By Cindy Carcamo
The children on the playground ridiculed her. Her father whipped her. Police officers tortured and molested her. But it wasn't until after military officials gang raped her, Carolina said, that she took action on her dream: to leave her native Honduras for a safer life in America.
The 50-year-old said she'd always heard of a land where society was more accepting of people like her — a transgender individual.
Carolina, who was born Manuel Zelaya-Ortega, thumbed for rides and hop-scotched on trains, making her way through Central America and Mexico before crossing illegally into Calexico in 1988. That same year she attempted to apply for asylum but a notary scammed her out of hundreds of dollars and she ultimately missed the one-year window to make the petition, she said.
While she managed to find work in Long Beach as a seamstress, gardener and even an AVON cosmetics lady, she said she continued to be depressed by the scam and found it increasingly difficult to negotiate the trauma of life-long abuse. She found solace in drugs and ultimately got in trouble with the law, putting herself at risk for deportation.
In March she became an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee at the Santa Ana Jail after police found her to be in possession of a meth pipe.
"I don't want to return to my country," she said behind bars in a 2010 interview. "I'll be persecuted by my family, police... the military. It's horrible. I came escaping all of that. I'll be tortured."During her time in detention, jail officials separated Carolina into an area with other transgender detainees. While there she met an attorney who conducted legal workshops at the jail. Soon after, the attorney paired Carolina with attorney Drew Patterson and Alicia Macklin, who worked on her case pro bono.
Patterson told an immigration judge that Carolina would likely be persecuted and tortured if deported to Honduras. He submitted Carolina's story about rape, torture and abuse at the hands of her father, military and police officials, which helped to ultimately convince the judge to issue a "withholding of removal and relief under the convention against torture."
That essentially means that immigration officials are not allowed to deport Carolina back to her native country because she'd likely face torture, Patterson said.
Until the situation significantly improves in Honduras for transgender individuals, Carolina will avoid deportation, Patterson added. She'll also be eligible for a driver's license and a work visa that has to be renewed every year. However, her legal status will always be in something of a limbo because she will never be eligible for a green card, according to immigration law.
While Carolina said she's ecstatic to have escaped deportation, she said she'll have to start anew. She has no money and, for now, she's living with her younger sister in a Long Beach apartment. She will have to wait months for her work visa to come through, she said.
Her sisters have always been sympathetic to her feelings and desires to become a woman, said Carolina, the eldest sibling.
To this day, she introduces herself as Manuel when she calls her very conservative father in Honduras. He has never been able to accept Carolina as a woman.
"My father is just too drastic and rigid,'' she said. "He always wanted a son.''Carolina rolled up her sleeve, showing a deep scar on her forearm.
"That's when he pushed me to the floor and tore my arm," she said. "It was because he saw me kiss my boyfriend. I was about 15 at the time."While Carolina didn't dress like a woman for years under her father's roof, she said her voice was always feminine and she wore snug-fitting pants to look more like a girl. She preferred to stay in class and learn sewing patterns rather than go rough-housing with the boys in the yard.
She eventually moved out of her home and moved in with a friend when she was 20 years old.
"I couldn't hide my identity any longer," Carolina said. "That's when I began to dress like a woman but I always had to avoid my parents."Since then she's dressed in female clothing wherever she goes, even crossing the border as a woman. At one point she prostituted herself for rides that would inch her closer to the border, she said.
She knew her appearance would make her a target.
"But I could no longer hide who I really was," she explained.While she only has a fourth grade education, Carolina is quite articulate in her native Spanish language but struggles with English. She said she hopes to improve on her adopted language and make a good life for herself in the U.S.
"I just want a better life to be able to develop as a human being and the person who I really am," she said.Carolina said she knows she's lucky. There are others like her who were deported by immigration officials because they couldn't afford an attorney to make their case.
"I don't ever want to return to Honduras," she said. "I think there's a good chance that I'll die before things ever get better there for us."