Crossing Over

By  |  September 2, 2015
On a recent trip to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Claudia Delfin visits the city’s main cathedral, as she does each time she crosses the border. On a recent trip to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Claudia Delfin visits the city’s main cathedral, as she does each time she crosses the border. Photographs by Reed Young

Born in El Paso, She Made Herself in Juárez

 

En route last year from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, once the most dangerous city on earth, Claudia Delfin crossed the border in fear over what she’d find on the other side, but the real trouble was in coming back. After spending a few jittery hours in Mexico, she waited among the throng at customs on the Santa Fe Street Bridge while her Juárez nerves slowly stopped jangling. A uniformed officer called her over to his booth, barely making eye contact. He cut an authoritarian bust behind his desk, just upper torso visible on a boosted chair. She held out her Texas state ID and a tattered birth certificate. Both documents said Ricardo, not Claudia—and the ID, when plugged into the computer, called up a long list of prison stints. Claudia is thin and gangly, five feet seven inches, with dark skin, a broad nose, and deep-set brown eyes. Her smile is a few teeth shy of being pristine—metal caps top her canines, and flash when she talks. Two tattoos in a loopy scrawl spill over the tops of her hands, and another spiders around the nape of her neck. 

The questions followed, one after the other, the pace quickening. Where do you work? Do you have drugs? Who were you there to see? There was too much story to get through, and Claudia’s voice snagged and wavered, her answers spilling out in a jumble. She’s transgender, and never changed the name on her ID; the priors were for old offenses (drugs, prostitution, theft); she was visiting friends, and has a godson on the other side. The officer stepped down from his perch and led her into a side room with white cinder-block walls; jack-booted patrolmen clomped in and out. She stood by while they figured out what to do with her. Eventually, they propped Claudia against a wall and two teams, working in pairs, set in on her. The female officers went first, patting her down from the waist up with gloved hands, latex against the skin. They toyed with her bra, tilting it to see if drugs fell out. Then the men took over. They felt from the waist down, holding firm hands to her inner thighs and grazing against her penis for contraband. After fifteen minutes, they returned an uneaten burrito she’d been carrying in her purse, and she was free to go. 

It was the first time Claudia had gone to Juárez in more than a decade. She was forty-five, and began crossing into the city in her teens. El Paso and Juárez are sibling cities, joined together in a single metropolitan hub, with families, businesses, and communities enmeshed across both sides. Claudia’s trips used to be routine, practically second nature, but she stopped going around 2000, when the killings picked up. Women had been disappearing in Juárez throughout the Nineties in an epidemic of rapes and murders. Most of the victims belonged to a swelling urban underclass; they were low-wage laborers picked off on their way home from work on secluded patches of desert road. NAFTA had been pushing Mexico’s poorest citizens up from the interior and into the factories along the northern corridor, where they converged on a turf war fought by the cartels. Drug violence took Claudia’s two cities, gutted one and sealed up the other. In 2010, there were more than three thousand murders in Juárez alone, while in El Paso there were all of five. The gore and terror sharpened the dividing line itself. To come home to El Paso from the south raised more questions than could easily be answered, and so for twenty minutes Claudia was marooned on a bridge, in fronteriza limbo.

90 Blitzer Young6In 2005, Claudia checked into a clinic for recovering addicts at an agency called Aliviane, in El Paso. Six years later, she was working there, distributing condoms; conducting HIV tests; providing counseling; and caring for addicts on the same streets where she used to score.

 

At the time, Claudia lived a few blocks away, in a squat baby-blue house on Estrella Street nestled right up against the border. “I’m comfortable here. I feel safe, and everyone knows me,” she told me when we first met, in August 2013. We’d been walking the streets together one evening, past single-story houses of yellow and pink and turquoise, with fenced-in yards fringed with hanging laundry and prowled by a motley chorus of yapping dogs. An elderly couple greeted her warmly in Spanish from across the block, slipping into calling her Ricky, from when they knew her as a boy. Cars streamed down a wide thoroughfare to the south and onto the border highway ringing the city. A giant red sculpture in the shape of a chunky X loomed on the Juárez side, casting the eerie spell of a memento mori. Nearer by, though still in Juárez, was a sign in austere black letters, facing El Paso and imploring, in English, NO MORE WEAPONS. The whirl of activity and menace to the south—the whoosh of semis, the blare of horns—had an almost tranquilizing effect on Claudia’s neighborhood, which is firmly tucked away between the two worlds, as though forgotten to both. 

Claudia has spent her life shuttling between El Paso and Juárez—for a time, under the thick fog of drugs and addiction, as a sex worker and minor gangster. She’s been clean for eight years and now works as a drug counselor for a local nonprofit, hauling addicts out of the same slums where she used to score and delivering them back to life, if they’ll let her. Almost all of her old friends are dead, from AIDS, overdoses, or homicides. That summer, Claudia told me how lucky she felt, that it was a wonder she was even still alive. “I’m a blessing,” she said, aiming for “blessed” but skipping past it, which is how she talks, her speech full of plucky miscues. 

As we sat over coffee that day, she began to tell me the story of her life. We had met unexpectedly, while I was in El Paso researching another story about unincorporated towns popping up across the borderlands of Texas. My original plan was to start in El Paso and range a few hundred miles to the west and east, and on the eve of my trip I started mapping out an itinerary. In the midst of my reading, I glimpsed a photo of Claudia in a local spread about lives along the border. There wasn’t much by way of description, only a cryptic caption about how Claudia used to travel to Juárez dressed as a man. Was this a kind of cover—and, if so, was it to ease her entry into Mexico, or else to protect her on her return to Texas? It wasn’t immediately clear on which side of the border this story even began, so I got in touch with the photographer, who gave me Claudia’s number. I called to introduce myself, and she was warm but firm on the phone. When she gave me her address, it was to a house a couple of doors down from her own. It was just after dusk when I got there, and the sidewalk was dimly lit by a distant streetlamp. I stood, hunched and uneasy, before a house with darkened windows and a gate forbidding entry. Then, I heard my name and wheeled around; she’d materialized from the shadows, walking toward me in heels, with a wobbly gait. She greeted me in a loud voice that rang out on the empty street, and we drove toward the pulsating brightness of a nearby strip mall, where the first of our many conversations began. 

Claudia gets her hormones from Juárez, where they’re cheaper and can be bought without insurance. When the violence kept her away, she paid people to retrieve them for her, until they stopped going themselves. For a while, Claudia was taking her hormones only about three times a year. When we met, her doses were more consistent than that, but still irregular; she’d miss months at a time, and it showed. Her frame was ropy and withered, her face lightly creased and stubbly around the chin. Her voice rattled like something about to break. She said it was “agony” having to live like this. “How should I say it? In the morning, you wake up not like a lady. This is how you wake up every day, right? How all the guys do,” she said, then laughed a pealing, shrieking laugh. It took me a few seconds to catch her meaning: without her hormones, an old familiar feeling kept creeping back between her legs.

Later that year, the killings seemed to ebb in Juárez, shifting to a beleaguered hamlet east of the city called the Valley. There was a reprieve of sorts, or what passed for one in Juárez. People were starting to say está calmado, though still with downcast eyes. The bloodletting was either settling down or else tamping into normalcy. I called Claudia one day late last summer, from New York, to see how she was, and a chirpy, ebullient voice answered. It was higher-pitched than I remembered it. Claudia had just come back from Juárez; she had decided to make the trips again. They were simple jaunts: to visit friends, take a turn around town, then head home. But the city electrified her and made her whole. Living without it had made El Paso, her own native soil, feel like exile. 

