Krystal Flores: Un Río Bravo
Brentwood, NY, 1980-1990s - Both sides of my family from Colombia and Peru migrated to a small town called Brentwood, Long Island. My mother used to work in a local health department as an outreach worker, working with patients who were mostly undocumented living in Suffolk County, which was once a sanctuary for Central American refugees in 1986. Growing up, I saw my mother independently participate in grassroot work with her patients, ranging from translating to informing them on their rights to helping women leave abusive relationships.
I always remembered one of my mother’s most memorable patients, someone fearless of crossing borders, defending her rights, and being unapologetically Trans – who is this woman? My mother invited her to our home where she shared how her life took an unexpected turn, which led her to an eleven-year long and dangerous migrant journey from Guatemala to Mexico as a sex worker, and ultimately crossing the U.S. border by foot. Her name is Krystal Flores.
Retalhuleu, Guatemala, 1981 – Krystal was born as Willy Flores and by the age of eight, she knew she wanted to be a woman and was attracted to men. When I asked her if she ever wanted to do a full transition, she tells me she doesn’t want to change, because it is not natural. Meaning, God made her in her own image, and God knows that there is femininity and masculinity in each person. Therefore, it wouldn’t change how she feels about herself. It’s safe to say she is fortunate to have a family who is supportive of her gender identity, considering the Northern Triangle of Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world with high rates of sexual and gender-based violence.
Krystal’s father abandoned the family when she was seven-years old, and the following year the children were the breadwinners in the household. Her mother suffered from a severe cough from a prior parental beating and consequently prevented her from working. As a result, Krystal quit elementary school to sell foods like chiles rellenos, enchiladas, and pastilles on the street with her five brothers. “A veces no vendíamos nada y mi mamá se ponía tan enojada porque no podíamos pagar la renta,” Krystal tells me.
Salamá, Guatemala, 1994 - At 13 years old, Krystal spontaneously bought a one-way bus ticket to the capital, Salamá, 100 miles away from home, on a mission to find work and help her family escape poverty. After explaining her situation to pimps she met on the bus, she soon learned the only opportunity available was prostitution. That same night, they dressed her up and took the young girl out onto the streets. In the next four years, Krystal was table dancing, occasionally prostituting, and earning roughly $300 a night. She visited her family once a year, and told her mother she was a waitress in a cantina. Whether her mom believed it or not, it paid the bills.
When Krystal permanently moved back home and returned to earning little to nothing, she began reminiscing her old lifestyle. She seized the opportunity when her friend, Elianny, shared her plans on traveling to Mexico to make more money as a prostitute. Krystal said farewell to Guatemala and without knowing, said goodbye to her mother for the last time.
Veracruz, Mexico, 2004 - The girls left to Mexico with no substantial plan except to make money, which they did while jumping to different cities and working as table dancers in southern Mexico for six years. When they arrived to Veracruz and felt unsafe to work the streets, Elianny suggested to go to Tijuana to earn American dollars, or to cross over. However, they couldn’t afford bus tickets and this became a turning point for them to hitchhike from Veracruz to hopefully a border city because heading North was the only direction that seemed prosperous. Despite the dangers they faced during their one-day, non-stop hitchhike journey, their street smart skills enabled them to fool Mexican police with their fake Mexican accents during stop-and-frisks, and escape a black market where they were almost kidnapped and sold to sex trafficking.
Monterrey, Mexico, 2005 – The girls were staying at an Immigrant House, a shelter for migrants at a low cost or what Krystal described as, “a jail” for ten days. While Elianny was fancying another migrant there, Krystal was busy scrambling for a new plan and money. She calls her brother, “Por favor no le digas a mamá, pero necesito dos mil pesos. Pide el dinero prestado y me lo mandas a mi direccion lo mas pronto posible.” When suddenly, Krystal’s mother frantically interrupts the phone call saying, “¿Dónde estás? ¿Por qué estás pidiendo dinero?”
In a calm and confident voice, Krystal answers, “Voy a donde Dios me quiere. Me voy a los Estados Unidos.” Her mother began crying on the other side of the line. “No llores porque no estoy muriendo. Estoy buscando una vida mejor por ustedes y mi. Actúa como si nada iba a pasar porque yo voy a vivir.” Later that day, the money was delivered and the girls were back on the road.
