Tara Pixley

House of Light: Finding Refuge in Tijuana Migrant Community

Community support for LGBTQ+ migrants and mothers traveling alone with children at the Tijuana-San Diego border.

Story commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative. Text and images by Tara Pixley. Reporting assisted by translation and support of Pepe Rojo and Christina Aushana. 
Irving Mondragon, the manager of the Casa de Luz shelter, in Tijuana, Mexico, on 29 February 2020. 
The migrant caravan of late 2018 left an estimated 1,500 migrants stranded along the United States-Mexico border in Tijuana. In that sprawling city of 1.3 million people at the busiest border crossing in the world, thousands of refugees were left without reliable shelter, food, access to water, or consistent support. They were met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, anti-Latinx immigrant sentiment, and wait times of several months to have their asylum cases heard in court. In that vacuum of governmental support, human rights activists, advocacy lawyers and various other groups and individuals joined with migrants to build ad-hoc networks of legal, financial, and material support. Networked community care was especially integral in the survival of LGBTQ+ individuals and mothers traveling alone with children—two of the most vulnerable and endangered refugee populations, according to a 2017 Amnesty International Report.

Casa de Luz (House of Light, in Spanish) is one of many shelters that opened its doors to serve the migrant population, but it’s one of very few shelters catering to a mixed group that includes mothers, children, and people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Mexico doesn’t condone such mixing of shelter populations and will not provide federal or state funding to those who serve mixed communities. Irving Mondragon, who manages Casa de Luz (CDL), says this mixed community is exactly the kind of support that migrants need: “We are a family, so we help each other in our way.” 
Children play in the shared living area of CDL in Tijuana, Mexico, on 18 December 2019. Dozens of CDL residents celebrated the Christmas season with a posada, an important Mexican Christmas tradition, that included families and LGBTQ+ individuals across three Tijuana shelters. 
While there are 35 people living at CDL on average, they have sometimes had as many as 50 residents in the cavernous space with no internal doors and few modern amenities. “Quality of life is an important factor, but not luxuries: we don’t have hot water, for example, or a car, but we do have ease of mind and a home together,” says Irving, speaking of the community they’ve managed to build at CDL.

The beach adjacent to the neighborhood where CDL currently resides is integral to the success and safety of the shelter. Residents say the area is more tolerant towards the LGBTQ+ community and is further from the city center where drugs are more readily available and dangers are more pervasive.

However, over the last year under COVID-19, the landlord of CDL’s building has taken several hundred square feet away from them—areas that once functioned as the communal kitchen, living room and storage space. This has forced the residents into much less space and closer proximity, even as the children of CDL are now being homeschooled and more people arrive in need of shelter due to the pandemic crisis. 
Left: The upstairs area of CDL serves as a classroom, bedroom, lounge area and communal play room for all 35 of the current migrant shelter residents. 12 December 2020. Right: Irving Mondragon sets up a Zoom lesson on storytelling for the seven children residents of CDL, on 12 December 2020. The kids have been working on a lesson plan where they make their own stories as part of the class. 
I first began photographing Central American asylees in 2018 at the El Barretal shelter, a makeshift open-air space that was housing approximately 2,000 migrants without consistent running water during my time there. I documented a group of dancers from Contra Tiempo, a Los Angeles “activist dance theater”, as they brought donations, money and dance to the refugees at El Barretal. Contra Tiempo spent a day offering acro-yoga experiences and dance circles of bachata, tango, salsa and various Latin dance forms to crowds of migrants. Seeing how communal dance seemed to bring joy and laughter to people who I had previously seen mostly depicted in news media as faceless masses, criminals or helpless victims underscored the monolithic visual narrative prevalent at the time. It solidified for me a sense that there was a need to reimagine how photojournalism commonly frames migrants and refugees.

When I spoke with some of the El Barretal residents who took part in the dance and acrobatics, they said people typically came to drop off goods such as food, money, tents, clothing, which were necessary and much appreciated, but were still just things. What they also wanted was to engage as fellow humans who long for moments of joy, bright spots of laughter and caretaking beyond what objects can ultimately provide.

Some of the people I photographed that day also shared that they had so few things to remind them of their journey and so little to show family and friends back home. They indicated that the photos I gave them could be used to share on social media as evidence of their safety and documentation of their experiences. It was with this in mind that I began working with CDL in 2019, hoping to both document the community being built among asylees and to provide a service to them of photos that reflected their lived reality. 
Kataleya poses with a transgender pride flag as one of the resident children plays behind her at CDL, on 29 February 2020. 
Over the last year, I have been invited to holiday celebrations, beach walks, dinners, and cross-shelter community meetings. I have taken family photos with Lulu, a 30-year-old mother of three from Guerra, and her daughters who range in age from 2-11 years old. I have made portraits with Marjori, who donned a butterfly cape as she called herself mariposa; Kataleya, who proudly wrapped herself in the colors of the transgender flag; and Carlos whose quiet demeanor outside of the frame falls away as they strike confident poses for the camera. Each of these people have experienced hardships and danger but that is not their story. It is one single truth and component of the multi-faceted lives lived by each of these individuals.

