Marbella Caporr is from El Salvador and spent 10 months in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma before receiving asylum in January 2019. Members of Seattle synagogue Kadima have been sponsoring her as she transitions into life as a legal permanent resident. Gregory Scruggs is a journalist and Kadima member who has helped her with translation and navigating local bureaucracy. He also pays for her ORCA card and occasional meals and basic living expenses. She agreed to share her story, which is drawn from a sworn affidavit prepared for her asylum hearing and also from a sit-down interview Scruggs conducted, both translated from the original Spanish. All names, including Caporr's, have been changed or removed for safety. Three of Caporr's relatives are living in the United States with pending asylum cases. —Eds.
Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be a girl. I was born in a male body, but I identify as a woman. While my mother and sisters accepted me, my father did not. My dad hit me with a machete case just for asking for a kiss from my mother. He said I brought shame on the family and needed to be punished. He said I was a curse and it would be better if I died.
When I was 12, my dad made me take more than 200 pills that supposedly were to produce masculine hormones. He made me take two a day. The only thing the pills did was make me gain and then lose a lot of weight, giving me stretch marks.
Around the same time, men in my town in El Salvador started harassing me on the street. They could see that I carried myself more like a girl. Many of the men in our neighborhood would mock me when I walked down the street. They would shout that they were going to fuck me. Sometimes they would call me marica or faggot or things that meant that my anus was big from having anal sex.
At 13, tired of the humiliations, mistreatment, beatings, and curses, I decided to leave the house.
When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I began to sell perfumes out of catalogs, and as a result, I spent more time in the town center. On those trips, I met other gay or transgender people. Some of us decided to rent an apartment together.
These friends encouraged me to dress up in women's clothes in public. I had always done this at home, but with their help and support, I felt comfortable enough to do it in public with them. The first time, I went with some friends to a dance club. It was beautiful—I felt supported and understood by my friends, and some guys danced with us. It was a wonderful experience.
Violence and Extortion
In March 2010, I was raped by five men while washing clothes in the river in my old neighborhood. I recognized them immediately—they were some of the men who had harassed me my whole life.
They stripped off my clothes and tied my hands. They kicked my testicles and burned my legs with lit plastic, leaving scars I have to this day. They peed on my face and shoved it in the sand. Then they took turns raping me. They did it in a way that showed how much they hated me.
Throughout the attack, they told me I brought shame on myself. They said I wasn't a man because I dressed like a woman. They said that I was going to make the local women think that all men liked men. They said horrible, horrible things to me.
At the end, one of them put a glass bottle in my rectum. They threatened to kill me if I reported them. Then they departed, leaving me practically unconscious with my hands still bound and the bottle still inside me.
I eventually got up and went to a neighbor's house, barely able to walk. He knew I was transgender and had accepted me, so I told him what happened. He went with me to the closest police station. When I spoke to the sergeant, he didn't take any notes. I told him the names of the men who attacked me and everything they did to me. He listened. Then he said they could not do anything and that the patrol car was broken. He also said that I had been asking for it because I sometimes dressed up like a woman, tempting men. He said that I knew very well that nobody cared about faggots.
I started to have nightmares that my attackers were following me. I thought about death constantly and had sudden moments where I couldn't breathe. I had visions of crosses with dates on them that I thought were the day I was going to die. I had nightmares of being in a room and water coming in over the walls, more and more water coming in, and I couldn't get out.
This attack still affects me. I still yell in my sleep and wake up from nightmares about these men finding me again. They say things like "We found you finally" and "This is what we've been waiting for."
In August 2012, I was with six transgender friends at a park in San Salvador at 10 p.m. We were all dressed in women's clothing. A police patrol car approached us. Some soldiers and police officers got out and forced us onto our knees. They beat us with their guns and told us that they were not going to tolerate this filth in the town. They said they were protecting kids from us—they didn't want children to think that it was okay to be like us.
The police imprisoned us for two days in a very crowded room with a bunch of men. We were still dressed in women's clothes, and the police told the men that they were giving them "fresh meat." The men cheered and everyone knew what was going to happen. We knew there was no point in telling the officers about the abuse afterward.
