Mami Slut is one of the only dance parties in Mexico City with a mission of "desculonialization," the liberation of culos with Latin beats. Since it was started a year and a half ago by DJ Travieza (Jovan Israel) and La Mendoza, the monthly celebration at Bahia Bar has become a premier gathering point for queer folks looking for a safe space to grind to reggaeton, cumbia, dembow, and basically anything other than the house music and Madonna songs that dominate the city's gay parties.
Like many of the revelers who come to the celebration, La Mendoza and DJ Travieza are artists who push boundaries with their creativity. La Mendoza identifies as a "travestí," a word reclaimed by activists that embodies an anti-colonial spirit and rejects Western gender constructs. When La Mendoza's not turning up at Mami Slut, she's designing clothes and teaching people how to vogue. DJ Travieza, on the other hand, is well known for his genderqueer drawings. When he DJs, it's almost always in drag. The two often coordinate their outfits, from candy-colored wigs in Sailor Moon–style buns, ripped fishnets, and wild décolletage to imprudent heels worn with carefully, hyperbolically lacquered pouts.
Their emphasis on style has spread to the attendees and helped turn Mami Slut's dance floor into a runway. Kitty ears, studded dog collars, and several dance partners at once are all popular accessories. Drag queens and twinks come out in full force to pay the 50 peso ($2.61) cover. Still, a large percentage of Mami's attendees are straight girls, who feel free to body roll without the persistent male douchebaggery they face at other local reggaeton parties. Travieza and La Mendoza are not the kind of people who would discourage this—their resident DJs Mataputos and Rosa Pistola project a distinct girls-first atmosphere.
Some might say that gender equality on the dance floor won't change the world. But I know that having a positive, communal space like Mami Slut can change someone's life, because it changed mine. At Mami Slut, I'm a better, more brazen, and somehow more gracious version of myself.
I remember one recent night when my friends lifted me onstage for the party's monthly twerk contest, which had a prize of 250 pesos (approximately $13.30 USD). I was wearing a long blue wig and an ominously short dress. Right when I hit the stage, I assumed the perreo position. The competition eventually came down to a final round between my ample hips and a boy whose rock hard six pack fought for attention with his piston-like go-go moves. I'm not going to lie, the kid was athletic. But don't believe what they tell you about potheads having weak lungs: My cheering section went hard.
In the end, Travieza had a difficult time judging the crowd's winner from the screams of the audience. It didn't seem fair that the Mami Slut crowd was going to have to decide between me and the go-go guy, two visions of perreo perfection. So I leaned over to my dance foe, put my mouth next to his ear, and asked, "What if we tied?" Go-go babe's eyes lit up, and he grabbed the microphone. "We're going to share the prize!" he shouted. The crowd squealed triumphantly. We were the conquerors of the night, our hang-ups, and reggaeton gender essentialists. Thanks for sharing the love Mami Slut, air kisses, and perreo duro para ti, siempre.
Scroll down for more photos of Mami Slut by Erin Lee Holland.
The first time Gerardo, originally from El Salvador, came to the US, it was 1994. He crossed the border into Texas, then moved around the country to wherever he could find work until 2001, when he was deported home for not having papers. He didn't stay south long, however. After a month working in Reynosa, Mexico, he decided to catch a taxi across the border.
"I bought a bottle of tequila and drank half of it," Gerardo tells me, "and I got a taxi and told him to take me across. I spoke in English and I told him I'm an American citizen." The driver took him across the Puente Internacional, where he told the customs officers that he was an American citizen and that his papers were stolen in the bar. "Finally, they believed me," he says, "and gave me a paper that they stamped." The taxi driver left him at his in-laws' house in McAllen, Texas. At least for a time, Gerardo was home free.
