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From Mexico to the Castro: Hector Romero sought asylum to save his life

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Sara Nora Koust
Hector Romero in his home in San Mateo.

This story originally aired on July 18, 2019 and most recently as the September 28, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Two hundred and twenty two trans or gender-diverse people were murdered in Latin America from October 2021 to September 2022. The real number is likely much higher with many never reported. The lucky ones who make it to the United States often have a rough start. Many people stay under the radar.

As we head into October, which is LBGTQ+ History Month, we are revisiting a story from someone who shared his experience seeking refuge in the United States. For 10 years Hector Romero was living as an undocumented immigrant and this story is the first time he shared his experience publicly.

Hector grew up in the city called Ciudad López Mateos, a little north of Mexico City. Music was always playing from the speakers in his home since his dad was a well-known DJ. His sister and aunt also owned a salsa club together where Hector would go dancing from an early age. The kids played in the colorful streets and people from the neighborhood were often invited into Hector’s home. "It was really happy growing up there," he says.

Nobody knew about us. It was really hard at that time to be gay. It still is.

Hector was a popular guy with lots of friends. But there was one guy in particular who Hector had his eyes on. This guy lived just two doors away and he liked Hector back. They formed a relationship, but. Hector says, "We couldn't date because in Mexico nobody knew about us. It was really hard at that time to be gay. It still is," Hector says.

The night everything changed

They kept things a secret for a while, but one night they went to a party together with their friends. They ended up kissing in the streets and his boyfriend’s father saw them from the window. This was not a regular guy — he was the mayor of the city. A few days after the incident, the police started to follow Hector everywhere he went. One night, they picked him up and drove out of the city, up towards the mountains.

"When we get there, he pulls out a gun and they take me out from the car, and they pull me on my knees. They told me with a gun on my head that I have to move or they gonna kill me," Hector explains with a scared look in his eyes as he remembers the past.

After the incident, Hector knew he had to disappear. He told his family that he was in danger, but made up a story about why. Even though they were loving parents they were very traditional — he couldn't tell them he was gay.

Credit Courtesy of Hector Romero
Courtesy of Hector Romero
Photograph of Hector in his childhood home in Mexico.

Escape to the Bay Area

His sister and aunt made arrangements with a ‘coyote’ — a smuggler who helps people without legal papers to cross the U.S. border. But first, Hector had to take an airplane from Mexico City to Tijuana. He was terrified he would never see his family and friends again.

In Tijuana, the coyote took Hector and two Mexican women across the border in the trunk of a car. Hours later, Hector found himself in a garage in San Diego, where he was forced to stay for a few days until his sister Karina picked him up. She was already living in San Mateo in Northern California. 

I see people holding hands and I was like... Wow, this is something I wouldn't even dream about in my country. This is something good after the bad.

Hector felt safe for the first time in months, but starting a new life was still difficult. He decided not to call his friends or family in Mexico for a whole year. He didn't want to put them in any danger. 

Slowly, things started to get better. The police stopped threatening his family in Mexico, he began to learn English and he was introduced to the gay scene in the Bay Area.The first time he walked in the streets of Castro, he says, "I see people holding hands and I was like... Wow, this is something I wouldn't even dream about in my country. This is something good after the bad." 

A new family 

One night, Hector went with Karina to her friend Memo’s party in Sunnyvale. Unlike Hector, Memo was openly gay. Up to that point, Hector had never told anyone about his sexuality. Not until Memo approached him after the party. “He's like ‘when are gonna tell your sister that you're gay?’” Hector says.

Karina overheard the conversation but she was very accepting. In fact, she always knew Hector was into guys. Very quickly Hector formed a family in the Bay Area: the Latino LGBTQ community. “We have something in common, you know. Every single story that we heard when we grew up and you’re gay is almost the same, and you relate to it,” Hector explains. 

These people accepted him for who he was. Finally, Hector could go out and dance again, like he did back in Mexico. 

Credit Sara Nora Koust / KALW
A drag queen from the Latino community performing at OMG.

Something bad after the good

His good fortune didn’t last long. Just two years after Hector arrived in the U.S., he started to feel sick. His skin changed color and he lost 150 pounds in just two weeks, so he went to the emergency room. 