At the beginning of 2014, gang members began to extort us in exchange for not killing us. They said that we had to pay them to stay alive because we all knew the police wouldn't protect us. They threatened our relatives too if we didn't pay up. They told us that the police wanted to kill or imprison us. We knew it was true, and we didn't have any other option but to pay them.
One night in October 2014, I was heading home with friends when we saw four men running in one direction, leaving a body in the street. We got close to the body and saw that it was Pablo, a gay friend of ours. Shortly after the killers ran off, a police patrol car arrived from the same direction the killers had run.
We watched as police officers put the body in the car and drove off. This showed us the police were covering up the crime, if not directly involved in the murder. I recognized the men as cops, including an officer who beat me in 2012.
Several days later, a police officer called and threatened to kill me for observing Pablo's murder unless I paid $800, which I did out of fear for my life. Since 2011, two of my relatives and seven of my friends have been killed in El Salvador for being gay or transgender, or being related to gay or transgender people.
Escape Through Mexico
I left El Salvador in February 2015 and crossed the Rio Grande in March. The border patrol detained me, and I spent two months requesting asylum in a Texas detention center. I left after paying a $4,000 bond and then spent 10 months in California. At the time, I was in a relationship with a Mexican man. One day, I got a call that another friend had been killed in El Salvador and I got really upset. I took antidepressants and the man I was dating gave me some pills, too. Then I lost consciousness.
When I woke up, I was in a hotel room in Tijuana and my boyfriend had disappeared. I panicked. I went to the police station. They told me if I tried to go back to the United States again, I would be put in prison.
I tried to contact my boyfriend, but he didn't answer his phone. I knew my aunt and gay cousin were coming to Mexico because people were trying to kill my cousin. They told me I could stay with them in Chiapas. Once I got to Chiapas, I finally got in touch with the man I had been dating, and he told me he thought I was going to die when I overdosed and he didn't want to get in trouble in the US, so he took me to Mexico. I was unconscious at the time, so I don't know how he took me across the border.
In Chiapas, I worked at a cantina that my aunt had rented. A woman who owned the business next door wanted me and my cousin to sell cocaine for her. She assumed we were promiscuous because of our sexuality and therefore would be good people to sell drugs. We declined to sell cocaine for her, and she got angry. She told us that we had HIV and were going to infect everyone else. Her sons started to yell homophobic slurs when they saw us.
At this time, I was hoping that I could live in Mexico safely, and I requested asylum. The problems with the neighboring business owner had already started, but I thought we could work it out. I knew I couldn't go back to El Salvador, and I knew I'd be detained again if I went to the United States.
In July 2017, Mexico gave me asylum. But I soon realized this would not mean safety. In January 2018, the neighboring business owner, her husband, and her sons showed up early one morning with wooden bats and attacked us. They said that we were fucking fags who brought shame to the community.
About a month later, I went with my aunt to buy shrimp for the restaurant. While we were out, her son—my gay cousin—was shot and killed. My aunt told me to run away so that the same thing wouldn't happen to me.
The same day my cousin was killed, I fled.
I had been in contact with an LGBTQ shelter in Tijuana via Facebook, and I decided to go there. But I still wasn't safe. Less than a week later, I was in a public bathroom in the city center wearing women's clothes. Inside, a man approached me with a knife and threatened to kill me. He forced me onto my knees and made me strip off my clothes in front of him. I was terrified he was going to rape or kill me.
He asked me about another gay man he wanted to kill, who he said had raped his younger brother. He said I must know who he was because I was gay, too. The whole time he was yelling at me, he either had the knife on my throat or on my back. He made me lie on the ground, put my head down, and count to a thousand. He stole my watch and wallet.
After this, I understood that I couldn't stay in Mexico a day longer. In March 2018, I went to the border at San Ysidro, even though I knew it would mean I was going to be detained, and requested asylum again.
Land of the Free?
Border patrol put me in a freezing, overcrowded cell with 40 other men where we slept on the floor with only a space blanket. After four days, they handcuffed us and put us on a bus to Arizona. I was not allowed to take my depression and anxiety medication because it was from Mexico, so I felt very distressed and agitated.
