Finding Home (for now) in Puerto Vallarta

By ​​Elizabeth Savage

A beautiful mural in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
A beautiful mural in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

TransLash Media published this article on our website with the author’s permission, and in TransLash Zine Vol. 4: Migration Stories.

Growing up Black, Trans, and Southern

I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1951 to poor, uneducated, black parents from the South.

They were well meaning, extremely religious folks; hard working and responsible. Unfortunately, they hadn’t a clue when it came to raising a child like me.

And despite the fact that I clearly did not fit into the mold they created for me, all my self-expressions and pleadings were ignored. So as a small child, a transsexual girl, I learned to hide myself as much as possible.

That only had limited success. I think it was the fact that my parents failed to see me, which caused me to grow up feeling alien to my surroundings and birthed my desire to seek a home outside the US. 

I tried when I was about 19 to publicly express my truth and I did so for a couple of years, but I had no guidance, no role model, and no information to help me find my way. Consequently, the social pressure forced me to retreat back into myself even deeper, and the budding woman was forgotten as if buried alive.

In a few years, I was married, and the parent of four children. So, I raised them, and lived that life for thirty-one years. Eventually my wife died, and I found myself free to explore my subconscious and unearth the real me after several years. I managed this with the help of several therapists and an awful lot of soul searching.

Transitioning: The Beginning

I’ve now been on this journey of true self discovery for more than a dozen years, and in the process, I transitioned to my true self. I changed my gender presentation to female, which was a lot of work. I legally changed my name and gender marker, which was much easier than my presentation. I also medically transitioned with HRT and had an orchiectomy. I would have had complete bottom surgery, but I couldn’t find the means to pay for it.

At this stage of my life though, I feel I’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.

With all of that however, I was still not satisfied with my life — because I was living in the US and wanted very much to be somewhere else — a place that wasn’t tied to memories of me being spit on by white kids, because I was Black. I wanted to be someplace different that was not in my mind associated with white cops pointing their guns at me, because I was Black. I wanted to be somewhere that didn’t remind me of all the times I had been bullied, ridiculed, harassed, called a sissy or faggot, because the people around me didn’t understand that I was a transgender female. And I wanted to be somewhere that I wasn’t afraid that I was going to always be misgendered.

That was all from the emotional side of things; from the practical, I needed a place where I could get the proper healthcare, and it had to be affordable. And for my personal aesthetics, I wanted a certain climate, landscape, and beautiful architecture.

I know that seems like a lot, but a person is multi-faceted, and anyone who truly knows me will say that I’m very complicated.

I had gotten a passport in 2010, but that was before I had changed most everything — so I had to update it with all the new and correct information. I had the necessary supporting legal documents, still I was nervous going to the post office to request a new passport, because I was afraid of how I would be received. To my surprise, the gentleman who handled my application was very professional and nonchalantly went through everything with me, took all my papers and my payment, and informed me as to when I could expect my new passport. And I think with a little bit of a flirt, he told me to take care.

Back to The South

I moved from Chicago to New Orleans in 2015, and in some ways it had been a good move. But it turned out to be more expensive than my meager social security income could comfortably handle. I also encountered more transphobia than I had expected, so I knew I had to continue my search for a home. 

A Moment in Canada

With my newly acquired passport, I left for Montreal in 2018. I had read that Quebec was good for transgender people, and I had been in contact with one who was also a refugee from Northern Africa. She had made a home for herself in Montreal, and was going to help me relocate. I flew into Montreal in October 2018, and found the city and it’s people to be very pleasant and welcoming.

All things considered, I loved the place but couldn’t see myself living there, due to the frigid, snowy weather, and the fact that my income did not meet their requirements for a retirement visa. So after two months, filled with disappointment, I returned to the states. I was angry and frustrated that my plans for Montreal hadn’t worked out, especially because I had received such respect from the nurse at the hospital emergency rooms, the one time I went. I had a toothache, and no insurance, so I went to the hospital. During the intake process the nurse asked me if I was taking any medication, and if so what kind. I told her about my estrogen, and she politely asked me if it was for menopause, and I chuckled and said, no, I’m transsexual, and she carried on without hesitation — as if it was the most common thing in the world.

In my mind, that was exactly how she should have responded: with complete nonchalance, and why I wished I could have remained in Montreal in spite of the terrible weather. But this taste of respect and dignity from someone who wasn’t an American made me realize that I was on the right track, and that I couldn’t let this setback deter me. I decided to look elsewhere.