Today, though, Gerardo doesn't think that scheme would work. The last time he attempted to cross from Mexico to the US, three years ago, he was arrested. He spent two years in federal prison before being deported once again. Gerardo is now living in Casa Tochán, a migrant shelter in Mexico City. Many of the guests at the shelter have ample experience in moving between the US, Mexico, and Central America as undocumented immigrants. Amid a political climate plagued by sensational discussions of migration, these migrants have unique insight into the challenges of border-crossing. Gerardo is currently seeking to regularize his migration status in Mexico rather than heading north to the US. He's one of many Central American migrants who have decided it's easier to build a life north of home, but south of the US border.
In the last several years, Mexico has seen an increase in migrants from Central America. The UN High Commission for Refugees reported in 2016 that asylum requests in Mexico from migrants from the "Northern Triangle"—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala—increased by 162 percent between 2013 and 2015. Some of them plan to pass through Mexico on their way to the US and stay because they run out of money or fall victim to crime or injury. Others flee violence in their home countries and hope all along to stay in Mexico.
Many of these Central American migrants have already been to the US and back several times. For these people, Donald Trump's anti-immigrant stance represents a change in degree, not in kind. Like Gerardo, they know what it is to cross the border. They've traversed deserts and rivers, some being arrested in the process, some returning to attempt yet again.
Osman, another guest at Casa Tochán, first entered the US in 1989 hidden in the trunk of a friend's car. Now, he says, the border is more formidable. He's not particularly fazed by President Trump's promises of a border wall, though. The presence of organized crime around the border poses a greater deterrent. "There's not much difference with the wall," he tells me. "They can't keep watch everywhere."
Still, border crossings have dropped dramatically since Trump's election. According to an April 2017 report from US Customs and Border Patrol, arrests of border crossers dropped dramatically in this year's first quarter. The number of migrants arrested in March 2017 decreased by 30 percent from the prior month and by 64 percent from March 2016.
Marvin lived in Boston for 20 years, and he's crossed the US-Mexico border three times, spending a year and a half in prison after his last attempt. After leaving prison in November 2016, he was deported back home to El Salvador. Shortly thereafter, he began the journey north again. He, too, is regularizing his status in Mexico, but he hopes to return to the US again.
"It's the luck of every person," he says. "Now it's really hard to cross, but it's always possible." He's heard, though, that crossings are down. "I have friends who are coyotes, and before, they were taking across 60, 70 people every week. Now they're taking across eight or nine. And they used to charge $7,500 or $8,500. Now they're charging $10,000."
Osman isn't planning on returning to the US either. He lived in the US from 1989 to 2000, when he left voluntarily to go back to his home in Honduras. In 2015, Osman left Honduras again with the idea of working close to the US border, where he could make more money and take advantage of his English skills. He spent some time working in Nogales, and later came to Mexico City to fix his papers. There, he saw opportunities to build a life. He's regularizing his immigration status and starting a car detailing business and he hopes to bring his son after he earns enough to move out of the shelter.
What dissuaded Osman from going back to the US wasn't increased security at the border, but what life would be like beyond it: The threat of deportation looms greater than ever. "They take you out of your apartment now," he says. "Before they didn't do that." He's heard, too, that it's getting harder to make a living as an undocumented immigrant. "There aren't opportunities in the US anymore," he says. "My family there, my friends and cousins and uncles, they tell me it's hard to get work now."
Being undocumented has always been a precarious way to live, but the increased targeting of migrants under Trump has further impeded building a stable life. "Before, it was pretty calm," Gerardo says. He spent a total of 14 years in the US between 1994 and 2014. "Then, you could get a domestic flight, a Greyhound bus, rent an apartment without needing papers." Now, Gerardo says, his family and friends tell him that fear of arrest severely limits daily activities. Still it's always been hard to make it—but there's always been a way. "Trump is the cat and we're the mice," Gerardo tells me. "And mice will always find a way to get in."
Jesse Salgado doesn't remember much about the Mexico of his childhood. He was about seven years old when his uncle picked him up from his grandparents' house in the state of Guerrero. The next thing he knew, they were in Chicago. In November, however, 25 years after he and his family first left the country, Salgado returned to Mexico for good upon being deported to the border town of Matamoros after an arrest for a DUI. He' planned to stay near the border, but government officials warned him he'd be "fresh meat for cartels," Salgado told me. So he bought a bus ticket to Mexico City, there joining a population of several thousand Mexican citizens who have been deported from the US and don't quite know what to do.
