Jacque Larrainzar: Sometimes I Wonder How I Am Here

Even in relatively stable countries like Mexico, people fear the government because of their beliefs or politics. Terrified by what her own government had done to her, Jacque came to the U.S. and eventually applied for political asylum. Asylees have to meet the same requirements as refugees, but apply after entering the U.S. instead of before.

I grew up mainly [in Mexico City] but my father’s a diplomat, so I traveled all over. I consider myself a citizen of the world. The first time I [came to the US], my father was the cultural attaché in Washington for Mexico, in the ‘80s.  

While I was here in high school, I realized that I was gay. I had a teacher in high school who started clarifying the questions that I had about my gender identity and my sexuality. My family was not accepting. I had a lot of issues with my father in particular.

When I went back to Mexico for college, I got involved with the first people that started organizing around LGBT rights. I was part of a group of folks that organized the first gay pride in Mexico City. I was very young. That was in 1988.

I got kicked out of my house, and I ended up moving in with a group of women, a feminist collective. I lived with them for the rest of my college, and I became very active in politics with them. I helped organize the first Independent Women’s Union in Mexico. I’m an artist, also a musician, and I was organizing events where women could come and explore art, music, painting, drawing, poetry, storytelling. This was an amazing community and an amazing moment in Mexico’s history.

photo: Beatrice Murch

I came of age, I came out, but that also created a lot of problems with the Mexican government, because my father was very high in the government. Some of the activities that we were doing were seen as socialist or communist activities, and so we started to be monitored.

Our phones were tapped, and then a couple of the people that I lived with disappeared. One was found dead, the other one was tortured. My dad told me that I was on the list of people that the government was targeting. He told me that all of my friends were on that list, and that he was not doing anything to stop them if I got arrested. Which I was. I was tortured also and raped, and I can tell you all sorts of things. I was nineteen, almost twenty at the time.

To this day, I don’t understand why they let me go, but I think it was because I had one of my dad’s cards in my pocket, and I think when they saw that, they decided that it was better if they let me go. I think I was very lucky.  

One of my friends put me on a plane and sent me here when they realized that our apartment had been broken into, and they had taken names of people we were working with. I wound up in Seattle because when we went to the airport, my friends asked how far could I go with the money they had given me, and that was Seattle. One of them had friends here, and so I ended up here with my guitar and twenty dollars, with the name of this guy and the address.

For about a year, I just stayed in people’s houses because I didn’t have enough money to pay rent. I played in the [Pike Place] market everyday, and with the little money I made, I ate. The manager [of the youth hostel in the market] figured that I was homeless, so we made an arrangement that I would help to clean and make the beds in exchange for staying there. That was great because I had more money to buy food and start taking classes at the college to improve my English.

There were a lot of Latinos working in the fishing boats, and an organization in downtown Seattle was trying to organize them, so they hired me to help organize. The leaders were negotiating with the City [to take a building] so it would become a low-income homeless shelter for Latinos. I didn’t have a work permit and I didn’t have a social security number, so they offered me a stipend for helping them.

That is when I started getting interested in immigration, because a lot of the folks that I was helping didn’t have papers, and they were really scared. A lot of them also didn’t speak English or had very low literacy. So I started helping them with translating immigration letters and fill out papers.

That’s how I met the attorney that eventually helped me to apply for asylum. When I told him my story, he said, ‘You need to apply’, but I was very afraid.

I had changed my name, so I didn’t tell anybody who I was, where I came from, nothing. When he asked me to apply, he was very sincere in asking me to tell everybody not only my story and what had happened, but also who I was and who my father was. That was very, very, very scary. But I did it.

It was the first time that the United States allowed people to apply for asylum based on their gender identity. The asylum case took from ‘94 to ’97 to be accepted. I actually got the letter of asylum on September 11, 2001. It took another three years to be able to apply to get my green card. In November 2011, I finally became a citizen. So almost twenty years.

Jacque02I became the first lesbian to gain political asylum from Mexico. I think there were a lot of fears that if they approved my case, that was going to open the floodgates, so they requested all sorts of crazy stuff that my attorney told me they usually don’t request for asylum cases. They even had a bi-national panel of experts reviewing my case, because the Mexican government was saying that the sort of thing that I had experienced in Mexico didn’t happen in Mexico, that Mexico was very accepting of LGBT people.

We started doing research and found that right after I left, from 1994 to 1999, about 800 LGBT activists had been murdered, and nobody ever did anything to find out who, or why. When we started looking at who those people were, I knew all those people.

When I went for my asylum interview, it just took every single ounce of me to stay centered and be able to talk to this guy, because he brought out a list of names and started asking me, “Do you know this person? Do you know this person?” and they were all friends of my friends. And all of them were dead.

When he started asking me, he had pictures of them, and my hands started shaking. He tried to give me a glass of water and I couldn’t even hold it. It was like my body went in shock. I couldn’t stop shaking and for a moment it felt like I wasn’t going to be able to breathe. I really don’t know how I kept talking to him. And then he asked me if I was still involved in politics in Mexico, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?”

At the end of the interview, I left the room and I literally passed out because all of sudden I realized how lucky I was to be alive.

Sometimes I wonder how am I standing here.

I was very upset [that I can never go back] but I made peace with it, because I realized that after what I went through and what I knew, I really don’t want to go back to the place where all those horrible things happened.

[My family] basically disowned me. My mother actually came [here] because she found out she was dying, and she wanted to make peace with me, so we met and we talked. She passed in 2012. But my dad, I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen.

When they accepted my asylum case, they gave me a work permit, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project hired me to do outreach. I was helping people with their domestic violence cases, and I helped others with all sorts of issues, from losing their green card to trying to get forms.Jacque03

 I worked for [Northwest Immigrant Rights Project] about three years. And then the City of Seattle offered me a job to help with domestic violence policy [at the Office of Civil Rights]. They were also starting to work on LGBT issues and women’s issues. I worked there for fourteen years, and that job allowed me to learn many things, but I never forgot where I came from and my communities.

Jacque04In 2014, I left the City of Seattle to help Seattle Counseling Services do a survey of LGBTQ Immigrant, Undocumented and Refugees in King County. I also helped start Asylum Connect to map services for LGBTQ asylum seekers. I realized that, even though the world had changed – we had same sex marriage, some legal protections, we had made progress – but the folks I talked to had the same fears I had when I first arrived in the U.S.

In 2017, I moved to Oakland, California to help start the first Department of Race and Equity in the state.

The struggle is not over and now more than ever we need to continue to demand a fair and just immigration system. We need to become citizens, and vote for people who care for us and will help us make the world better for everyone.

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