90 Blitzer Young4 This summer, Claudia won a prestigious statewide award for her work in fighting AIDS in the community.

 

I’d left El Paso in 2013 without experiencing Claudia’s life on the other side of the border. We didn’t know each other well then, having only a week-long acquaintanceship to go on, but our eagerness for news from Juárez yoked us together. For the next year and a half, I scoured the Juárez papers weekly to follow the latest patterns of violence. Claudia watched the local broadcast each morning before work, and prodded her friends for scraps of information. Finally, last December, I flew back to spend two weeks with her around Christmastime, touching down in El Paso late one Monday night. The next day, we headed to Mexico.

When Claudia crosses, she dresses for the trip. I picked her up in a shiny rental car, and she came out to meet me clad in denim and a baseball hat, with a pair of Converse All Stars and no makeup at all. Her one concession to style was a multi-colored scarf she’d wrapped around her neck, which I took as a sign of mischief, if also protection; her goal, when crossing, is to cover up. She bounced her knees excitedly in the front seat, and talked to me like a schoolteacher. “So we’re not gonna use our cell phones, right?” Her sentences end in open, spondee sounds with a whiny kick of Mexican Spanish doused on top.“We’re gonna talk only in Spanish, okay, sir?” Whenever she gets serious or solicitous she reverts to little tics of formality. The night before, over a waffle dinner at a diner off the interstate, we had run through some of these minor precautions, and she told me how it used to be. 

When she was sixteen, Claudia would sneak out to the underage clubs in Juárez, called tardeadas; that’s where she first transitioned. She’d head south as Ricardo, change into heels and makeup in a barroom bathroom, and become Claudia, a name she’d chosen after a girl she went to school with. “I would change like a boy, and I had my girl stuff right here,” she said, pointing to a drawstring backpack. Eventually, she would change back and return to El Paso so her family wouldn’t be the wiser. “I wouldn’t come back as a girl. Callate, no! I would have my wig and my foam”—to round out her chest and butt—“the Eighties were all wigs and foam and lashes, you know, the whole works.” 

In those days, it was illegal to crossdress in public on the streets of Juárez, and corrupt cops would wait outside the bars and clubs downtown to round up the trans partiers en masse. The officers would rob and beat them, throw them in jail, and, in a particular torment, almost always shave their heads. All the Mexican women wore wigs as a result, the gaudier the better. These were dark times, Claudia told me. If the cops didn’t get you, it’d be the cholos—local gangsters—who gave chase just for the sport of it. Claudia remembers those as the running years—fleeing from the cops, from the cholos, hiding out, wheezing and winded all the time. “What I remember most from then is fear, she said. “A lot of my friends got killed in Juárez. They chopped their breasts off, choked them, drowned them in the river. They would wait for them across the river, just to get one and drown her.” All through the Eighties and Nineties, Claudia would go to parties or bars and rehearse the same macabre litany. “Oh, so and so got pushed out of the car. Oh, so and so got stabbed. Oh, so and so got shot. Oh, so and so, they found her buried there under that abandoned house. A lot of them got killed bad.”

On the morning of our crossing, her neighborhood was shorn of its usual street-corner loiterers, but it still hummed with activity, as people hurried around to escape the cold. We drove downtown, where I parked the car in a lot next to a toll station, and we set out, on foot, at a brisk pace. Four roads lead from El Paso straight into Juárez; Claudia’s preference is the Santa Fe Street Bridge because of where it lets her out, on Avenida Juárez, a bustling strip of shops and bars downtown. The avenue delivers her, with only a few intervening streets, to the bus stop where she picks up the Linea Central to visit her friends, in a rundown neighborhood farther west. 

The bridge is wide and paved, with four lanes for cars and a walkway on each side lined with cross-barred railings and topped by a metal canopy. Below us was the dried-up riverbed of the Rio Grande, its banks refashioned into a sloping, concrete channel riddled with bilingual graffiti. Claudia wended her way past the other crossers—an elderly woman pushing carts full of groceries, a drunk in a cowboy hat staggering from side to side with a bottle tipping out of his back pocket. “Qué bonito!” she kept saying, at all the bustle. It was the incipient rumble of Juárez. Car traffic heading north was at a standstill and street peddlers wove among the vehicles while beggars lay rumpled—heads down, cups out—along the roadway. 

“I used to cross with the girls, illegally, through the river,” Claudia said. “It’s hard to imagine now, because the river is dry, but it was up to here!” She drew an imaginary line across her chest. “I would cross with them, just not to cross myself, just for the excitement. I’m the type of person who wanted to be there. We would cross and hide from immigration.”

The entry into Mexico is unceremonious—a step down a small ramp under the gaze of an indifferent cop, and straight into an immediate crush of pedestrians. The street was potholed and under heavy construction. Rubble-strewn lots alternated with crumbling storefronts and abandoned bars, and exposed sockets and electrical cords unspooling in cobra coils spilled out of uncapped fuse boxes on the sidewalk. Norteño anthems, heavy on accordion, rang out from store radios, while vendors hawked corn on the cob, tonging it out of steaming vats on wheels. We passed Farmacia Benavides, where Claudia gets her hormones, and she popped in to ask if her doctor was there to say hi. He wasn’t, and we walked on, stopping so that Claudia could fish out change for a woman who was sitting on the curb with a cardboard box full of packets of gum for sale. “God bless you,” she said to us, warmly but vacantly. Claudia said goodbye to her with a friendly familiarity, like they’d just exchanged confidences and would speak again soon.

Rounding the bend on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, Claudia turned to me as she caught sight of the cathedral at the end of the block. “Ya no sufro como antes,” she said; ever since she’s returned, she hasn’t suffered like before. Policemen milled around with strapped-on AKs resting atop their paunches, which were heftily bulked—part flak jacket, part protruding gut. The sight of them startled her, and Claudia avoided their eyes as they passed. Still, she doesn’t fear them as she once did. (“They just go after the druggies now,” she explained.) Occasionally, I heard the hisses of teenagers on the street as they caught sight of Claudia and pointed her out to each other, and a few older guys ogled. “It’s better now,” she said. “In the Eighties, all us transgender, we had to hide a lot. In the Nineties, it wasn’t as bad, but people were mean, trying to touch you and stuff. I had to fight. It doesn’t bother me anymore, they’re just uneducated.” She chalked this up not to Juárez, but to the conservatism of the country’s interior. “A lot of people come here from all over Mexico, and they’re not as open,” she said. “The Juarenses are more used to this, they’ve seen more ’cause this is a border town.” She was always coming to the city’s defense. 

We took the long way around the cathedral, to savor the approach, and we skirted a leafy courtyard by way of a colonnaded street called Noche Triste. She was leading me to the mall, a place of no less spiritual import. “Me hago todo aquí,” she said. “I make myself here in Juárez.” She didn’t just mean the hormones, but her nails, hair, and makeup, too. She visited her estilistas in a nook between shops, and she waved into a nail salon, receiving a warm gust of greetings in return. As we elbowed through the crowds, Claudia would point to some passerby and say, “That guy, he’s a client of mine from rehab. Heroin.” I’d look and see a glassy-eyed loafer walking with a slump. This is a habit of hers on both sides of the border: spotting people on the street and identifying them by their addictions. Most of the time, if they saw her, they called out in recognition, or nodded faintly, but sometimes she’d eye someone and say to me, practically under her breath, “weed,” and the scheme suddenly felt like a put-on. Heroin and crack announce themselves in the eyes, or in speckles on the arms, but what could betray pot in someone’s step? Claudia trotted out these observations not so much for my benefit as for hers, as a mode of reassurance. Everyone on the street had a story, and she knew it. 