According to researchers from the Mexico City-based organization IIPSOCULTA, which recently released a report analyzing attention to deportees in Mexico City, the city's Benito Juarez International Airport receives three flights of deported Mexican citizens each week. The flights arrive from Otero, New Mexico, where detainees are brought from all over the United States. Around 135 people step off of each plane. Once in Mexico, they receive the possessions confiscated at the time of their arrest in the US, are greeted by Mexican government agencies, and get offered, among other things, a bagged lunch and information about enrolling in public programs. Then they're released into the largest city in North America.
IIPSOCULTA estimates that about 10 percent of returnees flown into Mexico City stay in the capital. (The rest are repatriated to their city of choice, wherever they have family or prefer to put down roots.) That adds up to about 1,500 returnees in Mexico City each year, in addition to those who make their way there after being deported to other cities.
Many returnees who end up in Mexico City lack much affinity to or knowledge of their new home. Some stay there because they don't have any ties anywhere in Mexico—perhaps their families are still in the US, or they've lost touch with their original hometowns. Some figure they have a better chance at finding opportunities in the capital than in a small town where they have tenuous connections. Even in Mexico City, though, returnees face significant cultural, social, and economic boundaries to reintegrating into a country some of them barely remember.
Ana Laura Lopez was deported to Mexico in September after living in Chicago for 16 years. She encountered a persistent stigma against migrants in general—who are seen, she said, as taking the "easy way out"—and returnees in particular, who are stigmatized as criminals. "In my 16 years in the US, I never had as much as a traffic ticket," Lopez told me. "But I've faced more discrimination in the last five months here than I did in 16 years in the US."
Even relatives weren't necessarily a comfort to her. "Your family doesn't like you so much now that you're not sending dollars," she said. "The woman who went to the United States is a completely different woman from the one who came back."
Watch the VICE documentary on migration through Mexico:
Returning migrants also find it difficult, if not impossible, to access aid from the government or from civil society organizations. In the wake of Trump's inauguration, the Mexican government began touting pro-returnee rhetoric, and President Enrique Peña Nieto recently met a flight of returnees at the Mexico City airport. But Lopez told me that the government's gestures toward returnees seem to be mostly empty promises. "They say we can get unemployment insurance of $2,200, but we have to enroll within five weeks, and we need our credencial de elector"—an official identification card—"and a proof of residence," Lopez says. "We come here without a house or proof of residence, and it can take us five weeks to get our identification."
Without ID or an address, returnees can't apply for jobs, rent apartments, receive money transfers, or take money out at a bank. Additionally, most civil-society organizations that work on migration issues limit their mandate to foreign nationals. Even migrants' rights organizations in the US seem to forget about Mexican migrants once they're deported. "When someone's deported, they think, We lost them," Lopez said. "But we need to keep fighting for our rights."
To that end, Lopez, who worked as a labor organizer in Chicago, has founded the collective Deportados Unidos en la Lucha. The group consists largely of returnees with US-born children, and they're seeking legal resources to continue to fight their cases in the US. Most of the members hope to return to their families: Lopez, for instance, has a 13-year-old and 15-year-old in Chicago. All of the collective's members were deported before Trump's inauguration, but the current political climate has further dimmed their prospects of returning to their families.
Most of them have few legal recourses for returning to the US, but building a life in Mexico can seem an equal challenge.
Jesse Salgado has worked on and off in restaurants in the US since he was 15, and he considers himself a sous chef at heart. When he arrived in Mexico City after being deported in November, though, he quickly discovered that he couldn't survive off of a kitchen salary here. "I got a dishwashing job and they told me it paid 3,000 [pesos], so I assumed, cool, that's 3,000 a week," Salgado said. "When I got the first paycheck, it was 1,500"—about $75—"and I quit because I couldn't support my family on that."
