Mexico City, Mexico – On a sunny Friday morning in Mexico City, Kenya Cuevas marches up to the offices of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE).
The line of people waiting to be seen spills out onto the pavement. The wait could be several hours. But Kenya is confident that when the officials hear she is outside, they will attend to her immediately.
She leans in towards the intercom and tells the attendant her name. The door swings open and the tall 46-year-old strides through.
Kenya is a household name around here. She boasts a range of titles: HIV prevention educator, transgender rights advocate and founder of the nongovernment organisation Casa de las Munecas Tiresias. She also works full-time at the Secretary of Public Education, where she trains teachers in the institution’s continuing education programmes. She is also a former sex worker.
Her work has made her well-known at the INE, where she regularly accompanies other transgender people looking to change their gender on official documents.
In December, Kenya inaugurated the Casa Hogar Paola Buenrostro, a shelter on the eastern periphery of Mexico City that will provide housing and services, including psychological support and career counselling, to transgender people. The shelter is named after her friend Paola Buenrostro.
Like Kenya, Paola was a transgender woman and a sex worker. She was murdered in 2016. Her death catalysed Kenya’s activism.
After 30 minutes inside the INE, Kenya returns, triumphant. One of the staffers approaches to ask if the director had attended to her well. “Oh, yeah, so nice,” Kenya says. “She started crying, she gave me her personal phone number; she said to call her for whatever we need.”
Kenya has a commanding presence and a packed schedule. She power-walks up Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, explaining the details of her work as she flicks through her WhatsApp messages and sends dozens of voice-note responses. “I’m always like this,” she says, gesturing at her jeans and flat shoes. “That’s why I dress this way.”
She spots a younger trans woman on the pavement. They greet each other and Kenya adds her number to the woman’s phone. “Let me know if you need anything,” she insists.
Kenya began working in the sex industry when she was nine years old.
She grew up as the youngest of six children. Her mother left when she was young, so she and her siblings were raised by their grandmother. She says her four older brothers bullied her for being feminine but her older sister and grandmother defended her.
Then, when Kenya was eight, her sister and grandmother died.
Kenya was left in the care of her brothers.
With no one to protect her from their bullying, Kenya decided to leave home.
She headed to Mexico City, to the one place she could remember from day trips with her grandmother: the Alameda Central park in the centre of the city.
“I remembered that she would take us there to take a picture on Three Kings Day, so I had good memories there,” she says.
Kenya narrates the story as if she has told it dozens of times.
That night, she sat down at the corner of Avenida Juarez and, she says, “I saw a woman in the distance, and without even knowing that she was trans, I identified with her.
“So I went to her, and I said, ‘I want to be like you’. She said to me, ‘Then start working, sweetie’. I said, ‘How?’ She told me, ‘Stand here, a car will drive up and ask how much you charge, and you’ll say four hundred pesos, and then you’ll get in the car and have sexual relations with them’.”
The first person who paid Kenya for sex left her at a hotel with money for the week. When she woke up the next morning, Kenya says she saw that the hotel was full of trans women.
“Trans people are denied our right to housing,” she points out, “so lots of us live in hotels or single-room occupancies.”
Kenya says the women at the hotel took her under their wing. “‘We’ll show you how to fix yourself up,’ they said, ‘and after this, you’ll have to do it yourself.'”
They took her downtown, to the wig shop El Castillo de la Fantasia. They bought her a wig, a dress and makeup, and showed her how to put herself together. Then, she narrates, they told her, “Now you’ve spent all the money you made last night, so it’s time to go back to work.”
Kenya mostly worked on the thoroughfare of Avenida de los Insurgentes, making about 1,500 pesos a day ($62) – part of which she turned over to a madam. In the years that followed, she contracted HIV and began using drugs.
Then, in 2000, Kenya was arrested when a house in downtown Mexico City where she was buying cocaine was raided by the police.
She was 25 years old.
The authorities took her directly to the Reclusorio Norte, a prison in the north of Mexico City, where she was charged with possession, distribution and consumption of cocaine, and sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison.
She was sent to a wing of the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison where HIV-positive prisoners were housed.
“We didn’t have medical services, and there was constant violence,” she says.
Kenya began making demands for better conditions and medical attention, as well as teaching her fellow inmates about HIV prevention and care. It was the beginning of her activism.
After 10 years, eight months and seven days, Kenya left the prison at 3am on September 22, 2010. She was 35 years old.
She immediately returned to sex work, but continued her HIV-related activism; collaborating with the Clinica Especializada Condesa, which provides HIV and AIDS care, and giving talks and leading workshops across the city.
