WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Kenya Cuevas is the founder of the Asociación Civil Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias.

21 Jun 2022 | Commentary

Pride Month: Kenya Cuevas and Latin America’s “Historic Debt” with Trans Women

From an early age, the odds stood against her: violence at home, discrimination, abuse on the streets. But Kenya does not believe in odds. At 48, she is the director of a rapidly growing organization in her native Mexico that is stepping in to help those neglected by the State while inspiring a new generation of activists. This is her story.

The deafening sound of a gunshot shook the earth beneath her feet. Kenya instinctively ran, in the back streets of Mexico City’s historic center, the few meters that separated her from the car her friend Paola had gotten into a few minutes earlier.  

It was too late. 

The man behind the wheel, sitting next to Paola’s lifeless body, looked at Kenya and pointed the gun at her. He pulled the trigger but there were no bullets left. Police were called to the scene and the man was arrested, only to be released two days later.

The day was September 30, 2016. 

Paola’s murder, the last in a string of killings of trans women Kenya remembers with stars tattooed on her neck, and the lack of justice for each one of them was too unbearable not to take action. 

Kenya says life in the streets was never easy. Born in Mexico City in the early 1970s, she left an abusive home at age nine and got involved in sex work as she began her transition. At 27, she was detained on drug charges and sentenced to 24 years behind bars in the prison of Santa Martha Acatitla, in the outskirts of Mexico’s capital. There, she was physically assaulted and sexually abused by both inmates and guards. She was held in the “cell 10” for people living with HIV, where she cared for others who received little medical attention. Kenya was absolved of all charges and then acquitted nearly 11 years later. 

Outside of prison, she built her own family. Many other young trans women who experienced the same stigma and discrimination she had started calling her “mom.” Paola was among her closest friends. 

After her murder, the unbearable pain quickly turned into anger and frustration for the many others she had to bury and then into determination to change things

On April 2, 2018, Kenya founded the Asociación Civil Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias, an organization that provides support and shelter for trans people, including those released from prison and who are escaping violence. Two years later, she opened the first shelter for trans women in Mexico. She named it after Paola.

“I didn’t imagine I was going to be an activist,” Kenya says four years later. “What I did know is that I was not going to let anybody walk all over me any longer. After that, it was like a snowball.”

The “snowball”, as Kenya calls it, started small, very small. At first, it was meetings in a public park in Mexico City, where she and others would take advantage of the free Wi-Fi provided by the local government. Kenya learned to read and write, a friend lent her an old laptop, and she and others started writing letters on behalf of other trans women in prison. 

Fast forward four years and the organization has opened a second shelter in the city of Morelos and is in the process of opening another two, with the goal of having at least one shelter in each state in Mexico. Groups have sprung up in seven cities across the country. 

They provide support to trans women who are in prison, among other things by training them on how to fight their own cases. She tells us, for example, of the case of a woman who negotiated an early release and is now finishing high school. Kenya and others are often the only support available to trans women after they leave prison. They are creating spaces for the most marginalized among the marginalized to feel safe.

“I come from those situations. I know very well about all those needs. All the pain I have endured, I turn it into work and happiness. I have lost all fear,” she says. 

“We are not here to claim exclusive rights or to get anything extra. What I ask for is (for the government) to be aware that they have to treat everybody equally. That’s why I work on gender, on vulnerabilities. We empower everybody so they can defend and stand for their own rights.”

Looking back, Kenya says the road traveled is a long one, but one filled with many advances, including, for example, securing higher levels of public awareness over abuses faced by the LGBTQ+ community and representation of trans women in public office. The challenges ahead, however, are also great. 

“In Mexico we have a lot to do. We have to repair a historic debt and reparation must be comprehensive. It must include aspects such as justice, health, HIV, the problematic consumption of substances, mental health, everything. There has been much progress, but we are still facing discrimination, inequality and violence.” 

Kenya, and Mexico, are not alone.

From Mexico to El Salvador, Argentina and Colombia, trans women are among the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in Latin America, with an average life expectancy of a mere 35 years. They suffer from high levels of discrimination, which limits many of their rights, including access to job opportunities, health care and other social services. In some cases, this puts them at higher risk of contracting illnesses such as HIV, Syphilis and Hepatitis B. In others, lack of resources means they undergo unsafe medical procedures including hormone therapy without proper supervision which can often lead to severe medical conditions.  

There’s more. 

The exclusion, poverty, and social stigma they endure often leaves them with little options to survive. Some turn to the illicit economy, taking up sex work or getting involved in the drug trade, which often leads to criminalization and prison. For example, it is estimated that trans women represent more than 30 percent of the LGBTQI+ population in prisons in Bolivia and Mexico City

Once behind bars, trans women tend to suffer acute violence and abuse. A 2021 report by Corpora en Libertad that examined the state of LGTBQ+ individuals deprived of their liberty in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador highlighted that trans people were often subject to degrading threats and acts. These include having their hair cut against their will and constantly being reminded that they were born with genitalia that did not match the gender they identify with. 

In some cases, part of the problem is that trans women are placed in men’s prisons, which not only violates their identity rights, but also increases the risk of sexual violence. In others, trans people choose not to be relocated to prisons or detention centers that match their gender identity. Many find forms of resistance inside, just as they do outside. 

“The important thing is that trans women should be able to make their own decisions about where they will be housed while deprived of their liberty,” says Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Governments must respect the sexual orientation and gender identity and expression of trans women deprived of liberty. They are obligated to protect their human rights and must prevent stigma and discrimination against trans women and the LGBTQ+ population in prison more broadly.”

“We learn to play within these dynamics and change the way we are forced to do some of these activities. We can clean the dishes, but we will get paid for it, we won’t do it out of fear,” Kenya explains. 

“Many trans women lose all hope along the way,” she says. But Kenya, or “mamá” as many call her, manages to help them find it again. 

“My biggest revenge is that we will be happy.”