A Butterfly With My Wings Cut Off

A Transgender Asylum Seeker’s Quest to Come to California.

Since The California Report Magazine first aired this documentary in December 2020, dozens of listeners reached out to help Luna Guzmán with messages of encouragement and support. This week’s rebroadcast includes an update from Luna.

When she turned 15, like so many girls in her town in Guatemala, Luna Guzmán celebrated with a quinceañera.

“My friend lent me the dress because she saw the way I used to cry every time we passed the dress shop on the way to school, with all those beautiful dresses,” she said in Spanish. “I would just press my hand up against the glass and stare at them for a long time.”

The dress she borrowed was turquoise, with a long skirt. She took off her tennies, put on heels and a tiara, and danced with her friends.

There was a cake, bottles of champagne and chambelanes, boys who dressed up in suits to escort her into the secret party at a friend’s house. No one was there from Luna’s family, because they couldn’t fathom her as a transgender girl.

Moments from that birthday party still linger in Luna’s memory as a time when she truly felt delight and freedom. It was something to be savored again and again as the next decade began to unfold, even as she put back on her soccer jerseys and tried to look like the boy she knew she wasn’t inside. Even as she dealt with brutal violence and decided to take a tremendous risk and leave everything behind in Guatemala to try to find a life in California. The memories were one place in the world where she could imagine being safe, being herself.

We first met Luna two years ago at a migrant shelter in Tijuana and have stayed in touch with her as she’s journeyed across the border, spent months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, and sought shelter in Mexico. We’ve spent weeks frantically trying to reach her in an intensive care unit, after she left a voice message that she had been diagnosed with a severe case of COVID-19. “Thank you for telling my story,” she rasped through labored breaths, her voice barely recognizable. “If I die, I hope that one day people will remember something about me.”

‘Can’t You Change Your Son?’

Luna grew up on the outskirts of a small city in Central Guatemala, in a house cobbled together from sticks and newspaper. Her mom sold french fries from a cart, and Luna helped care for her three siblings, including a brother with developmental disabilities. Her dad wasn’t part of her life.

She said she was a voracious reader, spending hours in the town library. At school she would play dress up with the other girls. Luna would transform into a butterfly, her wings made from pieces of cardboard she scavenged on the street.

“The teacher would always ask my mom, ‘Listen, can’t you change your son? Can you take him to a psychologist? A psychiatrist? It’s making my school look bad,’ ” she recalled.

Luna said her mom defended her at first. When she came out as gay at age 14, her mom gave a toast with some agua de jamaica. But as Luna got older, she said her mom disapproved of the dresses and the heels. Her son, dressing like a woman? For her, that went against nature. So Luna put back on the soccer jerseys and shorts.

“The hurtful things she said to me, I understand them better now,” said Luna. “She just wanted to protect me.”

For the full audio-documentary go here.

This audio-documentary is up for a Webby award. If you love what you hear, please go and vote!


Sasha Khokha & Erin Siegal McIntyre