Then, one night in downtown Mexico City, Kenya crossed paths with Paola Buenrostro. They met in Plaza Garibaldi, a square famous for the mariachi bands who play songs on demand for a few dollars a tune.
Paola had just arrived in the city that day.
She was originally from the small town of Pijijiapan, Chiapas in southern Mexico, on the Pacific coast close to the Guatemalan border.
Like Kenya, she grew up being passed among various family members: her mother left Paola with her father, who then left her under the care of aunts. According to Kenya, when Paola was 14 or 15, she left her aunts’ home to move alone to the beach town of Ciudad del Carmen. At age 18, she moved to Mexico City.
Kenya remembers that the young woman asked her where she could go to work, and Kenya directed her to the nearby intersection of Eje 1 and Paseo de la Reforma. The two women worked the same areas for the next six years, moving later to Puente de Alvarado.
Puente de Alvarado, just blocks from the historic Monument to the Revolution, has long been one of the city’s primary thoroughfares for trans sex workers. The wide street cuts through the centre of the city, bordering the Tabacalera neighbourhood, which is filled with pay-by-the-hour hotels. Taco stands, cantinas and restaurants stand alongside abandoned 19th-century buildings on the avenue. It is bustling and busy during the day, but falls quiet at night, aside from the sex workers who stand in clusters on the corners.
Kenya and Paola found themselves there, as usual, on the night of September 30, 2016.
It was Kenya’s first night back on the streets in a while. Two weeks earlier, a customer had stabbed her, leaving still-visible scars across her arms and body.
“Each day, I would get ready, and then I would decide not to go,” she explains.
After two weeks, though, she had run out of money.
When she arrived on the corner of Puente de Alvarado and Aldama that night, Kenya says, her friend Paola was feeling under the weather. They usually drank anise to stay warm and keep their spirits up while they were working, and Kenya remembers telling Paola, “It’s because you don’t have your anise. Let me buy you one.”
Later that night, Kenya says a man drove up to them in a gray Nissan sedan. Kenya had already approached him, but both women saw right away that he seemed drunk or high. He had his pants down to his knees, Kenya says, and only had 200 pesos (about $8). She needed money, but given the risks of such a customer, she decided to pass. Paola got in the car.
The car had only moved about 15 metres when Kenya says she heard three gunshots. Her friend screamed her name. Kenya approached the car. She says the man tried to shoot at her, too, but the gun did not go off.
Kenya recorded the moments that followed on her mobile phone.
The video shows her friend collapsed in the passenger seat of the car.
“Paola,” Kenya screams over and over. “They just killed her.”
Then, “She’s still alive! She’s still alive!”
A chorus of voices – fellow sex workers – joins Kenya’s, calling their friend’s name.
“Hold on, Paola, we’re here, here’s the ambulance,” someone calls.
The sound of sirens gets louder, and the shot moves to a police car, where officers have taken the man.
Kenya approaches the police car, where the man, in the back of the car, holds his cuffed hands above his head. He insists he does not know what happened.
“Then who shot her?” Kenya shouts.
“I don’t know!”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? I heard the shots. You wanted me to get in, didn’t you?” They argue, and the video ends with an officer asking Kenya to move away from the police car. “I’m in my right to record,” Kenya yells back. “I’m a human rights defender. I work in the Clinica Especializada Condesa.” She moves back to her friend and cries, “Ambulance! an ambulance, please! She’s still alive!”
After the ambulance arrived, Kenya and some other sex workers headed to the police station.
But the police, she says, would not give them any information about Paola because they were not her family.
Paola had died. She was 24 years old.
An initial hearing into her murder took place three days later, on October 2. Kenya showed up, expecting to be called as a witness, but she says the investigator in charge of the case asked her to leave the courtroom, as her presence could “contaminate” the proceedings.
Within the courtroom, according to a report by the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, the defense lawyers argued that the shots had been accidentally caused by Paola’s struggling. The judge ruled that there was no evidence to show that the accused had fired the gun.
Kenya says none of Paola’s family attended the trial. According to the Human Rights Commission’s report, the authorities had not been able to locate and notify Paola’s family because of uncertainty about Paola’s legal name.
Kenya says she spent the next few days in a fog.
When the authorities finally released Paola’s body, four days after her death, Kenya, fellow sex workers and friends held a vigil for two days before the burial.
On October 6, as Paola’s friends drove from the vigil to the cemetery, Kenya decided she needed to call attention to the moment. She stopped the car and got out.