We’d wandered east, over by a little park called Plaza de Misión de Guadalupe. Old repainted school buses, conscripted into public transport, hurtled past, kicking up dirt and dust along nubby curbs. Suddenly, someone shouted Claudia’s name. We turned around to face the sound together. Standing there were two women holding hands, one in a puffy coat, sunglasses, and a baseball cap; the other in spandex, with bloodshot eyes, her hair permed but mussed. They swayed a little, dipping out into the street. 

“Claudia, hey. You good? Listen, she’s infected,” she said, in English, raising her arm slightly to indicate the other woman. “We just found out. What should I do?” Claudia offered her condolences in Spanish, but the woman cautioned her back into English. “I don’t want people to understand what we’re saying,” she said. I stepped away to give them privacy, and after a few minutes, Claudia hugged the woman and came over to me, rerouting us to the bus. 

“She’s a heroin addict, from El Paso, one of my clients. Her girlfriend is from here. She’s HIV positive. They were asking me about sex toys, if they could still use them, so I told them how to clean them. Even like this,” she said, indicating the hat pulled low over her eyes, “they recognized me.” She was proud to be known, but also wary of being so easily spotted.

90 Blitzer Young2In 2013, Claudia became a godmother to Alan García, the son of two of her friends in Juárez. She sees Alan and his parents often, at their house in a neighborhood called Alta Vista. She had stopped visiting the city for years during the drug war, and only recently began crossing again. “It brings me happiness being back here, happiness that I’m not the person that I used to be,” she said.  

We decided to head straight to her friends’ house in the barrio of Altavista, so we made our way to an unmarked strip of dirt road a few blocks over from Avenida 16 de Septiembre to catch a bus. Soon we were spiraling up a hill of unpaved streets, past chop shops, hardware stores, a criminal law practice, a kempt little police station. Claudia met Gerardo and Sofia a year and a half ago. Claudia’s landlord in El Paso was married to Gerardo’s ailing father, and because Gerardo couldn’t afford the papers to cross for visits, he relied on her for updates. “We started talking over Facebook, then the phone,” she told me on the way. Her friendship with the couple almost had the feel of a budding romance: the calls, the messages, the gradually knowing-more. When Sofia gave birth to a son, Alan, in 2013, they named Claudia his godmother, and soon after she began visiting Juárez again.

“I was looking to go over there. I wanted to help them out, to babysit. Sometimes I helped them with their marriage when they had fights. But yeah, I also needed my hormones,” she said, admitting that the counseling and babysitting gave her a convenient new pretense for trips into Juárez. It was the occasion she’d been looking for to start over: where once she went to party, now she was going to cook dinner with friends and look after their kid. “It brings me happiness being back here, happiness that I’m not the person that I used to be,” she said. Claudia drifted into English in the telling, and I could feel the creeping curiosity of the other bus passengers, who darted their eyes and only turned their heads on the sly.

Altavista is perched on the city’s northwestern edge, an old add-on to another neighborhood on the backside of downtown called Bellavista. Juárez grows out haphazardly, with colonia stacked upon colonia in an indiscernible centrifugal design. Already there are other neighborhoods—poorer, more remote—extending out farther west, pressed up against the El Paso border but in a kind of inverted mirror image. The farther west you go in Juárez the more abject the landscape becomes. The western rim of downtown El Paso is affluent, with great big houses gazing out over Anapra, a Mexican slum town.

Claudia shouted to the driver to let us off, and we hopped down as the bus slowed without stopping. We walked onto a side street studded with ramshackle houses, and approached one with a door of grated metal, secured on its hinges by fraying wire. Sofia greeted us, with Alan in her arms. She is thickset and short, with shoulder-length dark hair and a round face. She hugged Claudia and shook my hand before waving us in. We walked through an anteroom with brick walls covered in white and yellow chipped paint. The floor was busted up, dirt spilling through the cracks; stone fragments from the walls were heaped into piles. Over the windows were burlap bags cut to rough proportions so they could double as shades, and the sunlight filtered in, patchy and mottled. Claudia took out a box of long stick matches from her backpack and handed them to Sofia for the shower—the couple heats up pails of water and bathes over a grate in the bathroom. The living room has a couch on one side and an old RCA television on the other, an exposed light fixture dangling off a half-broken ceiling panel overhead. (Gerardo rerouted power from a streetlamp to light the house.) Above a dresser topped with lace doilies was a Dallas Cowboys football helmet, and the words “Juan 8:32” scrawled on the wall in marker. Two small bedrooms and a kitchen branched off at the end of the hallway. 

Gerardo was at work, on the day shift at a factory called Automotive Lighting. By the time he’d get home, Sofia would be leaving for her own shift, at another factory, where she works from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M. for roughly 950 pesos a week. It was lunchtime, and we decided to eat at a taqueria up the road, the three of us walking shoulder-to-shoulder while Sofia pushed Alan in a stroller stuffed with blankets. White buses with the words TRANSPORTE DE PERSONAL stamped across their flanks ferried residents from Altavista to their factory shifts on the southeastern side of Juárez. One Juarense schoolteacher I spoke with called Altavista “the dormitory of the city”; people slept and ate here, but spent much of their waking lives at the factories, or en route to them. During the worst of the drug years, around 2010 or so, Altavista was known for giving cover to malandros and delincuentes, criminal elements; its proximity to downtown Juárez made it a natural hotbed of smuggling and drug dealing. 

Sofia and Claudia ordered shrimp cocktails served in tall glasses with long ice-cream spoons, and Sofia poked at hers while Claudia took Alan and whirled him around. “Two years ago I had an accident,” Sofia said shyly, in a soft voice accented by Campeche, her hometown in the south. She’d been driving in Juárez and was broadsided by a police van. Her car was totaled, and she was badly hurt, but the cops just drove off and left her there. In 2008, the President of Mexico had called in federal troops and police to quell the drug violence in Juárez because the cartels had overwhelmed the municipal cops. For a time this made the city even more dangerous, as law enforcement operated with impunity. “I couldn’t walk for a month. I started to panic. Gerardo, who I knew from work, was the only person who helped me. I didn’t have family here. There wasn’t anyone to get me food.” 

We paid and left to walk Sofia and Alan home, back down the dirt hill, more white buses rattling past. A black Dodge Ram snaked out of an alleyway, and Claudia instantly stiffened. “What a nice-looking truck,” she said, but there was a note of unease in her voice and her eyes zeroed in on the vehicle until it had passed from view. Claudia is on the lookout for signs such as these, like snags in the matrix. She told me to avoid guys with nice cowboy boots or fancy cell phones. One summer afternoon, more than a decade ago, she had been sitting with some friends in Juárez, eating lunch in an alleyway restaurant downtown, when two men with spiffy shoes walked in and pumped three bullets into a diner sitting next to them. “We hid under the table, and people screamed. The police came quick, almost too quick.” She assumed the cops had been in on it. 