No data currently exists to “prove” that migrants and asylees being in community with one another is a “solution.” While it is certainly not a solution to the rapidly shifting anti-refugee policies of the American government or the homophobia faced by LGBTQ+ migrants, it is a remedy to the physical and mental dangers of surviving such tribulations alone. The residents of CDL and other such shelters find acceptance, sustenance, connection, physical safety, community care, and a home. They also pool legal and financial resources as they navigate the asylum process, getting connected to organizations like Al Otra Lado who help prepare asylees for their day in court. The importance of access to such resources alongside fostering belonging, confirming identity, providing a safe space for people to be themselves and a safe space in the migrant and pandemic crisis can’t be overstated. Evidence of the restorative power of building community, support and family is written into the loving gestures, the smiling faces, and the shared laughter of CDL's residents. Sofia Bravo, a transwoman from El Salvador who has struggled with drug addiction, says she was at the worst moment in her life when she arrived at Casa de Luz. “It feels like God sent me an angel,” she gushed about having CDL as a home.
Sofia Bravo, a transgender woman from El Salvador and current resident of CDL, takes photos on the beach with a frame she brought with her, on 11 December 2020.
To emphasize the success of CDL is not to ignore the pitfalls that often come with being in tight quarters and difficult situations, nor does it downplay the horrific experiences of harassment, abuse, and government bureaucracy that are a constant backdrop for many of the refugees. Frustrations are high with the dual limitations of the Migrant Protection Protocol or Remain in Mexico program which curtailed much hope of entering the United States and the COVID-19 restriction of asylum cases that has further resulted in months-long waiting periods where uncertainty and instability reign.

Disagreements erupt among the CDLcommunity and turnover can often be high. Emphasizing the responses of community care does not erase these underlying issues. Instead, highlighting the benefits of asylees creating a home together offers a counterpoint to the common victim narrative and provides an example of alternative modes of support.

When asked about her experience living at CDL, Gloria Mena Dalgado (52) said she didn’t know about this kind of help: “This is literally a House of Light. I’ve been given a lot here: understanding, the attention I had never had, lots of love and they have tolerated my mistakes.”

Along with a focus on community care among Central American refugees, this project hinged on the restorative power of photography itself. The practice of making portraits highlighted photography’s potential to empower via celebrating identity and documenting family life. 
Left: Marjori dons her mariposa wings at Casa de Luz on 29 February 2020. Right: Lulu and her daughter Renata have an impromptu photo shoot with fellow migrant Carlos on the rooftop of Casa de Luz, on 24 October 2020.
While I’m proposing that photography can be a remedy for some of the social ills faced by LGBTQ+ refugees in particular, it can also be a tool for further rhetorical violence committed against these groups. I was told by some CDL residents that stories now circulate among refugees of how some news reports were used in asylum proceedings to criminalize those seeking refuge. Dozens of news articles from international media organizations rushing to cover the migrant caravan crisis identified and visually depicted refugees attempting to cross the United States-Mexico border illegally. Photos like those that might seek to report on the plight of refugees as a broad news story can also be used to condemn migrants as legal evidence against the individuals pictured. While there are also stories of how certain kinds of coverage can help asylum cases and be used by defense lawyers to tell compelling stories, particular care should be taken in the making of photographs.

A complex relationship to news media and photography is evident to many at CDL: “The joy of life, happiness, and dreams of the migrants are constantly erased by their appearance in the media [...] Seeing only sadness, devastation diminishes other kinds of photos,” says Irving; “joy, humanity, connection: this is what we need to see.”
A dozen residents of Casa de Luz, including all seven children currently living at the shelter, went down to the beach near their home to take photos, on 11 December 2020.
Some of the refugees in these photos fled the injustices of harassment, abuse, homophobia and threat while some were looking for a better life outside political and social violence or extreme poverty and unemployment. They wanted to get to the United States believing they’d be accepted there but found instead closed borders, militarized pushback and hate of a different kind. At CDL they found support, acceptance and love. I thought this story would be one of advocacy networks of resistance and shared resources. It became instead a project about photography as itself a resource and a form of resisting the limited ways in which we interpret migrant communities.

There is a difference between making people part of photographic work, working with them and giving back to them, versus making people the subject of your camera.We must constantly interrogate our own purpose, our right to be present and to have access to someone’s story.

Irving also sees the power in photography to give people back a little of what has been taken from them. Speaking on why CDL residents love taking portraits, he says, “before being a migrant, a refugee, gay, a mother, whatever, we are human. So, what all of us mainly want is dignity.”


See the project on The New York Times.

Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative

This project is one of the stories commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative, supporting visual storytellers to produce stories reporting on a response to a problem. The initiative is a joint project by the World Press Photo Foundation, the Message in a Photo Foundation (MIAP) and the Solutions Journalism Network.