Nuevo Laredo, U.S. and Mexico, 2005 – Krystal’s high-heel black boots dug into the dirt as she attempted to cross the U.S. and Mexico natural barrier, Rio Grande, but she would have to try again another day. The currents were too dangerous to swim in and Krystal explains to me the river’s surface looks calm, but underneath the current is rough, hence the nickname “Rio Bravo” which translates to “rough/angry.”
With no place to go, the girls break into an abandoned house, but it ends up getting raided by a group of gang members. They were pointing a pistol gun at Krystal, demanding money even though she insisted she had nothing to give. However, when they went through her bag they found $20 she had forgotten about, and they slapped her across the face. One of them turned to Elianny saying, “Miras y te mato,” and then the gang left. On that windy night, the girls slept on the roof, fearing for their lives.
Rio Bravo, 2005 - On their way to the Rio Bravo, the girls crossed paths with the same group of gang members, but this time they had machetes and wanted Krystal and Elianny to pay with sex. Miraculously, migrants wearing watches walked pass the scene and the gang’s target shifted. Before the gang took off, they left behind an eleven-year-old boy that they might’ve kidnapped, to stay with the girls.
Krystal does not recall the little boy’s name but he taught the girls how to cross the river, even though the water was up to the his throat. Once they arrived on American soil, they were wet, cold and in pain. Elianny was suffering from a bad fever due to a cactus injury after crossing over. As they were struggling to walk another block, ICE and its helicopters appear and a agent yells, “Chinga de madre, no vas a ninguna parte!”
The boy took off, but Elianny was too sick to run. Sacrifices had to be made and at that moment, Krystal tells her, “Lo siento pero el pacto termina ahora.” When the coast was clear, Krystal ran towards a nearby town where along the way she ran into the boy and then American coyotes. They offered to take them to their families in Texas for $1,000 each, but they weren’t interested.
Krystal and the boy found themselves kidnapped, stuffed in the back of the car, and struggling to breathe for an hour. When they stopped for gas, Krystal believes one of the coyotes disagreed with how the situation was being handled, and that’s why she purposely unlocked the car to set them free. Krystal and the boy ran away, and found a local church to spend the night in.
Houston, Texas, 2005 - That morning, Krystal was so happy to shower, get medicine for her feet’s inflammation, and to know she was seeing her cousin in New York soon. Her cousin sent her $1,500 to pay for American coyotes to take her to New York, and the little boy decided to stay at the church in Texas.
It was after midnight when the coyotes picked Krystal up in a van filled with migrants waiting to be dropped off in different states. The migrants shared their journeys with each other during the commute and by the next day, Krystal was in Brentwood.
La lucha de Krystal sigue…
Brentwood, New York, 2018 - Krystal Flores, now in her mustard high-heel boots, dressed in all black, sits before me in my living room. She is thirty-nine years old and living alone in a small garage converted into a one-bedroom apartment. She is still working at her first job in America, a factory where she is discriminated and sexually harassed on a daily basis from four male colleagues. When Krystal first reported to her boss about their transphobic comments, he suggested she wear a hat and baggy clothes to hide her body. On the contrary, her boss rewarded Krystal for her seven-years of hard work and gave her promotion. This made the men very upset and jealous, and their bullying progressed into physical inappropriate touching and saying hurtful things like, “Vas a morir de AIDS.” To this day, Krystal continues to report the ongoing abuse to management, yet no progress has been made and the four men still work there.
Last year, Krystal bought a house for her family to live in Guatemala, however she is the only sibling who supports her mom. Two years ago, gang members murdered her brother who was a drug user, and the oldest brother left home at seventeen years old to live on the streets. The third brother has a drinking problem, and the youngest one only makes enough to support his two kids. “Mis hermanos no hacen nada para ayudar a mamá. Tienen problemas y se olvidan de nuestra mamá,” says Krystal.
Krystal is part of the Central American Refugee Center, an organization that provides legal assistance to immigrant communities in Long Island. They are currently helping Krystal gain citizenship, and legally change her name from Willy to Krystal. The organization’s support showed Krystal she does not have to be silent about her story because she is not alone. When I asked Krystal my final question, “¿Cuáles son tus sueños para el futuro?,” she confessed, “Tengo muchos sueños, pero mi sueño más grande se cumplió cuando llegué aquí.”
Stephanie is a journalist and artist based in Queens, NY. Photography and zines are her tools to document historical stories from Latinas in her community. Her personal work focuses on women empowerment and female representation in the media. She received a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and Photojournalism, and founded the first feminist organization at St. John's University.