For many in the queer community, it can feel like a constant struggle to be seen and heard—to even exist. Seemingly, the more a queer identity intersects with the identities represented within other marginalized communities, the greater the magnitude of that struggle. This dynamic is almost certainly no truer than it is with queer immigrants who must fight to be visible on at least two major battlefronts at the forefront of American politics. It’s difficult to even know where to begin finding people whose stories deserve to be amplified.
This was the response from Louisville’s Office for Globalization, whose mission is partly to assist with any human and/or social needs of recent immigrants to the area. The sharing of this statement isn’t to diminish the important work that the office does but to underscore the severity of stigma that many queer immigrants face.
How does one put their best foot forward in beginning a new life in a foreign country when one does not feel comfortable sharing their queer identity with someone who is ostensibly there to help, when institutions often do not offer specific services to queer people?
Sassa Rivera is the digital communications liaison for La Casita Center, a non-profit organization that accompanies those navigating the immigration process in Louisville, KY and surrounding areas. La Casita is one of the few organizations in the area that offers these services with the queer community in mind.
“La Casita is one of the only organizations that uses gender-inclusive language in Spanish,” they said. “We have staff members and board members who are queer that lead us, but because we are founded within the Latina women’s movement – which has grassroots and pillars in all we work in – LGBTQ issues and movements have always been a part of it.”
Since La Casita’s inception, the team there connects and/or offers individuals with legal services, queer-friendly asylum, general affirmation of queer and gender identity, and more. “We’ve hosted a Latinx* Pride since 2017 as well, which has been an annual celebration of just specifically Latinx queer folks within our community,” said Rivera.
Rivera explains that all conversations with people who bring their prospective cases to La Casita begin with practical matters, something resembling Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: “…We also make sure to see if they are hungry, if they have clothes on their back for the weather, if they have a place to stay at night. Do they feel safe? Where are they living?”
From there, the conversation grows, eventually and hopefully blossoming into trust. As Rivera puts it, “The biggest thing with everything within our work is making sure they trust us. And if they don’t trust us, we’re not going to hear their story.”
Queer Kentucky was able to hear one such story, shared now with the permission of Luis Salazar who was born in Mexico and now lives in Louisville.
“Well, this is going to go a little bit into my mom’s story more than mine to start it off, if that’s OK,” says Salazar. There is a sense of care in his words, not just searching for permission for how to begin his account but also for the very words to construct it—as though the wrong ones may not be suitable for a structure intended to stand indefinitely.
Salazar explains that his mother came from a background where women were not allowed to go to school. “When she turned 21 or 22, that’s when she learned to read and write,” says Salazar to underscore his point.
Salazar was born just a year or so later and remembers the conditions of the home he lived in at the time: “We didn’t have running water. Our small, little house didn’t have doors. It had literal sheets and blankets to shield us from the cold and stuff.”
Searching for a better life for herself and her son, Salazar’s mother began the process of crossing the border illegally through the aid of a coyote—for those unfamiliar, this is a colloquialism referring to a person who assists in the smuggling of people across the U.S.-Mexican border, usually at a significant cost and in dangerous conditions.
“She left me behind with her sister to take care of me… [her crossing] was a horrible experience… crossing the desert… the rivers… my mom didn’t know how to swim or anything like that,” he said. “But also the experience of a 24-year-old woman crossing with a bunch of men… She was actually held captive in a hotel for several months while they continued to try and get more money from us.”
Eventually, Salazar’s mother did make it to the U.S. At three years old, Salazar got so sick that his aunt felt that she had to get him to his mother “because if I passed away, or something happened, it would be on [my mother].”
A friend of his mother’s who had crossed the border legally came back to Mexico, disguised Salazar, and took him back across the border illegally with her. “It was under the cover of her daughter,” Salazar explains. “And because I was the same age [as the daughter], I guess whoever was in control of immigration didn’t think anything about it. I was asleep, and it was just a little kid sleeping in the backseat of her car.”
Salazar described the subsequent years as living under a “big, dark secret.” “I did not talk about it, we did not tell teachers, we did not tell anyone,” he says. According to Salazar, at the time of his schooling, there were not many questions asked about his documentation. “The only thing that I remember having a hard time with was trying to get a driver’s license for my mom. For a long time, we were driving without a license, eventually we somehow managed fake IDs and licenses… but if we ran into situations like traffic stops, we would always park the car and then walk home.”
As Salazar grew older, he began to realize he was gay. Now in his late 30s, he grew up in the 90s, during and after the AIDS epidemic.
“I was constantly making sure I did not do anything that a kid would do… scream… run… I was not allowed that. As far as the gay thing goes, coming from AIDS… everything in my life told me not to talk. It was another thing that I didn’t tell anyone.”
