A voice message in a laundromat, and a rebirth across the border. One trans woman’s journey to U.S. soil

For months, Ceidy Zethare’s life centered on one question — when would she be able to enter what she calls “the big front door” to the United States.

The 22-year-old oscillated between a fervent faith that her day would come and a depression that tried to convince her she would be stuck in Tijuana forever. On those darker days, she would sit on the roof of the migrant shelter where she lived and look out across the city skyline. In the distance, she could see the border wall and, on the other side, the United States — the place she believes that she, as a trans woman born in Guatemala, could finally feel safe.

“I didn’t want to be a victim in my country,” Zethare said in Spanish. “I want to start my life from zero and forget everything that happened.”

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For years, that big front door to the United States has been generally closed to asylum seekers. When the pandemic began, ports of entry stopped allowing migrants fleeing for their lives onto U.S. soil to request protection. The policy behind that, known as Title 42, also instructs border officials to expel asylum seekers without performing the normally legally required screening processes to see if they qualify as refugees if they try to cross without permission.

The Biden administration kept Title 42 in place and even expanded its use, saying it was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — a rationale that has been long criticized by many public health experts. Then, in April, the administration moved to end the program, but a judge ordered that the policy remain in effect after several states sued.

Meanwhile, a small program to identify especially vulnerable migrants and bring them in through the San Ysidro Port of Entry as exemptions to Title 42 has started up in coordination between Customs and Border Protection and the nonprofit Border Angels, which collaborates with Tijuana shelters. The organization is able to identify up to 35 individuals per day to bring to the border.

Ceidy Zethare, 22, participates in a play put on to educate a delegation of congress members

Zethare participates in a skit put on to educate members of Congress about what LGBTQ asylum seekers face. The congressional delegation visited Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, on May 6.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A couple of weeks ago, Zethare met with members of Congress who visited the Jardín de las Mariposas shelter. She and several other shelter residents performed a skit about the difficulties of waiting for U.S. border policies to allow them to request asylum as well as about the particular dangers that LGBTQ migrants face. The shelter residents had extravagantly decorated the patio where they met with U.S. officials.

That day, her hopes soared.

But in the week that followed, the shelter director told her that her name wasn’t likely to appear on the daily list of who would be going into the United States next. Zethare fell into a panicked desperation.

She was afraid of what might happen to her if she stayed in Tijuana. She’d already been beaten once since arriving there, the scars still fresh on her neck and limbs.

She also worried about maintaining her treatment for HIV, a condition she’s been living with since she was drugged and raped on a night out in 2019 with people she thought were her friends. It is difficult for migrants from other countries to get access to health care in Mexico, and Zethare’s mother tried to send the medications from Guatemala when she could get the money together to do so.

The experience is reflective of why she ultimately fled her country, the persecution she faced because of her gender identity.

She thinks of that day as a major demarcation of a before and an after in her life. This week marked a second such milestone for her — the before and after based this time on joy rather than tragedy.

Ceidy Zethare and Julian Chacón do laundry in a laundromat

Zethare, left, and Julian Chacón do laundry together to save money while they wait in Tijuana, living at a migrant shelter, for the United States to allow them to request asylum.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On Tuesday afternoon, Zethare went with three of her friends and roommates to wash clothes at a laundromat near the shelter. They usually went in a group, both for safety and to share the costs of the machines. While Zethare was watching the suds dance through the window of a washing machine, Emy Abrego, one of her roommates, called her over to listen to a message she had just received. She learned that they would both be entering the United States the next day — in less than 24 hours.

Zethare cried, hugging her friends in the rush of joy that she felt. Then, her smile softened with doubt. She called the shelter director to be sure the news was true.

“It’s official,” she said as she hung up. Then Zethare called her mother.

She huddled near the ground leaning on a row of dryers, the two of them crying together over a video call.

Back home, her mother had been her source of support, trying to protect her from her father’s violent and often drunken attacks, even if it meant getting beaten by him as well.