His fiancé and three-year-old daughter—both born in the US—had joined him in Mexico shortly after he arrived. Salgado soon found a job at a call center. There, he earns the equivalent of $600 a month providing tech support in English over the phone. Still, he finds it nearly impossible to achieve the quality of life his family had in Chicago.
Salgado and his fiancé are now thinking about leaving Mexico City for Cancún where, Salgado hopes, he and his fiancé—a US citizen who doesn't speak Spanish—can get jobs in the tourism industry and send their daughter to a bilingual school. Eventually, they'd like to return to the US, where Salgado's immediate family has legal status. Even after he and his fiancé are married, though, he'll still be banned from returning for up to 20 years. That leaves him with few options, since he doesn't want to risk returning illegally again.
Lately, he's noted a new tenor of fear when talking to his undocumented friends in Chicago. "Lots of them are deciding whether to come back on their own," Salgado said. "If you get pulled over and ICE finds out, they'll put you in jail and then deport you. Even if you're caught crossing the border to come back here, they put you in jail to get money off of you first. So they might as well come back on their own."
Right after she's finished explaining how kidnappers tortured her son in what she says was retribution for her own environmental activism, the landline phone on Claudia Zenteno Zaldívar's kitchen wall rings. Someone's buzzing the telecom at the rear door of her house, a floor below us. That's the door unmanned by her bodyguards, the one she refers to as her "escape route." After speaking to the caller, she hangs up, her eyes luminous with fear.
"It was someone claiming to be a garbageman and he wanted me to bring down my trash," she says. But unlike in most of Mexico City, Zenteno explains, residents of her neighborhood enjoy curbside pickup.
She rushes to her back window and points out the "garbageman" who rang her doorbell. It's a man sitting in a white sedan she's never seen before, looking up at her kitchen window. Zenteno doesn't flinch, staring back at the guy until he drives off.
"This is how they threaten me. How they let me know I'm watched," she says. "Who knows what could've happened if I'd gone down?"
This is a rhetorical question. Zenteno, 52, knows exactly what could have happened because she knows her enemies quite well. They're the ones she says are destroying what's left of Xochimilco, a UNESCO world heritage site in the south of Mexico City once full of pristine canals and chinampas, artificial islands created by the Aztecs to feed their capital, Tenochtitlan. Nowadays, Xochimilco's vast green space serves as a critical environmental control for one of the largest cities in the Western hemisphere. "It purifies water, cleans the air, regulates temperature," Dr. Luis Zambrano, a researcher of environmental conservation at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, recently told me. "Without Xochimilco, the city's temperature would rise two degree celsius."
For well over a decade, Zenteno has fought powerful developers as they've encroached upon Xochimilco's nature preserve, covering chinampas with shoddy housing, turning wetland into fetid mud. Yet for all the complaints Zenteno has filed with city and federal entities, the construction in Xochimilco—which she flatly describes as illegal—continues.
For her trouble, Zenteno and her family have suffered a steady drip of terror for over a decade. (A Mexico City government official familiar with the case who isn't authorized to speak on the record confirmed her account of past abuses.) An assailant held a knife to Zenteno's daughter's stomach before running off. A mob of thugs beat Zenteno's husband so badly he lost the use of his right eye. Zenteno and her six-year old-grandson spent a night in jail. Zenteno's son was kidnapped.
"They electrocuted him, they choked him with a plastic bag, they peed on him,' she says. "After nine days, they left him on our doorstep."
These incidents prompted the Mexican federal human rights commission to provide Zenteno with a pair of bodyguards. But the guards cannot watch her entire family. And while the violence has ebbed, the threats haven't. Just weeks before I first met her, Zenteno tells me, her husband discovered that several nuts had been unscrewed from the hood of his car.