 

Claudia grew up in a part of El Paso called the Chamizal, a swath of land that the U.S. and Mexico argued over until the mid-1960s—about as borderline a stretch of border as you can find in an American city. By the terms of an 1848 treaty, the boundary between the two countries was the Rio Grande, which bent and corkscrewed all the way through West Texas. By the mid-1860s, massive floods had begun shifting its banks south by more than a mile, and left about 600 square acres that once fell plainly on the Mexican side freshly up for grabs. It didn’t take long for Americans to claim them. By the early 1900s, hundreds of complaints by Mexican landholders had already accrued. 

The squabble turned on an alluvial question with an almost philosophical bent: had the river gradually shifted course, or was its change sudden and precipitous? The Americans claimed the former, the Mexicans, the latter. International arbiters intervened, and ruled largely in Mexico’s favor, but the Americans ignored the findings. Mexicans complained about “Yankee imperialism” to the north, and the Americans retorted with gripes about “communist agitators” to the south. Meanwhile, five thousand residents made homes on the American side, ranging from a tenement district called Segundo Barrio in downtown El Paso all the way to the city’s eastern fringes. According to Nestor Valencia, El Paso’s city planner during the 1960s, “portions of the Chamizal may be the only neighborhoods in the U.S. that were built on foreign soil.”

It took the Cuban Missile Crisis to resolve the dispute. A sobered John F. Kennedy, looking for regional allies in the battle against communism, decided to mend fences with the Mexican president, and traveled to Mexico City in 1962. They agreed to resolve the land dispute once and for all, and two years later Lyndon Johnson inked the Chamizal Treaty. The bigger chunk of the area went back to Mexico, and about 200 acres became American.

Though Claudia wasn’t born until four years after the treaty was signed, three landmarks of her world came out of it: the border highway forming the lower lip of her neighborhood; an adjacent park dubbed the Chamizal National Memorial; and Bowie High School, where Claudia spent her freshman year. A few days after our first trip together into Juárez, we walked around her neighborhood in El Paso. Ambling through the streets was like watching her past sidle back up to her. At one point, Claudia showed me an apothecary with a foreclosure sign nailed onto its front door and teal blue tile-work on its stoop. It was where her great-grandmother used to shop for household necessities, and where Claudia, decades later, bought her syringes. 

Her neighborhood doesn’t have a formal name so much as a general description—“the area downtown, by the Cordova bridge,” is what people say—but it is sometimes known by a double-moniker that no longer applies, either “the Lugas” or “the DBT,” which stands for “de barrio territory.” These were the names used by gangs that controlled the neighborhood through the 1990s, making it a scrappy and dangerous place. “They used to run and gun all over here,” Claudia told me. Those gangs are gone now, and the neighborhood is poor but streaked with life—some old storefronts are in disrepair, gated off to keep children away, as if on quarantine, but you won’t find any trash on the streets. Two thoroughfares frame the barrio. On the north side runs Alameda Avenue, lined with mom-and-pop groceries, dollar stores, and bars; on the south is a roadway called Paisano, which gives onto the Chamizal. Claudia used to hook on these streets, prowling up and down Alameda, flagging down cars. We veered off into an alleyway between blocks, passing a dust-swept lot with scattered tufts of vegetation and a lone palm tree at one end, and we spotted a friend of Claudia’s driving home from work. “I love the alleys,” Claudia said. “I used to walk through here every day to go to elementary school. But these were also my escape routes later on. You know, maybe I stole drugs and needed to hide out and get home. In the night, I don’t get scared of being alone here.”

For almost all her life, she has lived within a four-block radius of the house she grew up in, a beige adobe structure on Findley Avenue where her grandmother, great-aunt, and father were also raised. Her keys clinked in her hands while she gestured toward it. It’s at the end of the block, with an unobstructed view of Mexico. Trucks rode past us on the highway toward Juárez. “Border Patrol used to be here on horse,” she said, waving her hand south. Across the street is the National Memorial, a grassy expanse criss-crossed with running paths and encircled by a dried-up dirt and gravel gully, the old path of the river. The Chamizal was always one of the more porous stretches of the border precisely because, historically, the dividing line was so hazy. During Prohibition, when the territory was still disputed, El Pasoans got their booze from a bar called Hole in the Wall, on an outcropping of Mexican land encircled by American plots. When Claudia was a child, she and her family barely recognized a boundary at all. “In those years, you used to climb under a rinky-dink fence into Mexico to get flour to cook with,” she said.

Her mother, Eloisa, died when Claudia was four, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her father, Ricardo, for whom she was named, was in and out of prison for drug dealing. Claudia’s family consisted of her older sister, her great-aunt, and her grandmother, who worked as a hotel maid. It was always clear that Claudia was ill at ease as Ricardo, even before she began to sneak into her grandmother’s closet to try on her clothes. But it wasn’t until high school, and the hormones secreted from Juárez that she started taking after her freshman year, that things came to a head. She transferred to another school where she became an ardent gymnast, making boys varsity her sophomore and junior years while in the midst of her transition. “I had to put my hair back, and wear my uniform loose because of my breasts. When I was a senior, I left gymnastics because my chest was protruding too much.” She switched to cheerleading, but was ridiculed in the locker room by the other girls. 

Claudia’s role models became the older trans women in her neighborhood in El Paso, “all of them drug addicts and sex workers,” who crossed into Juárez to party when the El Paso clubs closed, around 2 A.M. Juárez’s red-light district, called the Mariscal, was dense with gay bars and antros, clubs featuring drag shows, with cars queuing around the block trawling for prostitutes and American servicemen from Fort Bliss milling around in their fatigues. Claudia finished high school and secured a scholarship to study at the local university, but the temptations of another life pulled her away from El Paso. “I started hanging out more and more with the older girls, and I partied and lost everything,” she said. Her drugs of choice were weed and coke, before graduating to what she called “cocoa puffs,” an amalgam of the two. From there it was a straight shot to heroin. She hitched rides to New Mexico with truckers (“now those are some crazy suckers”) and started doing sex work. She got shot once, in the leg, after lifting someone’s wallet in Albuquerque. Another time, a john picked her up on the street, held a pistol to her head, and told her to blow him. “It was a .22. I thought he was joking at first, but then, I was like, ‘that’s a real gun!’ When it was over, I wasn’t upset about the gun. I was just upset that he didn’t pay me. That’s where I was.”

 

One evening we went for coffee at a small restaurant in Claudia’s neighborhood in El Paso called Mocambo, where the waiter took our orders in Spanish. It was a few days after our first joint trip into Juárez, and Claudia was becoming less self-conscious. Her measured dips into anecdote were giving way to splashy recollections. She had always been open with me, but now she was telling me whole stories, all shaggy and episodic. I noticed she was laughing more, too—sometimes at me and my hard-headed questions, but also at the details she was conjuring back up. Claudia gets animated talking about her past because it involves her favorite topic: her own survival. Since she’s turned her life around, her past has become a touchstone. The stories she tells are always attached to the mooring of her recovery; it’s the rhetorical armature of the rehabilitation rooms—AA, NA, group therapy. 

“For so many years, I was a crash dummy,” she said. Her voice flared and spittle formed on the corners of her mouth. “I was a puppet. In prison I was a crash dummy, on the streets too. Do this, do that; just to be a part, like when I was shooting. Dame esto. Just to feel better. I’m not a crash dummy no more. I set boundaries quick.” We were getting into some of the hard details of her old lifestyle; at moments like this, her confidence in her own survival softened into a disbelief that she’d even made it through.