European Dreams Deferred

By 2020, I was all set to go to Lisbon, Portugal; I thought it would be a good place to start a year long trek around Southern Europe, but then I got sick and couldn’t travel. Later that same year I tried again, but this time the pandemic got in the way and I was once again grounded. I was feeling angry and desperate, and I had lost a lot of money. I was beginning to despair that I was stuck and would never be able to fulfill my dream.

I had left New Orleans and visited my daughter in Southern California for about a week, then gone to stay with a new friend in Texas for a while. I hadn’t given up on my passion, so I kept thinking and searching: where I could go as — a transgender woman of color with a small income — and still feel safe, comfortable, and cared for?

Welcome to Puerto Vallarta

I had given Mexico a casual look before, but because of that, I knew very little about the country. I realized that Europe was — for the foreseeable future — out of reach, so I had to come up with something less grand and closer to home. Maybe Mexico might be the answer. When I renewed my research, I came across a city called Puerto Vallarta. I had never heard of this place, but I saw that it was on the pacific coast and had beautiful beaches, mountains and forests, warm weather all year, very affordable prices, and was regarded as LGBTQIA+ friendly. I began looking even more closely at this city and watching YouTube videos about it, and I was beginning to fall in love with it, because it was so picturesque. I loved the way the city seemed to rise from the ocean up the mountainsides, which gradually were overcome by lush green forests and jungles. And the city itself was this white stucco red clay tiled jumble of low lying buildings and cobblestone streets — not everywhere, but in most areas, so that you could easily be carried away with this feeling of old world charm and romance.

A staircase in Puerto Vallarta.
A staircase in Puerto Vallarta.

I decided I had to go and see this place for myself, and to make things even better, it had its own airport. I did have to change planes in Mexico City, but the flight from there was only an hour and a half. In September of 2020, I said goodbye to the US and have not looked back.

At Home in Mexico

I’ve been in Puerto Vallarta for a little more than a year, and have been very happy. I’m an introvert, which doesn’t mean that I’m shy, but rather that I prefer my own company for the most part, so I don’t socialize — but I can talk to most anyone if they speak enough English. I’m learning Spanish and it’s painfully slow, but I’m making progress.

I’m sure most people who haven’t spent any real time in Mexico probably think that because of its proximity to the US that it is probably very similar, but nothing could be further from the truth, especially for a Black transgender woman. I must point out here that I’ve been told that I “pass” very well, so that of course helps, but even with that I’ve been read as transgender some times and that doesn’t bother me, but what does is being misgendered by an unapologetic asshole. That has only happened one time (I’m knocking on wood as I type this), since I’ve been in Mexico, and I have to tell you that helps make for a much more peaceful stress free life.

I’m not going to say that most Mexicans don’t know I’m transgender, but what I can say is that Mexicans seem to be more respectful of other people and they mind their own business. This even applies to the police, who are everywhere in this town. You see them, and as an expat at first, you are a bit unnerved by their presence, because they carry these large assault type rifles and ride on military style vehicles — but they don’t bother you at all! It’s as if they see you, but don’t see you. This is so refreshing and reassuring as a Black person.

I may not socialize, but I don’t stay in the house all the time either. One of my favorite activities is walking, and I’ve spent many hours doing that here. I walk for exercise, to be outdoors, to get familiar with my surroundings, and to take in the beauty of the landscape. I go to all the different markets and shops I want, and since this is a beach community, I go to the beach when I feel like it.

A view in San Cristóbal, a city further south in Mexico.
A view in San Cristóbal, a city further south in Mexico.

Something else that makes being transsexual in Mexico easier than in the states, is that if you’re on hormones, you don’t need a prescription to get them. All you have to do is go to the pharmacy and ask, and they sell them right over the counter. I’ve found the people to be very helpful, just because they want to help without being asked. I have not faced any barriers when apartment hunting — except my own income, of course.

So, from my experience, I feel I can safely say Puerto Vallarta is a good place to be transgender. One other thing, I haven’t dated yet — but not because I haven’t had the opportunity, but rather because I haven’t wanted to. I’ll say this: men are the same here as they are everywhere, so I think you know what I mean.

Travel Tips

Learn Spanish before coming to Mexico. You can get by in the more touristy areas with little or no Spanish, because most people will speak some English, but if you want to stay, you will do them and yourself a favor by learning the language. It is not just helpful, but respectful on your part, and they will appreciate it. I stumble through with my little Spanish and I also use google translate which helps a lot, so have that on your phone if you don’t speak the language and it will definitely come in handy.

And I would tell anyone who is trans and planning to travel by air, if you haven’t already done so, please make sure your identification matches your gender presentation; that will save you a lot of embarrassment, hassle, and inconvenience. With all the hassle of flying as it is, you don’t want to make the process more stressful if you can avoid it.