In the middle of the midday traffic on the busy intersection of Avenida de los Insurgentes and Puente de Alvarado, near where Paola had been killed, the funeral procession came to a halt.
Kenya opened the hearse that contained Paola’s body and pulled out the coffin. She placed the coffin on the street, the small window open to reveal Paola’s face behind the glass.
Members of the funeral procession chanted and held up handwritten posters with slogans demanding justice for Paola.
In video footage filmed by journalists at the scene, Kenya holds the coffin with one hand and shakes the other in indignation, as she says, emphatic and hoarse: “We don’t want any more murderers free.”
The impromptu demonstration received as much media attention, if not more, than Paola’s murder. It catapulted Kenya into the public spotlight.
“I didn’t have time to mourn,” she reflects. “I got bombarded by media and researchers and NGOs.”
Suddenly, she says, everyone in Mexico wanted to know about transgender women and sex workers. She started giving interviews. In 2018, a functionary from the Mexico City mayor’s office helped her secure funds to start her own non-profit organisation, which she named Casa de las Munecas Tiresias.
Despite the public attention that Kenya brought to Paola’s case, it remains “unsolved”.
Two weeks after the trial, on October 17, 2016, another arrest warrant was issued for the man who had already been released, but more than three years later, the authorities have yet to arrest him.
In June 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Mexico City released a full report into the investigation of Paola’s death. The report argued that both Paola and Kenya’s rights had been violated and that the investigation had failed to take into account the gender-related motive for the crime. The commission requested that the attorney general take up the case.
But little progress was made. So in mid-January, Kenya led a group of 14 other transgender women in protest outside the commission’s office. Just as they had during the impromptu demonstration two years earlier, they hoisted a coffin onto the street. Kenya lay inside in a beaded black dress, arms crossed over her chest.
“When I lay there and closed my eyes, I imagined Paola,” she explains.
The demonstration continued for an hour until the commission let Kenya and the others inside to meet directly with Ernestina Godoy Ramos, the city’s attorney general.
They asked for a public apology over the handling of Paola’s case, for the attorney general to make the case a priority and for the suspect to be arrested. In the meeting, Kenya says, the attorney general committed to prioritising the pursuit of justice in cases involving LGBTQ people and to arresting the suspect in Paola’s murder.
Neither the attorney general nor the Human Rights Commission of Mexico City responded to requests for comment for this article.
Aside from Paola’s case, Kenya is fighting for justice in two other cases of murdered transgender women.
One of them, Itzayana Lopez Hernandez, was found dead on September 22, 2019. The other woman, Pamela Sandoval Ramirez, was murdered on January 28, 2019 in a beauty salon she operated out of Kenya’s house. She had been staying there while Kenya was on vacation.
Although Kenya no longer works on Puente de Alvarado, she returns often. In December, she threw a Christmas party on the street for sex workers in the area.
Mexico City is by far the most progressive city in Mexico with respect to LGBTQ rights. Kenya hopes to extend her advocacy to the rest of the country, where the law in some regions condones discrimination. In the northern state of Nuevo Leon, for example, it is legal for medical professionals to deny services to LGBTQ people.
Even in Mexico City, though, hurdles remain. Rocio Sanchez, the founder of the Mexico City-based Centro de Apoyo a las Identidades Trans, an NGO that advocates for rights for transgender people, says that the city has a long way to go to guarantee full inclusion. Workplace discrimination makes it particularly difficult for transgender women to find work in the formal economy, she says. Rocio says that what transgender people in Mexico need is a politics of reparations. “The state needs to recognise its responsibility for the situation of trans people,” she says. To her, this means addressing issues around labour inclusion, access to education, medical costs – and violence against transgender people.
Mexico has one of the highest rates of transfemicides in the world. According to data gathered by Rocio’s organisation, 2016 to 2019 saw a spike in the number of murders of transgender women in Mexico. The organisation has recorded 202 transfemicides in that four-year period alone. Mexico does not have a legal framework for transfemicides, meaning that they are prosecuted as homicides and not as hate crimes.
Kenya is currently working with Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission to have transfemicides recognised in Mexico’s penal code.
The shelter named in Paola’s honour still does not have any furniture, but Kenya has big plans for the space.
For now, it is an empty building on a steep hill at the far northeastern edge of the city. Kenya wants to hire mental health professionals, career counsellors and tutors, and she plans to create alliances with other organisations to provide services. The shelter will cater, she says, to all members of the transgender community, including those who are HIV-positive, migrants and sex workers, including children and teenagers as herself and Paola were when they first started working on the streets.
She repeats her motto several times: “Our revenge is that we’ll be happy.”