In 1990, Paloma Cortez immigrated to the United States to seek a better life for herself. Like many others before her, she traveled across Mexico on board of “La Bestia,” a cargo train that brought her to the border with the United States. But in San Antonio, Cortez was kidnapped by a gang that preys on migrants.

She was held and raped for two months. When she managed to escape, she found herself in Texas without money or papers. She was sexually assaulted again there, but reported nothing out of fear of being deported. It was only when she arrived in New York that she was able to begin a new life.

Paloma Cortéz, 49, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico seeking acceptance and stability. She had heard that San Francisco and New York were the most tolerant cities, so she decided to begin a new life in New York. Paloma contracted HIV between 1996 and 1999.

The pursuit of the American dream is especially difficult for transgender Latinos. Subject to discrimination in employment and housing, they are often victims of police abuse and poverty in the United States. A study by the Queens-based organization Make The Road found that 46 percent of Latino trans women reported they had been physically abused by the police, compared to 28 percent of non-LGBTQ respondents. Nonetheless, 99 percent of the participants in this study reported having better opportunities here than in their country of origin.

To give a face to these statistics, I spent time with a community of transgender immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens. These are their stories.

Laura Martinez, who came to New York from Veracruz, Mexico, is a well-known trans artist who has been working in the entertainment business for more than 11 years, and is a mentor to more than 40 young Latina trans and drags artists just starting out. They all receive her last name, Martinez, as a symbol of joining her family. She is also a minister at St Paul the Apostle church in New York City.
Linda Carolina Dominguez, 41, originally from Colombia, getting ready to perform at a club in Jackson Heights. She believes the biggest challenge for her as a woman is being accepted by the person she loves. “Other people, and their beliefs, don’t matter if you are in love.”
1: A trans Latina sex-worker in Jackson Heights, Queens. 2: A professional Latina drag performer at a gay club in Jackson Heights.
Yessica Goman, 33, in her home in Jackson Heights. She is an Ecuadorian trans woman who has been living in the U.S. for the last two decades. At 17, she decided to transform her body, taking hormones. Yessica describes this process as extremely difficult due to the lack of education for undocumented LGBT persons. Her mother always supported her, but for many years her father stopped talking to her.
A year ago, Milena, 59, went on a spiritual retreat and finally decided to change her gender. All her life, she felt she had to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. “Religion forced me to be a man, society forced me to be a man. I struggled against my own nature for 40 years.”
Claudia Spellman, winner of the new Trans Latina 2016 beauty contest, held at a local club in Jackson Heights.