By Samuel Braslow for Advocate
At 5:45 in the morning, with the rain pounding the pavement of a grocery store parking lot on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard, camera crews gathered around a group of 12 LGBTQ activists and volunteers sheltering under their umbrellas. They had risen before the sun to drive to Estadio Unidad Benito Juarez in Tijuana, a large camp of mostly-Central American migrants looking for entry into the United States, some seeking asylum from gang violence and discrimination. In addition to delivering basic supplies like water, diapers, and feminine hygiene products, they hoped to make contact with a separate group of LGBTQ migrants in a show of solidarity and support.
In a Facebook post announcing the trip, trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston acknowledged that other groups already exist to field and deliver donations. “But,” she countered, “there’s something powerful, uplifting, healing, and affirming about showing up to the trenches in solidarity and holding space with folks who don’t even know others like them exist.”
Like many who gathered in the parking lot on Thursday morning, some setting their alarms as early as 3 a.m. to pack up supplies on time, Preston had seen the images and videos of mothers and children fleeing canisters of tear gas at the border. But Preston’s empathy and her motivation behind the trip lay also in her experience as a trans woman of color who “has had to navigate multitiered marginalization.” In fact, almost all of those who gave up their Thursdays — some with deep resumés in activism, others newer to the scene — were compelled by powerful personal stories and a complex intersection of identities that tied them to the people at the border.
“Nobody knows rejection like a black trans woman,” she says, recalling her own struggles leaving her home in Kentucky and ending up homeless on the streets of Hollywood for over two years, on and off.
Watching the migrant crisis unfold and seeing the reaction of other American citizens reminded her of those years — “feeling like I was a cancer, feeling like I wasn’t allowed to hold space or to exist, feeling like people were trying to justify their inability to engage and dismantle the systems of oppression that put me there.”
Blasting out her plans to her sizable social media following (over 106,000 on Instagram), Preston was able to gather $2,500 — including $1,000 donated by Steven Canals, co-creator of Pose — “four cars with 13 people, and four community partners” who acted as drop-off spots for donations.
“We did that in 24 hours,” Preston tells me.
For Yasmin Lee, a trans adult film star and activist who also traveled south with Preston, the connection to the asylum-seekers was even more autobiographical. Lee herself was born to refugee parents escaping violence in their home of Cambodia.
“At seven months pregnant, my mom ran into the jungle with the rest of my family,” Lee says. “My dad delivered me with my eldest sister and my other sisters held banana leaves over her because it was raining. You could hear bullets flying and people screaming.”
Soon after she was born, Lee and her family crossed into Thailand. Her sister got separated in the chaos and her dad was shot in the leg; both were presumed dead until they reunited years later. Lee spent the first five years of her life growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand, then lived briefly in a camp in the Philippines before her family found a sponsor in the United States.
Other ad hoc groups from Los Angeles had also come down to assist the migrants in Tijuana. “I got emotional because she had spoken to a family whose girls had been kidnapped and sold to a brothel,” Lee says. “Being an adult entertainer, being in the sex industry, we’re everything against sex trafficking, everything against exploitation.”
But beyond her experience as a refugee, what she saw in Tijuana resonated with her experience as a trans woman. “As a transgender woman, you feel that you go through your whole life trying to survive as a war refugee,” she says. To be either trans or a refugee “is just to be ignored and neglected by the world.”
Kimberlee Tellez, an activist on the trip who has actively protested the Trump administration for the last two years (racking up two arrests in the process, she tells me with pride), felt compelled to drive south because of her Mexican heritage and the story of her wife, Mia Yamamoto, a Japanese-American trans woman.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-American, including Mia’s parents. Shortly after, Mia was born, spending her first years of life inside the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.
The asylum-seekers who left their homes and traveled thousands of miles had as little choice as her wife’s family, Tellez reasons. “No one becomes a willing migrant.”
The rain did not stay put in Los Angeles. As the four-car caravan made its way south, so did the storm clouds, and both arrived a little before noon. After making a stop at Costco to spend as much of the $2,500 as would fit in the already double-stuffed cars, the rain transformed from a drizzle into a constant pour. At the main migrant camp, an outdoor sports facility repurposed to contain the more than 6,000 migrants, water soaked through clothes, blankets, and tents. Just outside the complex, on a cordoned-off street, others sought shelter under hastily constructed lean-to’s made with tarps or repurposed sheets of plastic. Rivers of brown, fetid water rushed down the street and sloshed over curbs, carrying away belongings like toys, food, and shoes.
Seeing the supplies through the car windows, migrants pressed in hoping to grab something — anything — before it disappeared in the frenzy. While some volunteers were startled by the advance, David Cunningham remained calm.
“They’re not trying to hurt you, they’re just desperate,” he explains. Something similar happens on Skid Row, according to Cunningham, where he volunteers once a month, handing out food and other necessities at L.A.’s downtown homeless encampment (which, it should be noted, bares a striking resemblance to the camp in Tijuana).
Cunningham himself was homeless for two years as a child, he tells me, explaining his own reason for driving to the border. “I came out about my sexuality at 11 and a counselor broke confidentiality,” he says. When his already-abusive adopted parents found out, they kicked him out of the house, saying “I couldn’t be a ‘faggot’ and living under their roof.”
But along with the cruelty of his parents, he also recalls the indifference he encountered from the general public. “I slept on the street,” he says, “and no one would ever question why a child was sleeping on the street in the cold.”
In addition to Cunningham, musician and activist Kiran Gandhi, who performs and produces under the name Madame Gandhi, also spends time helping the residents of Skid Row. Gandhi, who has played drums with artists including M.I.A. and Kehlani, received international attention when she ran the 2015 London Marathon while free bleeding. Thanks in part to her viral clout, she has since become increasingly active in radical feminist activist circles and blends her advocacy with her music.
Gandhi’s own involvement in Thursday’s excursion had less to do with her personal story than with growing up with parents who were deeply committed to helping others. In her work on Skid Row, rather than go through organizations like Good Will, Gandhi prefers to bring donations straight to those in need. Similarly, in helping the migrants, she emphasizes the need to be on the front lines instead of delegating responsibility to others.
“Even if handing out a single can of coke might not be sustainable as an individual contribution, it is collectively sustainable if we have folks going down there every single day,” she says.
For their part, the group of activists and volunteers do plan on returning to the border. By the end of the day, they did not make contact with the LGBTQ migrants — at least, not in person. Exercising an abundance of caution, the migrants asked that supplies be dropped off at a separate location to avoid drawing attention to their current hideaway (they have been moving locations every few nights out of a concern for their safety, according to aid workers and activists with knowledge of their movements). While Preston and others expressed some disappointment, Preston is in contact with the migrants and the two groups intend on meeting soon.
Click here to find out how you can help the migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.