After high school, continuing his education was not an option—that would require elaborate forgeries that he did not have access to. Employment was often a ticking time bomb, where luck and the kindness of his managers and coworkers got him by until they didn’t. Authentic relationships weren’t possible either.
“I was constantly in fear of admitting anything. I wasn’t even allowed to drive. I went from the age of 16 to 33, driving without a license. It was that constant fear that pushed everything…. Like thinking of marrying a woman so I could start the process of becoming a citizen,” he said.
In 2006, however, Salazar did meet his eventual husband. Through him, Salazar met someone who could introduce him to gay culture but also help him begin the citizenship process. That was only part of what changed things for him though.
“One of the best things that happened for me was DACA [Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals]. Through Obama, I was able to find a job and work legally. I was also finally able to drive a car legally. So there’s already that security of being able to do things legally.”
Most importantly, through the legalization of gay marriage, Salazar was finally able to enshrine his relationship legally as well as receive legal citizenship, but not without a lot of work first.
“We had to provide a lot of paperwork, a lot of pictures, a lot of proof that it was a real that we had been together so long…” Salazar said. “I mean, hundreds and hundreds. By the end, it was a thick, thick book.”
In one of the final stages of this process, Salazar had to return to Mexico: “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do. Going from Louisville, Kentucky back to Mexico for the first time since I was three was scary.”
“During that trip, my mom [who had also received American citizenship through marriage] and [my husband] came with me, and we stayed in a hotel for over a week. I had interviews. I had physicals done there. Everything, just questions after questions, injections, pictures, stripping, checking for tattoos on my body… my Spanish isn’t very good anymore… Even though they knew I spoke English, they would not speak to me in English… and there was this constant fear… if I give the wrong answer, am I going to pass?”
Salazar recalls seeing people leave their interviews crying because they’ve just been denied citizenship, so he dreaded the real possibility. Despite his fears, however, and not without some small hiccoughs along the way, Salazar did obtain, finally, his citizenship after this ordeal. He was denied a traditional naturalization ceremony due to the pandemic, but he remembers feeling content nonetheless.
“And so it was all worth it. And I was just happy,” he said. “I remember kind of crying a little bit at the end and walking away from it and being like, ‘I want this to be done. I want this chapter to finally be done… I don’t have to worry anymore.”
There are so many people with stories like that of Salazar, and it is our responsibility as a queer community – and as a human community – to work to acknowledge that experience and make it a little easier. Sassa Rivera from La Casita describes the reality for queer immigrants best.
“Migration is a human right,” they said. “Individuals are able to transfer across borders. A lot of folks who are LGBTQ hide that identity from themselves or their parents because of immigration processes… trans immigrants are often put into a prison that assigns to their gender at birth, and so they don’t feel safe, or they’re HIV positive and they’re not looking to find those services because they now have to worry about their legal ramifications, which is basically where the government has the biggest stronghold… Despite all of this, people feel safer doing this than going back or staying home. And there’s a very harsh reality that I think our government needs to recognize: making sure that anyone who crosses our border, regardless of how they do it, has the right to stay and live without fear.”
For more information on La Casita Center, please visit http://www.lacasitacenter.org/
If necessary, please consider the (not exhaustive) list of resources below:
Adelante Hispanic Achievers https://www.edexcelencia.org/programs-initiatives/growing-what-works-database/adelante-hispanic-achievers-inc
The Americana World Community Center http://americanacc.org/
The Backside Learning Center https://backsidelearningcenter.org/
Kentucky Refugee Ministries https://kyrm.org/
The Louisville Free Public Library https://www.lfpl.org/ImmigrantServices/
The Louisville Office for Globalization https://louisvilleky.gov/government/globalization?fbclid=IwAR0XcwUGl9Ch_wQJekWUY0zJKF7TrCcNBURXITvm8MCvtii35cTLwr73mdo
Russell Immigration Law Firm http://www.russellimlaw.com/
Queer Kentucky acknowledges the complicated usage of the word Latinx and that not all Spanish speakers are comfortable with it or other variants, such as Latine. As Sassa Rivera from La Casita puts it: “The ‘x’ in Latinx isn’t removing language. It’s a placeholder. It’s honoring the fact that there is harm done, but we also don’t know the solution… it’s also to honor the fact that I can be myself in my original language of Spanish in my original culture and know that I’m not betrayed. Which is a real big part, especially for folks who had to find themselves within the two identities [of queer and Latinx].” In this spirit – as well as for journalistic consistency – Queer Kentucky will use the word Latinx in this piece.