept them, adding yet another layer of vulnerability. In Mexico I’ll report from three key areas: the Mexico-Guatemala border where I’ll partner with NGOs in Tapachula and Tenosique that cater to LGBTQIA migrants; Mexico City, a hub where many trans migrants pause to earn money before continuing their journey; and, in Tijuana where I’ll focus on sexual assault and mistreatment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a 2014 report shows that 1 out of every 5 confirmed cases of sexual assault in facilities involved trans people.)

Though my work from Mexico and El Salvador will focus on trans migrants, I’ll also continuously look at the factors that contribute to the poor quality of life for trans women in these countries such as HIV/AIDS, societal and familial rejection (70% of trans women in Latin America are estimated to run away from or be thrown out of their homes), the machismo culture, and lack of documentation of murders and violence, among others. For example, Mexico is the second country in the world with the highest number of transgender murders and El Salvador is one of the leading countries for HIV infection among trans women.

Though issues affecting trans people are often covered by the media worldwide, an in-depth look at both the causes and consequences of transphobia is severely lacking. Furthermore, traditional media typically focuses on the act of sex work, maintaining the trope that trans women are hyper-sexual objects only capable of prostitution. When media producers continue to narrowly construct these women as objects as well as ignoring the larger picture, society is at risk of misunderstanding the important nuances of a situation they might be quick to judge.

Motivated by this conviction, I’ve slowly begun to document this chapter on trans migrants. However, with the support of the PH Museum Women Photographers grant, I’ll be able to delve deeply into expanding my work at a time when the lives of trans people are increasingly threatened. The transphobic rhetoric emerging from the United States government, which has historically been viewed as a leader in human rights, has the power to fuel--and justify--hate crimes in neighboring regions where trans women are already incredibly vulnerable.

My ultimate goal is to fight back against the alarming rate of death among trans women through education, storytelling, and outreach. In addition to seeking publication in print media, I’ll also utilize social media to share content as a way to directly reach people across the globe and provide an ongoing platform for exchange and communication. I’ll also encourage trans women throughout Latin America and the world to contribute their own stories of violence and abuse as a way to help fill the dearth of reporting from government institutes. With the support of the PH Museum Women Photographers grant, I hope to not only raise awareness of the human rights abuses against trans women but also provide an outlet of empowerment for trans women to speak out against injustice.

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  • Tamara, a 27-year-old transgender woman, quit school in the 5th grade because her classmates constantly teased and insulted her. At 16 she began sniffing glue for a couple years to deal with depression and loneliness. At 18 she began sex work. Tamara says that it's not easy being trans because of all the aggression and humiliation they face. Though she has grown to deal with it, she says that even when walking down the street people will insult her. "I have suffered so much, I don't understand why we have to suffer so much.”

  • Like many other countries worldwide, there is a stereotype in Peru that trans women are only capable of working as hairdressers or sex workers. But, because of high competition for salon work and the need to pay for studies, many trans women are relegated to prostitution. Here Camila, left, gets out of a taxi after a long night of dancing.

  • Though prostitution in Peru is not illegal, many trans women are oftentimes taken by police on the basis of not being able to show their identification cards. Here Kiara is taken by “serenazgos,” or municipal police officers, in a nightly raid. According to a study by the Peruvian Cayetano Heredia University, Serenazgos and the Catholic Church are the two most homophobic institutions in Peru.

  • A trans woman gets ready for the evening in her room. The majority of trans women in downtown Lima live in communal homes as they also face housing discrimination. Because of stigmatization, people refuse to rent to them. Of the few options they have, they are taken advantage of and are charged extremely high rates for rooms that are rundown and oftentimes infested with cockroaches.

  • Josue, left, Oriana's on-and-off-again boyfriend, leans in to kiss her before she leaves for work. Though he says living with her helps him to lead a better life, he also talks about how their relationship is not right under the eyes of God.

  • Oftentimes trans women play volley ball or other games such as Bingo before work for extra money. Since many of them live together in communal houses it is easy to organize afternoon games.

  • Colombian trans woman, Karen, right, is comforted by her mother, left, who flew to Peru after Karen was shot by a police officer. That evening, police officers insulted Karen and her friend during a nightly raid, which targets trans prostitutes who are arrested without reason. Angry, Karen's friend threw a rock at their vehicle. When Karen turned to run, she was shot in the stomach. "In this country for the fact of being trans, you are not valued as a human being. Even though I was between life and death, I was still considered guilty," said Karen.

  • Nearly every week, Yasuri visits the Baquijano Cemetery to leave flowers and pray at a Peruvian saint's tomb. She said that she can no longer stand prostitution. "It makes me sick," said Yasuri, who dreams of having a family and getting married one day.

  • Briss's room is left in shambles after a fight with her boyfriend, who punched the mirrors and threw furniture. Though their relationship is violent, Briss and her boyfriend have been dating off and on for several years. Though after every episode she says it's the last time, somehow, he always comes back. Eighty percent of homicides of trans people worldwide occur in Latin America.

  • Men from a truck look at Tamara as she works on the streets. Though she has searched for other work she says that people think they have diseases and are vulgar, so they are turned away. "I want to have a job with somebody I know, someone who trusts me. Because otherwise, they discriminate you, the look at you up and down when you're looking for work."

  • After many hours of drinking, Tamara, right, and her mother Evila, left, argue about her work on the streets.

  • After resisting sexual relations with a client without a condom, Tamara was injured with a broken glass that he threw at her face. "You have to be careful with clients because they're not clients, they are bad men that can cheat you, that can take you somewhere. They treat you bad, they beat you, they rob you…I have suffered through that a few times," said Tamara in a previous interview.

  • Tamara, left, does a line of cocaine with a friend. Substance abuse is very common as a way to cope with the harsh work and living environments to which they are exposed.

  • Tamara, who always keeps a collection of saints in the corner of her room with a lit candle, often talks about how she will not live past 30.

  • Danuska, left, and Oriana, right, talk with a young girl and her mother, not pictured, on the street while experiencing down time during work.

  • Transgender women are extremely marginalized and discriminated by Peruvian society. Persecution begins early, causing them to abandon their studies and families. With few options or support, many fall into prostitution. As sex workers with no legal protections, they're targets of disease, violence and sexual and substance abuse. Here, a group of trans women, left, stand along the streets of downtown Lima as they wait for clients.

  • Tamara's mother Evila cries at Tamara's funeral. Less than a month after her 30th birthday, Tamara died from complications with AIDS and Tuberculosis. Most trans women throughout Latin America do not live past 35.