Transgender migrant reaches U.S. only to die

As Mayela Villegas crossed the bridge from Matamoros, Mexico, to Texas, she looked like a success story. Defying the odds, she had been allowed into the United States to pursue her asylum claim.

That was a year ago today: Oct. 5, 2019. We had met days before in the Mexican border tent camp where she had been living with about 2,000 others after migrating from El Salvador. White crosses on the nearby banks of the Rio Grande memorialized parents and children who had recently died trying to cross the river illegally.

A 27-year-old transgender woman, Mayela had been kidnapped and raped in Mexico and El Salvador. She told me those stories alone, in her tent, with the opening zipped tight against eavesdroppers. In the camp, a migrant woman from Honduras had threatened to gut her with a knife. Mayela secretly recorded the threat on her phone, found a witness and reported it to Mexican authorities. That became grounds for her successful U.S. asylum claim, which allowed her to enter the U.S. legally and settle with relatives in Houston.

Seven months later, at the end of May, one of Mayela’s friends messaged me on Facebook: Mayela was dead.

“Is there any way you can help us find what happened to her?” Deisy Polanco wrote.

Mayela Villegas was in the U.S. for less than a year before she died. She was just 29 years old.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

I was in Minneapolis, covering Black Lives Matter protests and getting shot at by police. I didn’t want to believe Mayela had died. But I suspected Polanco was right.

Transgender women are often assaulted and killed. In August, two men were charged in an alleged hate crime attack and robbery of three transgender women in Los Angeles. At least 30 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed this year, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign — more than all of last year. And in the last five years, more transgender people have been killed in Texas than in any other state.

I sent Mayela a Facebook message. I called. Finally, a coroner outside Houston confirmed Polanco’s news. The autopsy report was pending.

I hadn’t spoken to Mayela in months, and felt guilty. She had called me now and then but, traveling and on assignment, I had responded late or not at all. Was there something I could have done?

I promised to update Polanco, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Colombia and couldn’t understand why Mayela had died so soon after reaching the U.S.

“She was really a warrior. She suffered a lot to come here,” Polanco said.

Mayela Villegas applies makeup on Johana Orellana in her tent in Matamoros, Mexico

Mayela Villegas applies makeup on Johana Orellana in a tent encampment near the Gateway International Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros, Mexico.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At the border camp, Mayela’s tent sat next to a fetid black pool where migrants dumped their trash. That’s where the knife-wielding migrant had threatened her, saying she was more woman than Mayela was.

Mayela Villegas had worried about dying and how it would affect her mother.

Mayela Villegas had worried about dying and how it would affect her mother in San Salvador, who accepted her as trans.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the threat, Mayela did not consider disguising herself in men’s clothes.

“I’m a woman,” she said. “I can’t give up what I am.”

She worried about dying and the effect it would have on her mother in San Salvador, who accepted her as trans.

“Where will I be buried?” she said. “Will my mother know?”

In a quiet moment, she also made an admission: “I think about suicide sometimes.”

::

After crossing the border, Mayela went to live with her aunt in a leafy suburban Houston cul-de-sac. When I drove over to interview her a week after she arrived, Mayela was outside her aunt’s brick house, upset and in tears.

I’d never seen her crack like that, even when her life was at stake in the border camp. She always dressed, talked and acted like the strong woman she wanted to be.

But her family had rattled her. Mayela explained that she had wanted to wear a red dress, but her aunt told her to change into something more subdued. She wore a black and white flowered blouse, jeans and heels, bubblegum pink nails plus her usual full face of makeup, including red lipstick. I’d never seen her without it, even at the border camp, which lacked running water.

Her aunt did not invite me inside. Mayela said that she was very religious, a conservative Christian who still called her “he” and by her male birth name. The closeted family dynamic was familiar: My mother is gay, married to a Latina in Texas; both were raised Catholic.

As we drove to meet the photographer, I asked about Mayela’s plans, and her mood improved. She was a hairstylist who hoped to work at a salon with her aunt as soon as she received a work permit. She hoped to get a car so she wouldn’t have to rely on relatives for rides. Eventually, she wanted to find her own place.

Mayela Villegas stands on a bridge in the Houston area.

Mayela Villegas said she didn’t consider dressing like a man when she felt unsafe. “I’m a woman. I can’t give up what I am.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

She perked up as she posed for photos on a sun-drenched bridge over Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, a gay enclave. Passersby barely noticed. After lunch at a Chinese buffet, we stopped at my rental house to pick up my then-fiance, so we could run errands after I dropped her off.

“He’s cute!” she said. “Teach him more Spanish so I can talk to him.”

I’d introduced my boyfriend to people I’d interviewed before, especially when I lived on the border for several months. But in all my years covering deportations, family separations and asylum, Mayela was the first person I’d interviewed and brought home. After all she had shared with me, it seemed natural.

When we dropped her off at her aunt’s, Mayela mentioned in passing that she was supposed to attend church and a family party. She sounded tired. She didn’t want to go, she said, because she would end up drinking. She hadn’t had alcohol for a year before crossing the border. But at another family party after she arrived in Houston, she drank 10 beers.

When we left Mayela at her aunt’s front gate, she was smiling.

In the months that followed, we stayed in touch on Facebook. When I got married Oct. 19, she sent congratulations and a blessing. She posted about her favorites: the movie “Sin Nombre,” which chronicled several Central Americans’ struggle with gangs and journey to the U.S., and the song “Mala Mia,” by Colombian singer Maluma, whose chorus resonated:

I’ve always been like this, you all knew it

This is my life, it’s only mine.

You don’t live it.

On Dec. 5, Mayela messaged that her mother, Maria Esperanza, had died. She sent a photo of the grave in San Salvador, a dirt mound blanketed in daisies and pink roses.