“She misses me,” Zethare said. “She wants me to reach the things I couldn’t reach there because society (in Guatemala) isn’t open to diversity.”

Zethare left Guatemala in secret. For weeks, her mother didn’t know where she was as she struggled to get through southern Mexico. Officials kept sending her back. It was only when she made it as far as Mexico City that she told her mother.

In Mexico City, Zethare got a tattoo on her wrist, an infinity symbol with her
mother’s name to remind her of the immensity of maternal love, she said.

Ceidy Zethare embraces Emy Abrego after learning through a voice message that they will be allowed to enter the United States

Ceidy Zethare, 22, embraces Emy Abrego, 34, after learning through a voice message that they will be allowed to enter the United States through a special program for particularly vulnerable migrants.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ceidy Zethare leans on dryers in a laundromat as she calls her mother after learning that she will be allowed into the U.S.

Zethare calls her mother to share that she will be allowed to enter the United States the next day. Her mother was one of the only people in Guatemala who supported her through the persecution she faced because of her gender identity.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ceidy Zethare's mother face is visible on the screen of her daughter's phone

Zethare’s mother reacts after learning through a phone call that Zethare will be allowed to enter the United States. The two have a close relationship, and the mother hopes that Zethare will be able to achieve her dreams in the United States in a way that she couldn’t in Guatemala because of discrimination based on her gender identity.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Once they heard the news, Zethare and Abrego rushed back to the shelter to prepare documents for their journey. Along the way, the pair exchanged high fives and hugs.

When they returned to the laundromat, the four friends huddled together, processing the news. It didn’t feel real yet, Zethare said.

“This is what our lives are like (as migrants),” she said. “Everything can change in a moment.”

Emy Abrego, 34, Samuel Antonio Carranza Chavez, 21, Jose Geovanny Torres Morataya, 22, and Julian Chacon, 26

From left: Abrego, Samuel Antonio Carranza Chavez, Zethare and Chacón walk back to Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers, after finishing their laundry.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Back at the shelter, Zethare and Abrego joined another roommate who would be going with them to the border, Alinne Audelo, in packing suitcases. Zethare and Audelo discussed what Zethare should wear as she walked into the United States. She already knew part of her outfit, a studded jean jacket she’d been saving for this moment.

They mulled over different hues of jeans, and then Zethare held up two tops, one brown and the other black. In the end, they agreed on the black one with an open back.

Ceidy Zethare pokes her head out of a bedroom to speak to a housemate while getting ready on her last morning at the shelter

Zethare pokes her head out of a bedroom to speak to a housemate while getting ready on her last morning at Jardín de las Mariposas.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Zethare celebrated her final night in Tijuana by eating pizza with her friends on the shelter’s patio. She painted her nails a bold red.

Too excited to sleep much, she stayed up until 3 a.m. and woke again around 5. She waited for her turn to shower, brushed her hair and dressed.

Then she went out on the rooftop, where several residents were gathered to do their makeup. She squeezed a couple shades of foundation onto her hand to blend to just the right tone for her. She applied blush and mascara and then settled in for the finale of her process — a friend painting dramatic layers of eyeshadow across her lids.

Luis Fernando Umana does the makeup of Ceidy Zethare on the shelter's rooftop

Luis Fernando Umana does the eyeshadow of Zethare on her last morning at the shelter. Zethare did the rest of her makeup herself, but Umana specializes in doing eyeshadow for many of the residents.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ceidy Zethare's manicured hand is visible adjusting items in her suitcase

Zethare finishes packing on her last day at Jardín de las Mariposas. She’d painted her fingernails the night before in preparation for the journey to the border.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ceidy Zethare takes a selfie on her last morning at Jardín de las Mariposas

Zethare takes a selfie outside the shelter as she waits for her ride to the border.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Once she was satisfied with her look, Zethare bounced up and down the shelter’s spiral staircase to organize the last items for her trip and finalize her suitcase.