In 1993, the U.S. government launched Operation Hold the Line, the first of a decade’s worth of security initiatives to patch up the border, and the authorities redoubled policing at the bridges. “My friends, the Mexican trannies, had to cross the Rio Grande straight up,” she told me, which was to say on foot, either on the far eastern or western ends of town, skirting downtown El Paso, where security was thickest. The eastern section of the Chamizal was their preferred crossing point, and Claudia became its gatekeeper and power broker. “The girls would pass by near the Cordova bridge, through the Chamizal, so they’d cut through my neighborhood to hide out. If the guys messed with them, they would call me, because they all knew where I lived. They’d say, ‘They’re messing with the girls,’ so I’d go over there. It all depends who it was. If it’s somebody I didn’t like, I’d say, ‘Go ahead and do whatever you like.’” It was a free-for-all, with everyone strung out and drug-crazed, capable of doing anything to anyone for another fix. The alliances being what they were, Claudia was wary of downtown El Paso, but not of Juárez. “My protection was here, in my neighborhood. If I was downtown, I was vulnerable. They could give me a hot shot,” she said, referring to heroin upped in its potency or laced with something fatal. “In Juárez, I had the protection of my girls. They knew they were going to need me when they would come over here.”

Claudia once went by Ricardo, and Ricardo once went by a number: 736627. Her prison ID. The accumulated priors from these years—possession, solicitation, theft, probation violation—landed her in a string of penitentiaries as far away as the Panhandle. She did the math in my notebook: eight years, all told—in around twenty-five, out around thirty-three. When I called the Department of Corrections to confirm the dates, I learned that the terms were staggered, although Claudia remembers them as one unlifting fog. Hearing the prison official call her Ricardo was less jarring to my ears than hearing Claudia referred to as “him.” The pronoun, without the name, sounded naked and unprotected. 

“Now, they have safekeeping,” Claudia told me at Mocambo. “In those times, there was no safekeeping. They would put us—the transgender—with the male population. Safekeeping came out later because of people getting hurt and stuff.” She vividly remembers the guard towers on the ride in—a plain and ominous announcement of the danger of her situation. “The girls told me, ‘You need to find a boyfriend, you need to find a boyfriend, Claudia.’” She aped the sweet nagging of their voices. “So I was shopping as soon as I got in, hunting, scanning.” She pulled her shirt back slightly to reveal the start of a tattoo stamped across her left breast with the name of one boyfriend, Indio, from a prison called The Roach, in Childress. There was also Roger, from Sánchez, in El Paso (“he associated with an El Paso gang, Tango Blast”); a guy called D-Town at Wallace (“black guy, from Dallas”); Robert at Huntsville (“muscular, white guy, he hit with brass knuckles”); and Trinidad at Middleton (“he was serving a life sentence ’cause he killed someone; young, beautiful, really nice”). 

There were riots when rival gangs would war, the order about to be bucked or else reasserted—these being the two speeds of prison existence. Life was hardest at The Roach; the other inmates were vicious and aggressive. They groped her, swarmed her, hit at her, but never raped her. She couldn’t go anywhere without Indio. “We’d go out in the fields, the cotton fields, and pick cotton. The officers were on their horses, and they didn’t like me. They knew about my boyfriends, but there were some who didn’t like us together because they were racist. I was Hispanic and my boyfriend was white. You got guards there from Childress, Amarillo. Farm-fed people: tall, white.” When riots broke out, these guards shrank away, and Claudia had to protect herself from threats on the inside. “I’ve lived through seven riots. There were plates flying. People fighting each other off, stabbing, blood everywhere. Out in the rec yard, the guys took weights off the bench press and were bashing each other with them. It was a 2,000-man unit. Sometimes they took over the prison for two days. They could have killed me if they wanted to. When the guards finally came out, they’d be all geared up, like with tear gas. They’d start breaking collarbones. If you don’t fall on the floor when they come in, now that . . .” Her thought drifted, and she started free associating about the guards. “Got shot with rubber bullets, I got gassed.” 

Our conversation had returned to hushed tones, and I stood up to pay. Outside, the pinkening sky melted in with the fading cerulean wash of the restaurant’s walls, and the room darkened to a faint purple. The woman at the register leaned over conspiratorially as she dished out my change, and asked me, with a dusting of formal usteds, what we were talking about. Her tone was less prying than guileless. “Are you with an agency?” she asked and pointed at my notebook. “Are you here to help find the girls?” I wasn’t expecting this, certainly not here on the El Paso side. Though the Juárez femicides made international headlines in the Nineties, they were never solved or stemmed, and the murders have continued. 

“My friend in Juárez, her daughter disappeared some years ago,” the cashier said. “We’ve never seen her again, but someone said she may have escaped to El Paso. Who’s that you’re with?” She thought Claudia, all aged and weathered, might be the missing daughter, limping out after years away. 

90 Blitzer Young5Claudia and her friend Marty at a fast-food restaurant along the border. Marty buys hormones in bulk at a pharmacy in Juárez, then sells them at a mark-up in El Paso. They are among the few trans women from El Paso who hazard the trip into Juárez. The other women, according to Marty, “have fear—either that or they’re illegal. If they go across, they won’t come back.”  

Some of Claudia’s friends know about her past, but not all of them, and even those who are closest to her know the story only in fragments. A sort of biographical uncertainty principle is at work: someone knows about her street years but not the prison time, or about the prison time but not the sex work. Her “hetero lady friends,” as she calls them, have had ugly marriages and divorces; they’ve all seen each other low. 

Her neighborhood is tiny in every sense. She bumps into her clients from work at the dollar store where she buys gifts for “baby Alan.” She stops into El Paraiso Fruit Stand on Alameda for groceries and chats with her friend Güera, who’s known her through her childhood and her street days. They never talked about the past until I showed up with Claudia one day, and she playfully badgered Güera, who’s gray-haired and bespectacled, a paragon of barrio discretion, into telling me how it was. “Oh she was bad,” Güera says. “She was always on the street, her arms picadatrack marked—“robbing.” Claudia never held anyone up at Güera’s store, but she would at others—typically the bigger ones, chain establishments, stuff that sat more lightly on her conscience. “Güera and other people aren’t scared of me or resentful, not anymore. It’s because they can see the change,” Claudia said. “They respect the change in me.” I thought of the river when she told me this, the debate over its gradual versus sudden shift in course, and the question of which was more definitional to what it was and where it belonged. Her neighbors and friends show their trust by dismissing Claudia’s old stories with a wave of the hand, like they’re all past and unimportant now. But Claudia can’t conceal her pride in having righted herself. “I woke up feeling grateful,” she recently wrote on her Facebook wall. “I have learned how to discipline myself to nurture myself so I can be productive and live a balanced life.”

Claudia’s job as a drug counselor bridges the disparate chapters of her past; the sense of continuity this affords her has perhaps saved her life. At work, her transformation isn’t a blight or a backstory but a credential. Her clients feel she understands what they’re living, and they seek her out on the streets and call her work-issued cell phone at all hours of the night. She acts exasperated when she digs the phone out of her purse at dinner, though she clearly revels in the importance of her task, and she works constantly. She has won awards and recognition for her outreach, and is venerated by her colleagues. I spent hours sitting with her at her agency’s central offices in El Paso, where she reports five days a week to administer AIDS tests, keep case files, and lead group therapy sessions for recovering addicts in for their methadone. 