“One more torture in my life after everything I’ve been through,” Mayela wrote. “I’m worse than bad.”

She asked if I could give her a ride to immigration court the following week. Sure, I said, assuming the courthouse was in Houston. But the address she sent was near the border. I told her she would have to take the bus. We reviewed the Greyhound schedule.

I didn’t hear from her again until April 15. It was 1:44 a.m.

“I know this is not the hour to write,” she messaged. “Do you think you can give me a few minutes of your time later please?”

I was in Louisiana covering the pandemic’s impact on the Black community and didn’t see her note, which haunts me.

At 2:20 p.m., Mayela sent the last message I would ever receive from her: “Well, I will look for someone else, thanks.” I messaged her the next day, but she never replied.

::

She always loved the name Mayela, ever since she was small. Her sister thinks she was inspired by a pageant winner, a past Miss Universe El Salvador.

In the funeral program, Mayela’s family thanked the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, which helped her and other LGBTQ migrants at the border camp. But the funeral program referred to her first by her birth name, noting the deceased was “known as Mayela.” It featured photos we took in Houston for the Times article, but also pictures of Mayela dressed as a man.

Mayela Villegas consults with Dani Marrero Hi, a fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project, on a border bridge

Mayela Villegas consults with Dani Marrero Hi, a fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project, before speaking to officers on the border bridge to Brownsville.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

I was out of state again on assignment when the funeral was held, but in a video Polanco later shared, I could see Mayela in her coffin: hair and nails chopped, makeup erased. She was dressed in something I had never seen her wear in life: a suit and tie.

After being granted asylum, Mayela Villegas hugs Dani Marrero Hi before boarding a bus for Houston.

After being granted asylum, Mayela Villegas hugs Dani Marrero Hi, a fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project, before boarding a bus for Houston.

(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Polanco, a devout Christian, was appalled. She asked Mayela’s relatives whose idea it had been to dress her as a man. They said her family in San Salvador had requested it. But when Polanco phoned Mayela’s sister there, she was shocked.

“It was horrible,” Polanco said of the outfit. “An insult.”

Polanco, a married mother of three, had met Mayela while they worked at a 99 Ranch Market. Mayela would come to Polanco’s house to bleach and style her hair. They were saving money: Polanco for liposuction, Mayela for a used red Dodge sedan and gender confirmation surgery.

When Polanco got laid off, Mayela wouldn’t let her cry. She dressed them up in sexy black spandex pants and filmed a dance video in Polanco’s living room to Dominican reggaeton singer N-Fasis.

They filmed the dance in the same room where Polanco, her 3-year-old son Hansel and I watched the video this summer. Polanco smiled.

“When I was down, she would make me feel like a real woman,” Polanco said.

Hansel murmured, “Mayela.”

“He still asks for her.”

After Mayela’s mother died, she became depressed, Polanco said. She quit her job and started working as an escort, disappearing for days at a time. Polanco once found a baggie with white powder residue in her car after giving Mayela a ride, and worried she might be doing drugs.

In February, Mayela got a job at a salon, then shifted during the pandemic to doing hair at people’s homes.

“I used to tell her to take care of herself,” Polanco said. “She said she was fine.”

The last time she spoke to Mayela — two days before she died, a Friday — she promised to come do Polanco’s hair the following Monday.

Another asylum seeker who met Mayela in the border camp and stayed in touch with her, Rey Rodriguez, also managed to enter the U.S. legally and settled in Washington, D.C. Like other LGBTQ migrants, Rodriguez, 36, is building a new life in the U.S. but acknowledges the hurdles some, like Mayela, face.

“It’s so hard, this thing that we go through,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have no energy for anything else.”

::

Last month, I received the sheriff’s report on Mayela’s death and saw it listed a witness: her aunt, Blanca Villegas.

Villegas, 54, told a detective that on May 31, Mayela was driving her and her 15-year-old daughter back from a friend’s party where they had been drinking when she suddenly stopped the car shortly before 9 p.m. and demanded they get out. They refused. Mayela left the car, crossed the highway’s concrete divider and jumped in front of an oncoming pickup truck. The driver told investigators Mayela had her hands up.

Paramedics performed CPR, but Mayela died at the scene. The coroner’s report would later say her blood-alcohol level was 0.153%, legally drunk.

Detectives reviewed Mayela’s cellphone and found nothing to indicate she wanted to kill herself. But the coroner’s report noted a “history of suicidal attempts” and ruled the death a suicide.

Because such government reports don’t identify people like Mayela as transgender, it can be difficult to track how many die and why. Nationally, 40% of transgender adults attempted suicide, nearly nine times the rate for the general population, according to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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Polanco and Mayela’s sister Veronica Villegas still had trouble believing Mayela had killed herself. Veronica Villegas, 22, said that among their eight siblings, she and Mayela were closest to each other and to their mother.

“My mother accepted her over time because she had no other option but to love her as she was,” Villegas wrote on WhatsApp.

She hoped to bury Mayela’s ashes beside their mother.

In a series of text messages, Blanca Villegas, Mayela’s aunt in Houston, said she wasn’t against Mayela being trans, that “anyone can be the way they want.” Before the viewing, she said, Mayela’s father and siblings “decided to see Mayela dressed as a man so they could see in the video one last time.”

Mayela had achieved so much — gained entry to the U.S., found an immigration attorney, even bought that car. But Kelly Escobar, a migrant advocate who met Mayela while living in the border camp, said the death of Mayela’s mother “threw her into a depression.” Unlike relatives who insisted on using her male birth name and “he,” her mother addressed her as “Mayela” and “she.”

Escobar, whose husband immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras, started to cry.

“There are people dying to be where she was at. Obviously, she was suffering. I just wish I could have done more for her,” she said.

So do I.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, seek help from a professional by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).