She joined the other residents, whom she often refers to as a family, for breakfast, but she could barely eat. She scraped most of her food into a trash can before gathering belongings and waiting for Yolanda Rocha — the shelter director whom Zethare affectionately calls “madrina” — to drive the women to the border. The song “Halo” by Beyoncé played from her phone as she stood outside with a small red suitcase.

Many of the shelter residents joined Zethare in front of the building to take selfies and hug her goodbye, affectionately calling her “amor,” “estrella” and “bebé.” As the residents moved on to the day’s activities — beginning with a meditative movement class — Zethare and the others on their way to the next step of their journeys paused for a group photo on the patio staircase, striking poses worthy of glossy magazines.

Ceidy Zethare stands on the street holding her red suitcase

Zethare takes a deep breath while waiting for an Uber to take her to the border.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In Rocha’s car and a couple of Ubers, the five women and their belongings made their way to a rendezvous point where Border Angels gathers people about to cross from the network of shelters. The Uber driver asked Zethare if she was a model.

“Something like that,” she answered with a laugh.

Going to the United States was finally starting to feel real, she said.

At the meeting place, Gina Garibo of American Friends Service Committee gave the group an overview of the process they were about to experience and showed them a video about the asylum system.

Asylum seekers watch a video about the asylum process

Asylum seekers watch a video about the asylum process before heading to El Chaparral plaza to cross the border to PedWest, where U.S. officials will process them.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ceidy Zethare leans her head toward Alinne Audelo as they sit together

Alinne Audelo, left, and Zethare as they and others receive an orientation about the process they’re about to go through when they reach PedWest pedestrian border crossing.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Garibo called the names of everyone on the list to enter that day. Zethare was among the first. Garibo immediately asked her what name she preferred to be called.

“Ceidy,” she said.

It was one of a handful of times that someone has asked her preferred name, she said, noting that they were all since arriving at the shelter in Tijuana.

“When I asked them to call me a different name, they made fun of me and told me, ‘You’re not a woman,’” she recalled of her life in Guatemala.

A little before noon, the group squeezed into a van to make the final journey to the border. Mexican immigration officials received them in the parking lot next to El Chaparral plaza, the southern end of the PedWest crossing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Zethare waits to walk into the western entrance of the main port of entry

Zethare waits to walk into the western entrance of the main port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, known as PedWest on the north side and El Chaparral on the south side. She paused to wave shortly before walking in.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Inside the port of entry, Zethare was interviewed and fingerprinted. She was never placed in a holding cell, and she felt like the U.S. officials treated her with respect. And though officials used her original name in the process, walking through that long sought door was liberating.

“In the moment I walked through that door, Ceidy really is who she is and will be who she will be,” she said.

Customs and Border Protection held her until around 9 p.m., when she was finally taken to a hotel used by the San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter to temporarily house asylum seekers on their way to destinations all over the country.

At the hotel, she was tested for COVID-19 and waited to be cleared to travel. Early Friday, the shelter’s bus picked her up and transported her to the shelter’s “travel center” — the space that was used as the actual shelter before the pandemic shifted it to hotel rooms. She waited there, chatting gleefully on her phone, until it was time to go to the airport.

< figure class="figure"> Zethare walks to her gate at the San Diego International Airport en route to New York City.

Zethare walks to her gate at the San Diego International Airport en route to New York City.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A sponsor who helps asylum seekers from the LGBTQ community who don’t know anyone in the United States was waiting to receive her in New York. One of Zethare’s close friends who helped her when she first arrived at the Jardín de las Mariposas shelter also planned to meet her at the airport.

She hopes to learn English quickly and work in fashion.

She will begin her transition to present as the woman she knows she is, a process she estimates will take about a year and a half.

“Now I am at peace, now I can breathe,” Zethare said. “Dreams can come true.”