After six days, we were handcuffed again at night and put on a bus to the airport when I had a panic attack. I threw up in the toilet and collapsed there. Other detainees shouted to the officer to help me. He said, "Leave him there, let him die."
We arrived at the airport at dawn. Once aboard, the flight attendant said that in case of emergency, we had to reach up and pull down the oxygen mask. How were we supposed to do anything in case of emergency with our hands and feet tied? It was stupid and illogical.
At the Tacoma detention center, they registered us and sent us straight to our cells. I asked again for my anxiety medication. The psychiatrist gave me something different instead. Since I never got the medicine that I truly needed for my anxiety and depression, I never could get better there. I even got to a point where I thought about throwing myself off the second floor. I had a panic attack during my first court date and the judge suspended the hearing. It was a very difficult life.
I was eventually connected with Maru Mora Villalpando from the Northwest Detention Center Resistance [now known as La Resistencia], and I explained that I didn't have a lawyer. She helped me however she could, like putting money in my account so that I could make a call or buy some food in the commissary.
Alison Hollenbeck, a lawyer with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, took my case and helped me prepare my declaration, detailing my history in El Salvador and Mexico. She warned that our hearing was going to take at least four hours.
The judge had already read the documentation, however, and the hearing was over in 15 minutes. The judge said: "You are a person who has suffered greatly. If you return to your country, you will be at risk, so I am going to give you asylum and you will be able to work legally in this country."
At first, I didn't understand. Alison was laughing and saying, "Yes, we did it. We won." We cried from the emotion. It was very beautiful.
An hour and a half later, I was outside where my niece, who also fled El Salvador and requested asylum, was waiting for me. I spent a month in Hillsboro, Oregon, with a friend I made in the detention center, but I couldn't get help with my medical issues or figuring out how to finalize my work papers. Maru told me to come to Seattle and connected me with Kadima, which told me they had a place for me to live with a nice lady named Ellie who has a dog.
From then until now, I've been living with Ellie and feeling very good. I have gotten a Social Security number, Medicaid, an I-94 immigration arrival form, refugee cash assistance, and an ORCA LIFT card. I am taking English classes at Casa Latina and attending events at Entre Hermanos. I also applied for a warehouse job with Amazon.
When I arrived, the only thing I knew about Seattle was the Space Needle. I was shocked the first time I saw two people of the same sex holding hands. In my country, doing that is like a death penalty. Ellie told me that was normal here. I saw a lot of rainbow flags on Capitol Hill and signs saying refugees are welcome here. I've never been discriminated against here. It makes me feel freer.
One night, I went to Queer Bar. The men were divine. It was very different than the bars in El Salvador. There you go in scared, thinking somebody is suddenly going to attack you or will be waiting to kill you when you get out. People here are very open-minded and love each other no matter their sexual orientation or the color of their skin.
I went to the South Park Pride Picnic. I really liked it because there were a lot of people who aren't from the LGBTQ community but they support the cause. There were children and married couples showing their support. In my country, the people who aren't LGBTQ don't go to these events, especially not with their children.
I'm ready for my first Pride parade. I don't know yet how I am going to dress. In El Salvador, only about 400 people came to marches. People heckled us from their cars and threw bags of water at us.
My biggest challenge is English. When I arrived, my dream had three components: (1) get asylum, (2) learn English, and (3) learn to drive. But now I see that living here in Seattle, I don't need to drive. There are a lot of ways to get to places without needing to drive. So right now, since I've got asylum, my priority is to learn English.
I still feel vulnerable about dressing as a woman in public—worried that somebody might hurt me. I am waiting for the right moment. When I have a job and live independently, I will do what I really want.
I hope one day to have a partner who treats me like a woman. Someday I would like to take hormones and become more womanly. I have always wanted to see myself more like a woman. I would like to have breasts, a higher voice, and not have facial hair. I pray that I could be myself and not be in danger. But this is something that could never happen in El Salvador or Mexico.
Now I am in the place where I should have been born.