Undocumented and transgender in New York City
Although he was born a man, Joselyn Mendoza, 40, had always identified as a woman but could not freely express herself in the conservative rural town of Cuautla, Mexico. With the dream of finally changing her gender, she fled to the U.S. on her 22nd birthday, Aug. 20, 1998.
Mendoza had heard that New York was a very liberal city and thought her life would be drastically different here, she said. However, almost two decades have passed since she crossed the border and her experience has not matched her expectations.
“Ever since I arrived it has been one obstacle after the other,” she said. “Sure New York City is more accepting that rural Mexico, but that doesn’t mean that life here is a piece of cake for Latino women like me.”
Of the over 1,000 transgender women in the city who are Latino and undocumented, more than 80 percent, including Mendoza, have been denied a job because of their sexual orientation, a National Employment Law Project study shows. Additionally, one in five undocumented Latino transgender women, also including Mendoza, have suffered physical abuse at their work place, according to the same study.
“I was working at a Russian restaurant in Queens in 2003. One day, the manager beat me in the head with a baseball bat until I bled because I refused to work two extra hours,” she said.
Transgender women in general are subject to heavy labor discrimination, according to the study. However, cases of physical abuse and sexual assault are three times more likely among African-American, Latino and undocumented transgender women.
After leaving the restaurant, Mendoza started selling purses at a store in Downtown Manhattan. She had to work an average of 60 hours a week for far less than minimum wage, she said.
In spite of these conditions, Mendoza said, she decided to stay because her only other choice was to go back to Queens, where she had been a sex worker for five years. At the time, her relationship with her mom was not very good, she said. Her mom had kicked her out of the apartment in Brooklyn after finding she was transgender, she added.
The store in Downtown closed in 2009 and Mendoza started looking for a new job. After a year of failed attempts, Mendoza decided to become an advocate for LGBT rights instead.
“They would never tell me straight to my face that they weren’t hiring me because of my condition,” she said. “But it was obvious that they wouldn’t even look at my resume.”
Ishalaa Ortega, another transgender woman from Mexico who has also struggled to find employment, said there should be a law requiring employers to have a certain percentage of LGBT employees.
“We deserve such a law, not because we are special, but because, let’s be honest, we have much higher chances of being victimized,” she said. “I am not asking anyone to give me money, all I want is to have the opportunity to make a living.”
Ortega said that Latino transgender women are particularly vulnerable because most of them, including Mendoza, don’t speak English.
“Out of a 100 girls I know, less than 10 speak English,” she said.
Translatina Network, an organization that helps Latino transgender women, partners with language schools like the Queens Adult Learning Center to provide free English classes for these women, Cristina Herrera, president of Translatina Network, said. In spite of these services, only 5 percent of the women who seek help from Translatina end up taking English classes.
“Learning the language is often a secondary problem for them because they are focusing on surviving and they don’t have time to go take classes,” Herrera said.
Their lack of legal immigration status, job opportunities and English skills forces many of these women to become sex workers to survive, Ortega said.
“It is either that or starving to death, which is why I think it is important to fight to decriminalize the profession,” she said.
On top of finding it nearly impossible to get a job, Latino transgender women, documented and undocumented, have to put up with constant discrimination on the street, Ortega said.
Surprisingly, the biggest discrimination comes from other Latin American undocumented immigrants, Ortega said.
“Our countries are very religious and homophobic,” she said. “That is why we were forced to move here in the first place.”
Cristina Herrera talks about discrimination from Latin American immigrants
“Latin American cultures are very male oriented and have very strong religious convictions. It is hard for many of them to accept us as part of the community,” Cristina Herrera said. “Sometimes they really hurt us. If not even your own community has your back then who will?”
Another issue among transgender women is domestic violence, as a survey by The National Center for Transgender Equality indicates.
Almost 20 percent of transgender women in the U.S have suffered family violence at least once, the survey shows. These numbers are as high as 39 percent among Latino and undocumented transgender women, according to the survey.
Mendoza, for instance, maintained a decade-long relationship with a man who repeatedly beat her, she said.
“One time he almost chopped my fingers off because he didn’t want me to leave the apartment,” she said. “Another time he sent me to the hospital because he stabbed me in the leg.”
She put up with it because she felt he was the only person she could depend on, she said. At the time Mendoza was a sex worker in Queens and didn’t have any type of support from her family, she added.
“We submissively accept all the horrible things that our couples do to us because we are convinced that nobody else will ever love us,” she said. “In our community nobody escapes from domestic violence.”