A recent college graduate trekked through the most dangerous cities in the world to flee extortion from gang leaders after they discovered her identity.
Updated: This article is part of the I Am an Immigrant article series in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. To see Part 2 of this article, click here. For more uplifting stories of the American Dream in action, check out the podcast Community Voice.
Note: For the safety of the individual that shared her brave testimony, some place names and identifying information have been changed. Additionally, many details of this story may be triggering for those who have experienced trauma or violence in the past in various forms.
[KC]: Tell me about yourself.
[XX]: My name is Lily. I’m 25 years old. I finally get to graduate this semester. It’s been a challenge. It’s taken me 6 years to get through that. About 3 years ago, I finally got awarded my green card. Before then, I had to pay everything out of pocket. I didn’t really have support from parents. I put myself through school by working several jobs, most of the time at high-end bakeries, working for immigrants as well who have really good stories of success and [are] people I actually look up to. I’m getting my degree in Psychology at the University of San Francisco.
[KC]: Which country did you immigrate from?
[XX]: I’m from El Salvador, it’s a Central American country [that] is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world for the fact that our homicide rate is very high. Through the years it has gotten worse.
[KC]: Are your parents here with you now or are they still in El Savador?
[XX]: I never met my mom. My dad lives in Marin County, but we’re not really close. I’ve only lived with him for a couple of years before I turned 18. Then, I started living on my own.
[KC]: Oh man, so you’re really independent!
[XX]: You can say so. [laughs]
Early Memories of El Savador
[KC]: Tell me more about El Salvador, your beginnings, and your memories. Why did you immigrate?
[XX]: Let me roll back to 2006, 2007. Everything was great. Grew up [having] a normal childhood.
There is a long pause.
[XX]: Around 11 years old, I was raped, and so that really changed my perspective on a lot of things. Now I’m able to talk about it. Before, I wasn’t able to talk about it without crying or feeling bad about myself or blaming my parents for not being there for me to help me through that situation. I realized you can be better than that [situation]. For the longest time, I did not feel attracted to men. I was really into women. ‘What is sexuality?’ [I would ask myself.]
[KC]: After that incident?
[XX]: Yes through that incident. I mean, that added to it, but just in general. I never really had a boyfriend. I realized that I probably was a lesbian at the time.
[KC]: You realized that you were lesbian when you were 11?
[XX]: A little bit before then. I have a boyfriend now, so I consider myself bisexual now that I’m here. At that point when you’re 11 you don’t know things. You don’t know labels. You don’t know distinctions. Especially in my country, it is very much a country where the culture is about shaming women, it’s about shaming the LGBT community. I didn’t even know who a gay person was at that point. I never seen someone in my life. The people who were suspected to be LGBT were frowned upon. I really didn’t know in what part of the spectrum I belonged in at the time. I grew up with nannies. I never met my mom. My dad was already here [in the U.S.] since 2000. Pretty much, I grew up with no parents. I think that’s why I’m independent. I never really had to count on them.
[KC]: You weren’t sure about these feelings and then over time, as you were a teenager you came to realize it more fully for yourself. The rape wasn’t something that you felt caused these feelings. You were already feeling like you were lesbian or bisexual? Is that right?
[XX]: Yes. I started noticing that I was feeling more attracted to girls going through middle school [to] the first day of high school. But then, I confided in someone, and that was my mistake. It spread very quickly. People were making fun of me at school. And uh… Kids are very cruel.
[KC]: How did you deal with their cruelty?
[XX]: I was really lucky because I had very good friends who were there for me. You can’t help it. I look back, and it wasn’t the girl’s fault, it really was society’s fault. If someone confides in you, and when you see that the culture treats it as it’s not okay, [that] it’s shameful, and [that] it’s against religion, and it’s against all these things that go against [the] status quo, it makes sense for her to be [like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to tell someone. I’m not mad at her—we’re actually still friends. To this day, we talk, and she has apologized now.
[KC]: Tell me more about how you were feeling! …So you told your friend and she told everyone. How did you hear that people knew?