One day she darted out of her office to lead a methadone group session, and I followed her, tucking myself into the back of the room. The theme of her session was relationships. “What is your definition of a relationship?” she asked a group of about ten people, who looked to be from their mid-twenties up through their sixties and all in varying stages of withdrawal stupor. She spoke about how to set boundaries, and she freely brought up her own story: “I’m an addict,” she said, “an ex-street junkie. I’m not like other people. When I came into recovery eight years ago, I had to actually cut off 80 percent of my relationships, and some were family, because they would jeopardize my recovery.” It was a masterful talk not least because it wasn’t put on. Her listeners bobbed and slumped as they came in and out of methadone reveries, but they perked up at the sound of Claudia’s voice, with its earned authority. 

A couple times a week Claudia goes into El Paso’s worst neighborhoods: the heroin dens along the border downtown, on the outskirts of the old Segundo Barrio; the coke and crack warrens of the northeast known as the “Devil’s Triangle,” for its drugs, prostitution, and gangs. We went to a homeless shelter in an alley one day, and the guys flocked immediately to our car, not to plead for money but to greet Claudia, then to ask if she brought condoms. “Watch out for Speedy,” she told me, gesturing toward an old guy slumped in a wheelchair out front, as I avoided feet and tried to park. She walked into the shelter to distribute pamphlets in advance of a sex education class. She moved around almost invisibly—a sort of expert slinking, both being seen and not—and every once in a while she brushed off a grisly suitor who announced himself with some obscenity. On the street, she told a young man with a thick beard that she saw him dealing the other day when she was out giving people HIV tests. “I was going to come over to chat, but I saw you were working,” she said. Claudia spoke matter-of-factly and without judgment. She never scolds or sermonizes on the streets, but lets herself ease into the scene—an unthreatening fixture mingled in with the crowd.

We got into the car and drove to the Devil’s Triangle, exiting the interstate on a run-down boulevard named Dyer Street. The air seemed thin up here. There were auto-repair shops; dilapidated, high-vacancy motels advertising monthly rates; gas stations and the odd diner; and carwashes, which sold crack pipes and called them happy meals, meaning they came complete with a little silver bristle for cleaning. Claudia had me park in front of a motel complex called the Hawaiian Royale, its squat brick units outfitted with turquoise doors. One woman in a parking lot nearby had her back to us and was standing before a white Toyota Camry, fishing out a Big Gulp cup from an open trunk. Claudia had to call out a few times for the woman to hear her, and I immediately grew anxious. These were battered types, in obvious drug throes, and I had the sense that everyone would just want to be left alone to stew and wallow. I was wrong. “Oh Claudia, I was just thinking about you,” the woman said. “It’s been crazy here. My kids came to visit me the other day, and the manager complained because he thought it was crack traffic.” Her husband, who appeared on the balcony in pajamas, stumbled toward the banister and waved.

We doubled back to inspect a maze of rooms behind the front part of the motel. We were in remote quarters, and beyond view of the roadway. I tucked my notebook into my pocket and stashed my pen. Claudia had told me to dress rattier for the trip, and I’d gone unshaven, wearing a wrinkled, drooping t-shirt and worn-out sneakers. But mine was shabby armor. I stood out, and knew it. My posture was too upright, my eyes flitting and primed: all the obvious tells of an interloper. Claudia ignored my unease, and seemed not to care much about the desolateness of our surroundings.

A tall man in gray sweats quietly entered a room with an open door, carrying something in a balled-up fist. He came out seconds later, the fist still clenched, but with green bills poking out at the base of his hand. Claudia went up to him to introduce herself, launching into a quick spiel about her work and asking, at the end, if it was OK for her to poke around some more. “You might not want to approach people around here like that,” he said, in a booming, threatening voice. A beige Ford Explorer full of guys idled for him at the corner, and I could see their heads turning toward us. The man stood over Claudia, stiff and unsmiling. She just laughed, “Oh stop!” Her voice was flirtatious, not at all what this guy was expecting, and he shook his head and marched over to the car. I told Claudia we should go. The Explorer waited until I turned the key before pulling away, its tires screeching as it left us in the dust. 

 

Claudia only knows of one other trans woman in El Paso who still goes to Juárez: Marty, a thirty-seven-year-old sex worker who walks across each week to buy hormones in bulk from a pharmacy on the strip, to sell them later in El Paso at a mark-up. We went off in search of her one night around dinnertime.

She and Claudia had met years ago at a Greyhound Station just as Claudia was getting out of prison, when they were both still addicts. The history sometimes makes it complicated with Marty when their paths cross. Claudia might be out showing interns from the university how to conduct street interventions with addicts while Marty’s right there working, stoned and embarrassed about it. “She’s had it tough,” Claudia said. “Things are better now; she’s using the money she makes on the street for her apartment, not for drugs.” 

I parked in back of a McDonald’s while Claudia went to look for her at a bus station on the eastern periphery of downtown. It wasn’t clear if Marty was out on the street working that night, or if she’d come from her apartment nearby and wanted to keep her distance until she met me. I was waiting outside the car in the flickering neon glow of the parking lot when I saw them emerge from the shadows. Marty is Claudia’s height but stockier, with a doughy, rouged face and storybook dimples. She wore a dark hoodie, a long black t-shirt, tiny gray shorts, and flip-flops; her neck was wrapped in a tattoo. A light drizzle fell, and the wind whipped. Marty pulled her sweatshirt tight around her shoulders, and greeted me with a limp handshake. Claudia decided on a Whataburger a few blocks away, next to Bowie High School. We ordered burgers, and sat down in a booth, Marty and Claudia pressed into one side opposite me. Their backs faced Mexico, and as they talked about Juárez it was like we were telling secrets about the other side.

“A lot of people are still getting murdered. When they would kill women, they used to rape them and murder them,” Marty said, of an older brand of street violence. “They were targeting women. Not too long ago, they were targeting cartels. Now, they’re just killing people just to kill them. They’re not focusing on certain people. In Juárez, if you get in trouble with the wrong person, they’ll kill you.” Maybe the killings were subsiding, but to Marty they’ve become more mysterious in their ebb. The biggest threat in her view is the police, and that will never change. “They’ll stop you for nothing. It could be just minding your own business, respecting everybody or whatever, being a good person. They’ll stop you if you have money, just to rob you. That’s how it’s done.”

“Marty’s always by herself,” Claudia explained, then grafted some history onto the account, drawing from her Nineties days. “If they see three or four trannies, they would stop us. They get more money out of you in a group. If the cops stop you, if they’re kicking you, people don’t barge in.”

Marty avoided talking about how Claudia was when they first met, but Claudia prodded her. “Go on, tell him—don’t hold back. He knows me.” Marty narrowed her eyes, still cautious.

“When I first met Claudia she looked really strung out. I saw her and said, ‘Oh my god. I don’t want to end up like that.’ I would always tell myself that. Her appearance just looked . . . so tired, so worn out.”

“I was a real addict,” Claudia confirmed. “I was using everything. I was a rough girl.”

“Then, she disappeared for a while, and boom, she came back, looked a lot better,” Marty said. “That was in 2007. Then, I became what she was.”

