Lulú Martínez, 28, is a well-known immigrant and LGBTQ rights activist who's in the process of getting asylum in the U.S. Her parents illegally brought her to the U.S. when she was 3. A judge recently sided with her claim that as a vocal queer woman, her life might be in danger if she were deported to Mexico. But the government still has time to appeal that decision. It argues Martinez's fears are overblown because Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
"Because I am an individual that doesn't have very strong ties or knowledge of what it means to live in Mexico, that already put me at risk," Martínez said. "And then being out in terms of my political beliefs, and my queer identity is going to be very dangerous because I don't have the same type of mobility in terms of my political activism here as I might in Mexico. Students and journalists and other individuals who are very outspoken are often repressed or threatened for political activism and just political opinion."
While Mexico is one of the leading countries in Latin America for LGBTQ legal rights, advocacy groups say the picture on the ground — especially in rural and religious areas — could be much worse. Also, the number of murdered women in Mexico has been rising sharply over the past decade, often in areas with important gang presence.
"When I was in the detention center, I heard many, many stories of women who didn't particularly identify as queer, but just being a woman in Mexico and in Central and South America. I realized even more how dangerous it is to be a woman in those parts of the world," Martínez said.
In 2013, Martínez and eight other undocumented immigrants got themselves intentionally arrested at the border as a form of protest. This was obviously a risky move for people living in fear of deportation. The group — known as the Dream 9 — attempted to re-enter the U.S. from Mexico without visas and, as a result, were detained in a federal facility in Arizona. They wanted to witness firsthand what conditions were like for immigrants in detention, and they wanted to help other detainees in whatever way possible.
"There was an older woman that I met who, like, showed me the scars on her legs on her arms, because she had a partner who was very abusive in our country of origin. And so it was so hard to leave and to leave those women behind," Martínez said.
Martinez and another organizer spent eight days in solitary confinement for reportedly inciting a protest. They led other women in the dinner hall to chant "undocumented and unafraid" and gave them the number of a legal hotline. After 15 days behind bars, the Dream 9 were released on parole until a judge would decide on their asylum claims.
"By crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, we were really trying to emphasize the fact that many families were being left out of those concepts and policy proposals," Martínez said.
Their protest was meant to pressure Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reforms that would go beyond the recently enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The effort was also part of a protest movement against the Obama administration's deportation policies. Chicago Magazine named Martínez one of six Chicagoans of the year in 2013 for her activism.
"Coming back to Chicago, I think I was very depressed for a very long time. And I think that's also why I had to take a step back and realize like, there has to be so much more work done to be able to, like, do justice to the people that we meet along the way," Martínez said.
In the footsteps of the Dream 9 came the Dream 30: 30 undocumented activists also turned themselves in to border officers just a couple months after the Dream 9 were released. That group included Marcela Espinoza. She was illegally brought to the U.S. when she was 6, grew up in a Chicago neighborhood known as the Mexico of the Midwest, and then moved back to Mexico when she was 19. Ten years later, she decided to return to the U.S. as part of the Dream 30.
"It's very hard, at least where I'm from in my state, and for many others in Mexico as you can see with Lulu's case, it's not easy to be a queer person, to be a lesbian — particularly how I identify myself — it's very dangerous. It can be very lonely, too," Espinoza said.
Espinoza spent a month in immigration detention in Texas before also being released on parole. While behind bars, she got some comfort knowing that another woman who had a lot in common with her had been through a similar experience.
"And so all of a sudden, we started talking over the phone while I was detained in El Paso, and then things happened. I think one of the pieces that also it just clicked for us were our cats. Like, it sounds funny, but Lulu had cats and I had cats that I had left in Morelia. So I think that was one of the things that really resonated for the both of us," Espinoza said.
"It's just a different aspect of what that meant. Of course, you know, like, sharing struggles and being queer and undocumented and all of that, but like, I think it was just nice to find someone that really love cats."
Espinoza's asylum hearing is set for 2021. In the meantime, she has to check in with the government yearly, knowing too well that her future in the U.S. is very much in limbo.
Photos of the Dream 9 action courtesy of photographer Steve Pavey.