On Fri, Apr 18 a refugee claimant will get a second chance to stay in Canada. Viviana Contreras Hernandez — legally Jose Arturo Contreras Hernandez — was granted a new hearing in December after a federal court justice ruled that Hernandez’s crossdressing wasn’t taken into account when determining the danger she would face if returned to Mexico.
“There was significant compelling evidence before the [Immigration and Refugee] Board indicating the lack of adequate state protection for homosexuals and specifically crossdressers, individuals who are more visible and therefore an easy target to homophobic elements in Mexican society,” says Hernandez’s lawyer Lani Gozlan. “Viviana’s identity as a crossdresser and visibility was ignored in that decision.”
Hernandez, who has been living in Canada since April 2003, was born in Victoria City, Mexico to a less than supportive family.
“When I was 12 or 13 I used to like to play around by putting some oil on my lips and a T-shirt on my head which I would pretend was hair,” says Hernandez. “I was very effeminate. I told my parents that I wanted to dress up like a girl.
“They were devastated. My dad beat me up and told me he didn’t want to see me around. My parents kicked me out and I went to live with my godmother for several years. Once I saw my father in the street; he beat me up again, he punched me in the face.”
But violence at the hands of her family was just the beginning. After working as a farmer for several years Hernandez went to work in the department of agriculture in Mexico City.
“At the farm and in agriculture everybody was doing man’s work,” says Hernandez. “I was surrounded by many macho men and I was there trying to make a living. You can realize when they start to reject you, they begin making jokes, laughing behind your back. To survive you just take it one day at a time.
“Once I went to the bathroom and there were two guys from my office and they made a comment about how gay people smell bad. I said, ‘Like it or not, who I am and what I do does not concern you.’ One man grabbed me by the neck. They told me to watch my back because they were watching me and this was not going to end there, and they said, ‘We don’t want you here.'”
But the worst came in December 2001 when Henandez, dressed as a woman, was attacked leaving the El Taller nightclub in downtown Mexico City.
“When I left the club these guys started to follow me in their car. I didn’t pay attention at first,” says Hernandez. “As soon as I was going to cross the corner they grabbed me and put me in the car. There were four of them. They had a gun.
“We drove around for two or three hours as they made fun of me, pulled my wig, spat on me. I was so scared. All the questions they were asking me, they wanted me to reconfirm for them that I was not allowed to be born, that I was not allowed to be there. They stopped the car, made me kiss their feet, they put the gun inside my mouth to make me beg for my life and they told me it was up to me to convince them that I deserved to live. I begged for my life, I begged for pity. They beat me with their feet, they slapped me in the face and they left.
“I was in shock. You are not thinking about how to complain, you are just looking for a place to feel safe. I decided I would move from Mexico no matter what, leave everything behind, that my life was in danger.”
In 2003 Hernandez came to Canada on a student visa and studied English. In 2005 she applied for refugee status. Her case was heard by an IRB board member in June 2006; the application was rejected in November 2006.
According to IRB statistics Mexico has been Canada’s largest source of refugee claimants since 2005. Although 38 percent of refugee applications from the top 10 source countries were accepted in 2007, only 10 percent of Mexican claims were successful that year. Several local immigration lawyers have speculated that the percentage of Mexican refugees accepted on the basis of sexual orientation is significantly lower.
According to Gozlan much of the problem lies in the way that Mexico is perceived.
“Many view Mexico as a tourist destination, a democratic country that is also our partner in trade with NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement],” says Gozlan. “On paper it seems like Mexico is respecting the rights of minorities. In reality there is a serious problem of corruption, impunity and laws that at times are misused to target sexual minorities.”
“If I went back to Mexico then my life would be at risk I am sure,” says Hernandez.
According to Fernando del Collado, author of Homophobia: Hate, Crime and Justice, 1995-2005 126 homosexuals were murdered in Mexico City during that 10-year period; most cases have not been solved. At a presentation of the book in Mexico City last year Barbara Illan Rondero, former assistant attorney in the attorney generla’s office of Mexico’s Federal District, said there is no justice for victims of homophobic crime.
“[It’s] a matter that has to do with the intention of not solving these crimes because they carry no weight of importance,” she said.
Hernandez says she’s “nervous but optimistic” about her upcoming hearing.
“I want to stay, I want to finish university, I want to do volunteer work for refugee people as a support so it will be easier for them,” says Hernandez, who has been volunteering with the AIDS Committee of Toronto and helping a woman from Peru who was beaten by her husband go through the claimant process.
“Since I have been here I have the support of organizations, friends, doctors,” says Hernandez. “Canada is like a father for me. I feel proud and I feel very happy to be here. I am sure that I can make my goals come true and have a bright career and future. The chances are there, you just have to take them and have the opportunity to have them.”