'I'm A Survivor Of Violence': Portraits Of Women Waiting In Mexico For U.S. Asylum

'I'm A Survivor Of Violence': Portraits Of Women Waiting In Mexico For U.S. Asylum

5:51pm Jan 16, 2019
Karen Paz hugs her daughter, Liliana Saray, 9. They are from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "I feel free; I feel different," Paz said. "I don't have someone who imposes his views and his ways on me. I am not scared someone will come and attack me, like I used
Karen Paz hugs her daughter, Liliana Saray, 9. They are from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "I feel free; I feel different," Paz said. "I don't have someone who imposes his views and his ways on me. I am not scared someone will come and attack me, like I used
Federica Valabrega
  • Karen Paz hugs her daughter, Liliana Saray, 9. They are from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "I feel free; I feel different," Paz said. "I don't have someone who imposes his views and his ways on me. I am not scared someone will come and attack me, like I used

    Karen Paz hugs her daughter, Liliana Saray, 9. They are from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "I feel free; I feel different," Paz said. "I don't have someone who imposes his views and his ways on me. I am not scared someone will come and attack me, like I used

    Federica Valabrega

  • Mirna Yolanda Contreras, 29 (left), and Paula Arita, 32, are both from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "Since we met in Puebla [Mexico], we have never separated. We became very good friends; we slept in the same place the whole time," Contreras said.

    Mirna Yolanda Contreras, 29 (left), and Paula Arita, 32, are both from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "Since we met in Puebla [Mexico], we have never separated. We became very good friends; we slept in the same place the whole time," Contreras said.

    Federica Valabrega

  • (Left) Carmen Enamorado Alba, 31, is from Guaimaca, Honduras. (Right) Margarita Alberto Escobar, 39, sits with her children Dallana Michelle, 10, and Allan José Vargas, 12. They are from the Honduran town of Gracias. "The doctor told me [Dallana] may hav

    (Left) Carmen Enamorado Alba, 31, is from Guaimaca, Honduras. (Right) Margarita Alberto Escobar, 39, sits with her children Dallana Michelle, 10, and Allan José Vargas, 12. They are from the Honduran town of Gracias. "The doctor told me [Dallana] may hav

    Federica Valabrega

  • (Left) Maria Luisa Vasquez, 36, holds her children Brittany, 6, and César, 2. They are from Guatemala. (Right) Funny Gabriela Regalado, 20, is from Honduras. "I felt very scared to report this [abuse], because at the time he had some link to a [gang]; I

    (Left) Maria Luisa Vasquez, 36, holds her children Brittany, 6, and César, 2. They are from Guatemala. (Right) Funny Gabriela Regalado, 20, is from Honduras. "I felt very scared to report this [abuse], because at the time he had some link to a [gang]; I

    Federica Valabrega

  • Cynthia Carolina Soriano, 30, Kenneth Soriano, 2 (bottom right), Joseph Soriano, 5 (center), and Jennifer Soriano, 7 (left), from Villa Nueva Cortes, Honduras. "The maltreatment I was subjected to, as other women there in Honduras, was why I decided to le

    Cynthia Carolina Soriano, 30, Kenneth Soriano, 2 (bottom right), Joseph Soriano, 5 (center), and Jennifer Soriano, 7 (left), from Villa Nueva Cortes, Honduras. "The maltreatment I was subjected to, as other women there in Honduras, was why I decided to le

    Federica Valabrega

  • Maria Lila Meza Castro, 39 (left), and one of her daughters, Jeimye Giselle Mejia Meza, 13. Meza Castro came to Mexico's border with the U.S. from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with five of her nine children. "[My husband] left my children and me homeless, be

    Maria Lila Meza Castro, 39 (left), and one of her daughters, Jeimye Giselle Mejia Meza, 13. Meza Castro came to Mexico's border with the U.S. from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with five of her nine children. "[My husband] left my children and me homeless, be

    Federica Valabrega

  • "He would always mess my life up, making demands and threatening me if I would not give back the photos I would take of myself all bruised up after his beatings," Arita said. "I did this thinking if and when I would ask for asylum in the U.S., I will show

    "He would always mess my life up, making demands and threatening me if I would not give back the photos I would take of myself all bruised up after his beatings," Arita said. "I did this thinking if and when I would ask for asylum in the U.S., I will show

    Federica Valabrega

"Hitting a woman for a man is as normal as eating a tortilla from a food stand on the way to work," said Karen Paz, 34, from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, revealing a scar from a burn on her left shoulder. "He wanted to burn my face, but my daughter started screaming when she saw him taking the pan with boiling butter. She pushed him, and so he aimed for the arm instead."

Men can do anything to women in Honduras and the police hardly do anything about it, said Paz, while scrolling on her phone to show me more images of the burn and trying to find the police report she filed right after the attack.

"They detained him for only 24 hours, and then he came back home. I couldn't stay there anymore; the next time he was going to kill me. My daughter could not witness that," she said.

I met Paz near her tent inside the Benito Juárez Sports Center in Tijuana, Mexico, one of the sites where thousands of Central American migrants have taken shelter since arriving in two caravans in November 2018. Many of them had traveled the length of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico on foot and on the occasional bus and truck ride since departing from San Pedro Sula, Honduras — one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America — in October.

Domestic violence was the leading reported crime in Honduras, according to a March 2015 report by the United Nations' special rapporteur on violence against women. Between 2009 and 2012, 82,547 domestic violence complaints were lodged in courts across the country. Yet a low percentage of domestic abuse charges result in a conviction. Honduras' special prosecutor for women cited far lower numbers in the 2012-2014 period: 4,992 registered complaints, but just 134 convictions, according to the U.N. report. The Migration Policy Institute found that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, respectively, had the first-, third- and seventh-highest rate of gender-motivated killing of women in the world. Few of these cases are ever resolved by the courts.

Through my portrait series I documented Paz and 12 other women with their children who are survivors of domestic abuse and decided to flee their homes by joining one of last year's migrant caravans. For them it was a challenging, almost two-month journey to answer the question: What does it take for a Central American woman to give her children a better future?

I listened to these women's testimonies and decided to portray them not as victims but as their most resilient selves, for no abuse can measure up to the courage and strength it took to carry their children across multiple countries for a shot at a better life by asking for asylum in the United States.

The Trump administration has tried to make it tougher for asylum-seekers escaping domestic or gang violence to gain protected status, although it has met challenges in federal court. In 2018, Syracuse University researchers said U.S. immigration judges rejected the highest number of asylum claims since at least 2001.

This week, as a new migrant caravan departed Honduras, President Trump repeated his controversial claim that "only a wall will work" to deter them.

There is a long wait south of the border. Most of the women and children I've interviewed are asylum-seekers who are on a waiting list with more than 5,000 people. They initially took refuge at the Benito Juárez shelter, but many left for another site known as El Barretal. They are waiting in shelters for their turn to be heard, which could be months. Some of them have started to think about crossing into the U.S. illegally instead of attempting to go through an official port of entry.

Whether they know it or not, reaching the U.S. border was only half the battle. They must now contend with an immigration system that has made it more complicated to have their case considered for asylum.

"I'm a survivor of violence already; I cannot bring my daughter back to go through that herself," said Paz. "I feel different here. I don't have someone who imposes his views and ways on me. I am not scared someone will come and attack me, like I used to be. I cannot go back."


Federica Valabrega is a documentary photographer based between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Rome. She reported and photographed this story in Tijuana, Mexico.

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