Two highway cops walked into the restaurant, in trim beige uniforms and motorcycle helmets. Claudia could see them but Marty couldn’t. She sat up a little straighter, and followed them with her eyes, glancing casually over her shoulder as they passed to keep them in her sightline. She was careful not to act startled, for Marty’s sake. This is where her life and Claudia’s diverge: Claudia no longer lives on tenterhooks. She’s crossed over to the side of the sober and law-abiding, if not quite into the ranks of quotidian respectability. Only after they left did she tell Marty, who bolted upright and looked around, although by then, with no lawmen around to stoke it, her anxiety quickly cooled, and she continued talking. Claudia, meanwhile, had turned her attention to a child one booth over from us who caught her eye and had begun playing hide-and-seek over one of the partitions dividing the tables. The child’s mother noticed, stole a look at Claudia, and pulled her daughter in close. 

I asked them about the new generation of El Paso trans girls, and if they visited Juárez. Though Claudia is a decade older than Marty, both remember the years of tardeadas and clubbing along the Mariscal, and talk openly about their nostalgia.

“If they’re young, they probably went over as boys, but they haven’t as girls,” Claudia said. 

“No, they won’t go,” Marty added. “They have fear—either that or they’re illegal. If they go across, they won’t come back.” 

90 Blitzer Young3Claudia has always bought her hormones in Juárez, where they’re cheaper and can be purchased without insurance. Juárez is where she first transitioned as a teenager. “I make myself up in Juárez,” she said.   

Who’s left? Claudia can count them on a single hand: three women from her core entourage. The rest are ghosts, by the names of Linda, Frances, Rachael, Lucy, Missy, Julie. Lone among the living on the El Paso side is Bobby, a butch, red-haired fifty-nine-year-old hairdresser, who has signed her life over to AA and sees Claudia on the recovery circuit. Bobby’s turf as a prostitute had been downtown, farther west than Claudia’s spot in the Chamizal. She used to go into Juárez to dance and score and is now a kind of nativist foil to Claudia. She despises the Mexican girls of old, and her bias is understandable, considering. For one, the Mexicans were all voluptuousness and glamour, upstaging the Americans. They were also violently criminal—robbers, gun-toters, fighters.

Bobby put it this way: “They were all thieves. What they did over here ruined stuff for us hookers because they started taking us all off the streets. There were twenty whores to a corner, and there were tons of corners. And most of them were wetbacks. Everybody was going to jail. Thirty or forty of us at a time. Me and Claudia have lived our lives as women. Those other girls with the cheesy tits—those aren’t women, those are men trying to be women. It just wasn’t real. We were the real girls.” 

One day last December, Claudia heard from another long-lost Juarense friend named Claudio, whom she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s. For a time, Claudia thought that Claudio was dead, but she’d recently gotten curious and sought her out on Facebook, with felicitous results. We went over one morning for a reunion at an old café in downtown Juárez called the Nueva Central. Walking over the bridge, I asked Claudia what seemed obvious: if she could find Claudio so easily, she must not have been looking too hard for her in the first place. The truth was hard for Claudia to confront, and it came out gradually over the following days, and even then only sparingly. At heart, I gathered, the reunion scared her: not the prospect of seeing Claudio, whom she adores, but the symbolism of it and the tug of the old life brought on by being south of the border in redolent company. Claudia treated any reunion as if it were an undertow that could suck her back at any moment.

Claudio works as a nurse at medical clinics in the city, and goes out on weekends with the other trans women. She no longer uses hard drugs, and has even stopped taking her hormones. “I don’t know if she goes by Claudio or Claudia now,” Claudia told me, as we walked down Juárez Avenue. “Her Facebook says Claudio, but I’m going to call her Claudia, and see if that’s okay, because that’s how I know her. She works as a man now.”

As we neared the front of the restaurant, Claudia spotted her old friend but didn’t immediately react, maybe because she didn’t trust that it was her. They walked into a kind of mutual, slow-rolling recognition, pausing to be sure who each was looking at, then pantomiming surprise in unison. They hugged and gasped. Claudio wore a black fitted baseball cap with a flat brim and a leather jacket with SUPER BOWL XXXVI stitched onto the lapel. She was androgynous, and walked with a thick-footed shuffle. I asked which name she preferred—Claudia or Claudio—but she told me she didn’t care. “The girls from before know me as Claudia, and the younger ones know me as Claudio,” she said. “It’s the same to me.”

Once we got inside, they just kept looking at each other in happy disbelief. Claudio almost seemed to be moaning with delight, making euphoric, breathy noises. 

“Y la Rachael?” Claudio asked. 

“Se murió,” Claudia responded. 

“Y la Cubi?” 

“The older one died of hepatitis; the younger one died from heroin.” 

In Spanish, the names of their dead friends had an honorific sounding definite article dangled in front of each one, like they were stage names, exalted identities. Claudia turned to me and said, in English, “Oh, I’m so excited,” then spun right back to Claudio. “Y la Tokyo?” she asked. 

“Dead,” said Claudio. “They’re all dead.” 

We ordered raisin bread and cafés con leche that a beady-eyed waitress brought over in tall, plastic cafeteria cups. 

They are both survivors, and know it. Each one has decided to go into drug outreach work—Claudia north of the border and Claudio south of it. She works with a small group of trans women called Grupo Fanny—named for a beloved late friend—that caters to the needs of Juárez’s trans community, almost exclusively sex workers, and conducts sex education classes and AIDS testing all over the city. It’s a rag-tag operation run out of the founder’s apartment in the bombed-out remains of the old red-light district. 

The two talked about work, as the past kept resurfacing and washed in like a tide, floating reminiscences. “In those years, you couldn’t go out on the streets here as a woman,” Claudio said. “But crossing to El Paso was easy. You’d go right over the bridge, and they’d just wave you through. All you had to say was ‘American citizen,’ in English, and you passed.” She said it now with a thick Mexican accent, as she must have also said it then. “Every once in a while, and this was rare, they’d ask what school you studied at in El Paso. But you could just invent any school in El Paso, and it was fine.” 

Claudio said that the bridges had been closed up in 1994, like it was literal, but in point of fact security just ramped up, as it would again—even further and irrevocably—after 9/11. “Then, we started crossing the river ourselves. In canoes, or little rafts. Whoever got himself wet to guide the raft over would have to get paid. Fifty cents.”

“Sometimes we just walked or swam across,” Claudia added. 

“We’d poke across, the water splashing around, and we’d hold the niños high over our head,” Claudio said.

“The niños?” I asked. Were they smuggling children over, too? Claudio and Claudia laughed at this, and swayed gleefully in their seats. I was on the outside, missing the slang. 

The niños, they explained, were the sponges and padding they used to doll themselves up—the breast and butt enhancers, the packing they used around their calves and thighs. It was all part of the chunky, flashy fashions of the time. They loaded up their clothes with the niños, packing them every which way, and forded the Rio Grande, struggling to keep them dry like their lives depended on it.

“You’d pass the migra”—border cops—“coming in like this, and they’d just say, ‘whatever, they’ll grab you farther in and deport you.’ I had various friends who were with immigration. I knew them from my work.” Claudio grinned.

“Extracurricular activities,” Claudia said sagely.

Claudio wanted to introduce us to Deborah Álvarez, the forty-one-year-old founder of Grupo Fanny, and so we left the café and walked back out onto the street, passing a group of besuited, silver-haired men singing Beatles songs by the church to a clapping crowd. Claudio lives nearby. During the worst of the drug years, when bullets whizzed off the streets and through apartment windows, she used to sleep on the floor of her bedroom to stay clear of the strafing. We walked up a street called Otumba, where trans women worked the corners in broad daylight wearing mini skirts and spiked heels despite the cold. One of them, Vicki, came over to greet us. 

