February 7, 2017 at 1:27 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
She is ‘with us forever’

Francela Méndez was a member of Colectivo Alejandría who was killed at a friend's home in 2015. The transgender rights organization has hung this tribute to her at its offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Francela Méndez was a member of Colectivo Alejandría who was killed at a friend’s home in 2015. The transgender rights organization has hung this tribute to her at its offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Francela Méndez was a prominent transgender rights activist in El Salvador.

She was a board member of Colectivo Alejandría, a trans advocacy group that is based in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. Méndez was also a member of the Salvadoran Human Rights Defenders Network and worked to prevent the spread of HIV in the Central American country.

Méndez was murdered on May 31, 2015, while she was a visiting a friend’s home in the city of Sonsonate, which is roughly 40 miles west of San Salvador. The first thing that I saw on Monday afternoon when I walked into Colectivo Alejandría’s offices in San Salvador’s Magaña neighborhood was a large banner with pictures of Méndez that honored her life.

“With us forever,” it reads.

Violence is an all too common part of life in El Salvador, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates. The situation is even more dire for LGB Salvadorans and especially trans men and women who are marginalized socially, politically and economically.

Colectivo Alejandría President Karla Guevara told me that Méndez is among the 18 trans women who are known to have been killed in El Salvador in 2015. Guevara also highlighted other cases, which includes a group of pandillas (gang members) who killed a gay couple in a youth detention facility because they saw them having sex.

I interviewed Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad (ESMULES) Executive Director Andrea Ayala, volunteers with Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador and Nicolás Rodríguez of the gay blog/website El Salvador G earlier in the day. They all talked about the violence that inflicts such a heavy toll on their community.

Access to a car or a job that does not involve sex work could very well mean the difference between life and death for a trans Salvadoran woman or a gay man who is perceived to be too effeminate. Many of these people feel as though they have no other option than to leave the country and migrate to the U.S.

One can easily conclude that President Trump did not take into account the plight of LGBT Salvadorans and the hundreds of thousands of other people from Central America who are fleeing violence when he signed his executive order that spurs construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

These migrants sin papeles (without papers) are not rapists, drug dealers or criminals. They are human beings, and one should not be neutral on this point. The activists with whom I spoke on Monday said the wall could have disastrous consequences for LGBT Salvadorans who see the U.S. as the only place where they can live and work without the fear of violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“It is a concern,” said Guevara.

Ayala was far more defiant.

“We are all Mexicans,” she said.

Colectivo Alejandría President Karla Guevana speaks to the Washington Blade on Feb. 6, 2017, at her organization's offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Colectivo Alejandría President Karla Guevana speaks to the Washington Blade on Feb. 6, 2017, at her organization’s offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

My status as a gay white man from abroad afforded me a lot of privilege in El Salvador. It allowed me to stay in a secure hotel in a good neighborhood and use taxis and car services that insulated me from the insecurity and violence that many LGBT Salvadorans face.

My friend on Sunday drove me to El Tunco, a beach on the Pacific Ocean that is less than an hour south of San Salvador. We spent the afternoon at a beachside restaurant eating local seafood, drinking Salvadoran beer, watching the surfers and enjoying the first half of the Super Bowl and Lady Gaga’s half time show. We were relaxed and felt safe throughout the entire afternoon.

The worst parts of my trip to El Salvador were the long line to pass through customs at San Salvador’s international airport and the stifling heat that greeted me once I walked outside, the Salvadoran capital’s horrendous traffic and the hotel Wi-Fi that periodically stopped working as it did while I was writing this article in my room. These problems, however, are beyond trivial compared to the life and death struggles that many LGBT Salvadorans face everyday in this beautiful yet troubled country.

Volunteers of Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador at their organization's offices in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Feb. 6, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Volunteers of Generación de Hombres Trans de El Salvador at their organization’s offices in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Feb. 6, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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