[XX]: [Comparing] the week before and the week later. [I] felt something was [going] on. People were staring at me, and I kept wondering why. People talking behind my back. People being mean to me… Things were written on my desk. The culture completely changed for me. School for me was a sanctuary. I had so many problems at home. [School] was my place. After that happened, I honestly don’t remember how I dealt with it. At some point, I asked my dad to change schools, but he said no. So I had to stay there.
[KC]: How did you communicate with your dad? Would you talk on the phone?
[XX]: I said other schools had better programs than the one that I was at, but he had no idea what was going on. We used to talk once a week or so on the telephone. He was in the US since 2000. All this started happening around 2005 or 2004, I vaguely remember. Around 7th grade. My life has been so wonderful the past few years that I really don’t dwell on the past as much. But I think it’s very important not to forget where I come from. Living in San Francisco is a completely different life but we’ll get more to that later. Haha.
[KC]: There’s many layers to your story. There’s political asylum. There’s the LGBTQ angle, but there’s also the fact that you were raped. I know it’s is a sensitive topic, but for anyone else who might be reading this that might be a survivor, is there anything you want to share about how you got through that incident?
[XX]: The hardest part about rape was not to have someone to tell to—no mom, no dad. My nanny just brushed it off. I think that was the hardest part. To not have someone tell you that it was not ok; that it was illegal; that is something that doesn’t happen to everyone. I was very protected during childhood, so I didn’t know there was this other part of humans out there. I didn’t know there were people out there who actually could hurt you. How I got through it, I think it was school honestly. Just having something to look forward to everyday, something to do [to] keep myself busy. It took a lot of time. It’s not something [in which] you heal in one year. It’s something you go through many years to get over. To understand that not everyone is bad. That there is a future ahead of you. That your life is not over. That you are more than the situations that happened to you.
[KC]: Wow. That’s beautiful. You’re so… optimistic. At the time, you said you didn’t have anyone to talk to about this situation. How did you stay so positive?
[XX]: I guess I was really looking forward to the future to see who I could become, to go to university, to do more. I knew my life was not over then. I needed to make something out of myself. I was also just a kid. I probably was depressed for a little bit. I pulled something through. I just had this mindset that it’s going to get better.
[KC]: Did this happen when you were walking in the streets?
[XX]: I was playing outside with my friends. They got called by their moms. They had to go home to dinner. I lived in a little bit of a rural area. Homes were really big. There’s lots of nature around that [area]. I started heading back home. It was getting dark. I was heading back. A neighbor had a friend visiting, and when I had realized what was happening, I got into pulled into my neighbor’s home. … The house is so big. It was in their patio and there was shade, one part that was not illuminated. And I was really tiny and I couldn’t get out. I could just feel that I was being hurt.
[KC]: Your neighbor never found out?
[XX]: No. I didn’t say anything. Because the person that I told to who was in charge of me said that I was making it up, that it was not true. [sic] If the person who was in charge of me said that it was not true I couldn’t imagine that anyone else was going to believe me.
[KC]: How could she dismiss something like that?
[XX]: She just didn’t want to deal with it. I think she was at the end of her shift. She just wanted to go home. I think she thought maybe because I had no parents maybe I just wanted a little bit of attention. I don’t remember her exact words. She said something like, “That’s not true. You’re lying. Just go get ready for dinner,” I think she said.
[KC]: And this was someone who was taking care of you since you were a child?
[XX]: She was my dad’s ex-girlfriend. She was paid to come to the house once in a while and check on me. She had taken care of me since I was 7. When I was younger, I definitely felt lonely. When something happens and you need your parents, that’s when I realized mine weren’t there.
[KC]: What were the instigators for moving to the United States?
[XX]: That gets a little darker.
This concludes the first part of this article. Check the I Am an Immigrant cover story tomorrow, 6/7 for the link to the second installment.
Updated: To see Part 2 of this article, click here.
- If you are a survivor of rape or know someone who is, and you need support in any form, RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org y rainn.org/es) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.