We arrived at a green cement building with bars on its windows that looked semi-abandoned, and climbed up a narrow, dank stairway that opened onto a single floor, with a doorless bathroom and a bedroom where Deborah was waiting for us, nursing a hangover. A man lay in her bed, covered in blankets and still, apparently, sleeping. Purple satin curtains covered the windows and two paintings hung on the walls—one of them of a reclining nude rendered in dripping streaks of orange and red with male and female genitalia and the other, in green, of a woman caressing herself from the waist down. “This is Claudia, from Alameda,” Claudio told Deborah. I took a seat in an arched leather chair made to look like a high heel. 

Deborah is the protector of the Juárez trans community, and has been since 2005, when she returned—she grew up here—after being deported from Los Angeles. “I was coming down the steps from the bridge from the U.S. and the police picked me up immediately for being dressed like a woman. I knew what this was about because I am from Juárez, so I could put up with it. The cops picked us up, roughed us up.” Like the other trans women in Juárez she found work on the streets because nothing else was available to her. “When we went downtown we had to walk around disfrazadas, with our hair in buns and covered by hats, no makeup, in men’s clothes.” She slowly began to organize, though for a while it wasn’t clear how to outmaneuver the police. Deborah started taking tallies, keeping track of incidents, gathering evidence and presenting it to the public prosecutor—almost always in vain. She referred to her work, particularly its fruitlessness early on, as “puro cosecho”—
belabored reaping, a constant struggle. Things got worse before they got better. In May 2006, the municipal government launched a campaign to rid the downtown area of prostitution and gangs, providing the cops with an official cover for their abusiveness. “Each one of our apartments was overrun. On the first day of the new campaign, eighty-five women were beaten up by cops—slapped, pistol whipped, shot with rubber bullets. They liked shooting at our implants, particularly. Breasts. Hips.” 

Claudia listened, enrapt, and Claudio looked on approvingly, nodding each time Deborah pronounced her favorite words: hicimos un escándalo (we made a scandal). For Claudia, it had been a scandal just to be seen on the streets of Juárez, but Deborah had turned that overexposure into a tactic; if the trans women of Juárez were conspicuous, all the better to make a scene. They demonstrated at government offices and succeeded in removing from town one particularly brutal unit of the municipal police, known as “la patrulla diabólica” both for its aggression and the number on its squad car, which was 666. Eventually, Deborah went into hiding because cops publicly threatened to kill her. 

When the federal government called in national troops to combat the cartels, in 2008, the trans women had three groups to worry about: federal troops, who would rob and rape them; the souped up police forces; and the cartels themselves, which made sex workers pay extortion fees in excess of 200 pesos a week. “We had to work from our windows,” Deborah said, because there was a citywide curfew. “We simply had to have those payments. We wouldn’t eat.”

We listened without saying much, until a police siren rang out in the distance and Claudia leapt to her feet. I stood up with her, on pure reflex, and at this, Deborah’s lover, whose eyes had stealthily crept above the blanket, let out a laugh. Deborah gently waved us down, and the noise subsided.

In 2009, Deborah ran for federal office as a candidate for senate on a third-party ticket. One day, after campaigning, she changed into party clothes (skirt, heels), stepped out of her apartment, and was swarmed by cops, out on their usual beat. They threw her into the back of their truck and drove around town for a few hours before finally arriving at the police station. By the time they pulled up, protestors had assembled and party officials turned out from the capital. The police chief tried to let Deborah go discreetly, and pleaded with her to go home, but she refused. “He said to me, ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t know who you were. And I said, ‘No, sir, I’m sorry, because you’re going to lose your job.’”

Claudia clapped. Deborah now has a direct line to the mayor; she’s led solidarity marches and recently began training local cops on how to interact more respectfully with trans sex workers on the streets of Juárez. She can hardly believe it herself. “It’s better now, Claudia. We’ve changed things.” She and Claudio were pitching Claudia, trying to convince her Juárez had gotten safer for trans women. 

“Ever since all this happened, the girls can walk around dressed as women from top to bottom,” Claudio said. Claudia grinned with satisfaction. She proposed coming over again one evening for them all to go out dancing, and Claudio promised to meet her at the bridge and pick her up.

After an hour or so, Claudio led us out and walked us back to the bridge, and we cut through the old Mariscal, now just a field of rubble with buildings in various stages of destruction and decay. I trailed behind the two of them, as they walked arm in arm, pointing out by name where all the old bars used to be. 

 

In April, I flew back to visit. A small contingent of students was throwing a queer prom at the University of Texas El Paso, and Claudia had been asked to give a speech at the banquet. A lot had happened in my most recent absence. Claudia had moved from her old apartment to a well-appointed brick house a block away with a broad, tree-filled yard and a garden out back. She wasn’t alone in the house, either. She had adopted a seventeen-year-old intersex girl whom I’ll call Laura and who had been put up for foster care because of neglect and abuse at home. A local advocacy group tasked with placing her couldn’t find a proper surrogate set-up until someone plugged into the El Paso LGBT circuit proposed Claudia. We had spoken about the prospect of kids several months before, when we went shopping for Alan’s Christmas gift, and she told me then that she didn’t want to be a parent. Observing her work with vulnerable clients, I took her for a natural mother, but she barely let me get the question out at the time. “It’s just too late,” she said. 

But these were special circumstances—Laura was already seventeen, and would soon be a legal adult. She just needed someone to look out for her in the meantime. She’d never been to an endocrinologist or to a therapist, and was shy and tentative. Claudia took the opportunity as a sign of sorts, a chance to achieve her dream of being a mother. Soon, a flurry of messages appeared on Facebook, to which she posted photos with her “adoptive daughter.” It was a telling formulation because the dependency was mutual. I’d never seen Claudia so happy. 

Laura is tall and pretty, with short blond hair and the slightly stiff gait and manner of a kid transitioning out of adolescence. Her features are scattered with only the slightest masculine traces—a subtly pronounced Adam’s apple, vaguely muscular hands. On more than one occasion, she’s asked Claudia how she can manage to be so open about her own identity. Claudia calls her “mi hija,” protective and eager to dispense advice of any sort. She decided that Laura needed to learn better manners, and her teachings took on a loving bite. “I tell her, ‘Don’t copy me, be you. Just be lady-like,’” Claudia said. 

The night of the prom, Claudia and Laura turned out in ball gowns—perfectly, beautifully overdressed. Attendance couldn’t have cracked more than thirty or forty people. The student organizers stopped them as they walked in to snap their photos in front of the University crest, and Laura, ever the Facebook coquette, popped out her hip and puckered her lips for the camera. “No, mi hija,” Claudia said. “You don’t do that for a formal.” Laura stiffened; the camera flashed. “Now, I’m tagging you in this one,” Claudia said, and they whipped out their phones in synchrony. 

Toward the end of the night, after the speeches and the food, there was dancing, and the lights dimmed. A salsa tune came on and Laura bobbed to the music, but got tangled trying to swivel her hips. Claudia took her by the hand, spun her a couple times, then demonstrated the effect, holding her torso steady so her legs almost seemed to ripple out beneath her. Laura watched, and laughed, as Claudia showed her how to move.


Photographs by Reed Young

Read more from our Fall 2015 issue

Jonathan Blitzer works at the New Yorker. His writing has appeared there as well as in the New York Times, the Nation, the Atlantic, and elsewhere.