The doctor told him that was diagnosed with a genetic kidney disease. At that time, he was only 19 years old and still undocumented. Thankfully, he was able to get medical service in the Bay Area, including dialysis. Being undocumented made things more difficult.

“It’s scary to be outside, to drive with no license, to not be able to work in places you would like because you don’t have the papers. Every day is a challenge,” Hector says.

According to conservative estimates from Pew Research Center, over 360,000 undocumented individuals live in the Bay Area. More than 10,000 are LGBTQ immigrants. Many of these people don’t have access to the necessary information about how to legally gain asylum. This was also the case for Hector. The only thing he heard in the news was how impossible it was.

Seeking asylum to survive 

Ten years without papers went by. Eight of them with dysfunctional kidneys. Eventually, the dialysis treatment he was getting could no longer help him. But becoming a legal citizen to get more medical treatment was a scary step for Hector. 

“I thought, I had to go to Immigration, and then they’re gonna send me back.”

Through a friend, Hector discovered he could get legal help for free. 

The non-profit Oasis Legal Services helps LGBTQ immigrants in the Bay Area with their asylum process.

Typically a large majority of them suffered sexual abuse for their sexual orientation or gender identity as children. Usually multiple abusers, usually over the course of years.

Anna Lijphart, the co-founder and one of the directors, says the biggest challenge is the rule referred to as the “one year rule”. It was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton. 

The rule stipulates that the asylum application needs to be submitted within the first year of the applicant’s arrival in the country. But only 17% of Oasis Legal Services’ clients apply the first year. Why? It takes years for them to overcome their trauma and share their story.

“Typically the large majority of them suffered sexual abuse for their sexual orientation or gender identity as children. Usually multiple abusers, usually over the course of years,” Anna says.

Caroline Roberts, Attorney and Executive Director of Oasis Legal Services, was Hector’s lawyer throughout his asylum process. “We really had to try to push his case sooner to try to get him legal status, so that he could access the medical resources that he needed because he wouldn't have been able to survive without those resources,” she says.

Credit Courtesy of Hector Romero
Courtesy of Hector Romero
Hector Romero with his best friend Juan Rosas.

Asylum rules in the US 

According to U.S. law, the asylum seeker must prove they suffered persecution or the fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. 

For a long time, homosexuals couldn’t seek asylum in the U.S. Only since 1990 were LGBTQ people eligible for asylum as members of a “particular social group.” That’s when a 40-year-old Cuban man was able to show that he was in danger of persecution by the Cuban government. The case established a legal precedent in 1994 that made sexual orientation a valid reason to claim asylum. 

After Caroline and Hector’s hard work collecting documents and talking with a psychologist, Hector got the asylum interview. Hector says, “I was so excited but so scared at the same time because I didn’t want to mess anything up. What if they ask me for dates, and I don’t remember the dates?” 

That didn’t happen. Five weeks later, Hector got a letter from the Immigration office, while he was at the hospital. He got the asylum.

The question is whether Hector had been that lucky today. A report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service shows that the approval rate of asylum cases in San Francisco has declined from 80% to 41% in just three years, despite that the number of people seeking asylum overall has increased by nearly 2000% in the last decade.

Credit Sara Nora Koust / KALW
Hector Romero performing at the club OMG.

The past is the past 

Today, Hector is still dealing with his serious illness. But he received a kidney transplant last year. I was curious to hear from someone close to him about his journey, so I talked to Juan Rosas, Hector's best friend.

He says Hector’s been through many difficult situations, but he always proved that he’s a fighter. Because of that, Juan compares Hector to a phoenix that rises from the ashes. “Como la del fénix, que surge de las cenizas y alcanca su vuelo.”

Hector continues to thrive in the Bay Area’s Latino LGBTQ community.

He’s been on judge panels for drag beauty pageants, and he has coordinated drag shows for years. He’s also a singer himself.

Tonight, Hector is heading to the gay club “OMG” on Sixth Street in downtown San Francisco. Hector looks towards the stage with a huge smile on his face. It’s showtime. 

It’s clear the crowd loves him and that he loves being on stage, too. Hector tells me about his favorite song that he sings at the end.

“It goes ‘ya lo pasado, pasado’. It means ‘the past is the past’. It’s like my life in a little song because I passed things, really bad things, but now I feel love and feel like I can just ... go on.”