She has walked about 1,800 miles in those brown desert boots.
And when they told Fabiola Caal Choc to go ahead, “pick any shoes you want,” she got a little giddy and reached for some fabulous black suede, over-the-knee boots from the piles of donated shoes. But she put them down.
Then she tried on some delicate peach flats but took those off, too.
She finally found another pair of newer, sturdier desert boots and took those.
She knows the journey — which began Aug. 24, in Peten, Guatemala, and she says included walking nearly 2,000 miles with a migrant caravan, a sexual assault, thirst, hunger, cold, five nights sleeping on a bridge before being allowed to cross into Texas to ask for amnesty, three nights in “the Texas freezers,” the notoriously frigid holding cells at the border and three weeks in solitary confinement — is not over.
“I did not have an easy life. And I can’t promise you an easy life here,” Ruby Corado told Fabiola. The two were sitting under disco balls and next to the cots and emergency blankets in the D.C. homeless shelter that caters mainly to the LGBTQ community. “But I can promise you peace of mind. And I can promise you that you will never be alone on your journey again.”
The moment 35-year-old Fabiola (she prefers a one-name description, and who wouldn’t with a name like that?) walked into Casa Ruby on Georgia Avenue NW on Tuesday after being plucked from the detention center in Texas, she knew she was home.
Lipstick, fantastic shoes, red-white-and-blue balloons, rainbow gift bags, hugs, a hand-knit scarf and at least a dozen transgender women embraced their new sister.
“My family gave me away. Twice. I was raped, the gangs were always threatening me. I had a hard life,” Fabiola said. “I have never, ever had a welcome like this.”
We’ve heard much about the violence, poverty and gangs that migrants from Central America are fleeing. But little is said about the magnified danger that the LGBTQ community faces.
It’s almost like the pink lists of the Holocaust, where between 1,500 and 5,000 gay men were executed but rarely remembered.
Fabiola, who transitioned to living as female when she was 14, said she was threatened and controlled by gangs specifically because she is transgender.
“They know the police don’t care about us; they wouldn’t protect us,” she said.
“They gave me a phone. And whenever they called it, I had to do whatever they told me to do,” she said. “And they showed me a picture of my mother. And told me they would kill her if I didn’t do what they wanted.”
Central and South America are shockingly lethal places for trans people.
Of the 2,609 hate-related murders of trans people across the globe between 2008 and 2017, a stunning 2,048 of them happened in Central and South America, according to the advocacy group Transgender Europe.
Earlier this month, a trans woman named Camila was killed in El Salvador shortly after she was deported from the United States.
It’s why Corado left El Salvador when she was 16, when her father sent his effeminate son away.
After a rough life that included sex work, homelessness and assault, Corado shaped herself into a popular and effective leader for the District’s trans community — testifying before the D.C. Council and visiting the Obama White House.
Her humble drop-in center is a support organization that has 50 employees and helps about 6,000 people every year.
Casa Ruby began receiving letters from trans women in detention centers soon after a caravan crossed the border in the fall. One of those was from Fabiola, who reached out to Corado after hearing that the only place in America for people like her is in Washington.
“Mental health is a part of it for us, too,” Fabiola said, explaining she and the other trans women were abused along the way, their medical conditions largely ignored. Then they were placed in solitary confinement for weeks on end “for our safety,” she said, rolling her eyes.
So Corado went to work, making phone calls and getting the lawyers who volunteer with Casa Ruby to help. “They believe she has a really good case for asylum,” Corado said.
After a couple of weeks of work, Corado signed the papers promising that Casa Ruby will be responsible for Fabiola’s welfare, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released her on parole.
She flew in from Texas on a United flight on Tuesday afternoon, swept out of a bland airport terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and ushered into the rainbow and sparkly fabulosity that only a homeless shelter like Casa Ruby can offer.
Corado is called “Mom” by everyone, and when she enveloped Fabiola in her huge, lasting hug, Fabiola pulled away and looked her in the eyes. “There are others, many others,” she said. “Can we help them, too?”
When she heard that, Corado knew that Fabiola was home.
“When you speak now, you don’t speak only for yourself,” she said, taking Fabiola’s hands into hers. “You speak for all the others, too.”
Corado is working with eight trans women who are in Texas and would like to bring at least 25 trapped in the detention centers to Casa Ruby, but they will need to raise the money to assure ICE that the women will be taken care of. (You can donate to Casa Ruby to help.)
But that’s for the next day. On Fabiola’s first day in Washington, they showed her how to set up the cots and took her up the steep, wooden stairs to the shelter’s attic, into a boutique of donated clothes.
Corado, ever the mom, pulled out a hot pink turtleneck sweater because it’s “tan frio” in the District.
As she was trying on a fuchsia jacket, Fabiola showed Corado the scar and lumps on the right side of her lower back and on her elbow. “She was raped,” Corado said. “And there are pieces of a broken bottle still stuck in there. We’ll get her to a hospital.”
After six months in just three worn and ripped outfits, Fabiola got a brown paper bag full of clothes and an entourage to walk her down the stairs.
It took her six months to get to the United States, but now she has to fight to stay here.
At least, for this part of the journey, she won’t be alone.
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