An hour after the incident with the "garbageman," Zenteno's naturally peppy demeanor returns and she's ready to take me on a bike tour of Xochimilco's protected ecological reserve. She insists that one must see firsthand the destruction she's fighting to properly understand it. After strapping on her helmet, she mounts her mountain bike and begins pedaling. Zenteno's two bodyguards follow on bikes of their own.
Between 2003 and 2012, some 720 complaints were filed by residents of Xochimilco about local environmental violations. (GDA via AP Images)
Zenteno stops almost immediately at the park across the street from her house. Bordering the back of the area is a row of poorly constructed houses intercut with shallow canals of brown sludge. "Agua de caca—shit water," Zenteno says, pointing to the metallic pipes that pour what appears to be untreated sewage from the rear of the buildings directly into the canals. "This is part of the protected zone," she adds. "It used to be a lake." The housing development is so massive, containing dozens of homes and named streets, that I have difficulty believing her. I think maybe I'm misunderstanding her Spanish.
She disabuses me of this notion by pointing to a huge sign that stands at the edge of the park, where the lake's edge once lapped. The sign reads, Prohibido construir suele conservacion ecologica—patromonia de humanidad. Or, "It's prohibited to construct due to ecological conservation—patrimony of humanity." Below the proclamation sit the seals of Mexico City, the Republic of Mexico and UNESCO—local, national and international bodies who have recognized the importance of Xochimilco and, Zenteno complains, failed to protect it. (UNESCO did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and a request for comment from various relevant Mexican government officials was not returned before publication.) Zenteno shakes her head. "This was once beautiful. It's why my family moved here 20 years ago. Our house used to look out over the water."
Zenteno remounts her bike and rides a half mile further into the site. Once the irregular housing fades away, Xochimilco stuns with its beauty. Ducks paddle and birds flock over clean marsh. High cattail grass borders water that stretches almost to the horizon. In the distance, mountains and volcanoes spring into sight, a view submerged in smog just a few miles north at the heart of Mexico City. The rectangular chinampas themselves seem to float like giant lily pads on air, the lake that surrounds them reflecting a clear sky. Colorful trajineras, wooden boats propelled by gondoliers,carry weekenders down the section of the canals officially open to the public, and are occasionally visited by smaller boats that sell beer or food or songs sung by drifting mariachi bands.
Watch TONIC's explainer on how to fix an impaled object wound.
After an hour of riding over dirt paths, we enter the part of Xochimilco officially zoned for agriculture. "Now this is what a chinampa is supposed to look like," Zenteno exclaims as she dismounts at our destination. The plot's chinampero, Don Toño Sanchez, greets her with a bear hug. Sanchez still uses environmentally non-destructive techniques of farming that date back to pre-Columbian times. To demonstrate these methods, he lowers himself into a skiff sitting in the slender canal bordering his land and shovels up mud from the deepest part of the water. This nutrient rich soil serves as fertilizer and explains how Tenochtitlan, supported by the robust agricultural output of Xochimilco's chinampas, grew to become one of the largest cities in the world in its day.
Sanchez's grandfather taught him how to farm the chinampa. In turn, Sanchez teaches his own grandchildren, who farm alongside him. I ask how much longer the old way of life can continue. "15, 20 years," he sighs, wearing the sad look of a macho rendered helpless. The water level surrounding Sanchez's plot has plummeted as farmers of neighboring chinampas have filled in the canals with sand and rock in order to expand their own plots, he says, with runoff from the housing developments polluting what water remains. However, in spite of this and his own fatalism regarding the death of the old ways, Sanchez dotes on Zenteno for continuing to fight for Xochimilco. As we leave Sanchez's farm, she literally must pull herself away from him as he loads her plastic bag with an increasingly absurd amount of free vegetables offered as thanks.
Back at Zenteno's house, I ask why she doesn't quit. She's had no success in stopping the decimation of Xochimilco, and her family has suffered greatly due to her activism. Is it really worth it?
"We just wanted to live in a pretty place," Zenteno responds, her voice ripe with indignation. "It's not just. Xochimilco belongs to all of us."