Another thing to consider is changing money. Don’t bother with getting pesos in the states, as ATMs are plentiful in Puerto Vallarta — but to avoid paying more than you need to in transaction fees and the other fees, I would suggest getting enough cash to cover a week of expenses. If you’re going to be here for that long or longer, keep in mind many places only take cash. I found my first apartment on Airbnb which is a pretty good starting place, because they list both short and long term rentals and they always come fully furnished. Also Facebook marketplace can be a good place to search for rentals. For me, I never stayed in the mainly tourist focused areas, because I wanted to keep my costs down, and I wanted to start to get the feel of being in another country as quickly as possible.

Mexico is a fairly easy place to begin an international journey as a trans person, but think about this, it’s also fairly conservative — so you might want to think about how you dress if you’re concerned with standing out. Also as a Black person, technically brown, that helps me to blend in more with the locals, especially when I wear a black long hair wig. If you’re white on the other hand, you’re going to tend to stick out more like a sore thumb; but don’t feel bad, because my height makes me stick out too. Sometimes I feel like a giant here.

There are a number of gay establishments in the Romantic Zone, if you go for that sort of thing, but I would suggest if you’re going to drink make sure you get an Uber home and not walk; tourists have been known to get mugged walking home late at night, and being trans and drunk might put a target on your back.

Since the pandemic is still a threat, mask-wearing indoors is still required, but not outside. And hand sanitizer is available at the door of most businesses. Some still check your temperature. 

If you don’t know this, you can’t drink the tap water. Buy bottled water to drink and cook. You can bathe and wash with tap water, but you shouldn’t brush your teeth with it either, or get it in your nose. Also, from what I’ve been told, you don’t have to worry about the water served at restaurants, as it comes from bottles as well.

When you rent an apartment, it will have a contraption to put these big 20 liter bottles that you can buy. If your stay is short term, your host or landlord will undoubtedly be furnishing you with drinking water, but check to be sure. If you do your own cooking, always thoroughly wash the fruit and vegetables.

In all my time here in Mexico I have not once felt unsafe walking the streets, and I’m always alone, but I don’t go out at night not out of fear, but rather because I’m not a night-time person.

I’ve truly enjoyed my time in Mexico. Another thing that’s great about this country is that it has a very generous tourist visa policy. You, as a US citizen with a valid passport, are given 180 days on arrival — and you can renew that almost indefinitely simply by leaving the country for a short time and then returning. I’ve done it twice already, but the bad thing for me is that I don’t earn enough to qualify for a temporary residency visa. The amount is at least $1500 USD a month, so I’m going to be leaving Mexico at some point to continue my search for a home, but that’s okay. I’ve made peace with this type of thing and I have a pretty good handle on how to deal with it.

Transitioning After 40

Oh my goodness, what can I say? Personally, if things had been ideal, I would have transitioned at a much younger age, because it would have been much less complicated.

But there are some advantages in doing it later in life, because you will know yourself so much better. Also, you may have some type of financial safety net to rely on and the ability to pay for any surgeries you feel you need.

Transitioning after forty likely means that you will have been socialized one way, and that will undoubtedly be in conflict with your stepping fully into your new life. So there will be a lot to unlearn and then learn in a new way, and this will take time and patience. You will have to give yourself this time, and give yourself the love you need to get through this.

The author in Puerto Vallarta.
The author in Puerto Vallarta.

There may not be anyone you can turn to for support, and I would suggest finding a good therapist to help you. Also, there are a lot of online groups that may be able to lend a hand. Reach out to the ones that are a good fit.

Know what your transition means to you, it’s different for everyone. Do as much or as little as you need to do, and keep in mind that transgender is an umbrella term and it might not fit you. It doesn’t really fit me, because it is an umbrella term, and that’s why I refine it by using the term transsexual.

I’m sure you’re already aware of this, as it’s widely talked about, but if you have children, there is no guarantee that they will accept the new you with open arms. Be prepared for that, and the possibility that they may never come around. It will be very painful to think that someone you’ve given your life for can turn their back on you, but it does happen.

I can’t really speak to getting gender affirming surgeries, except to say that Thailand has for a very long time been an excellent place for those at comparably reasonable costs, and there are other excellent surgeons in other countries — including the US — who can take care of you. Those tend to be more expensive, but all of this is available online.

Interestingly, I found some years ago that Spain was a good place for this, but I haven’t researched this lately, so you’d want to look into what it has to offer. Your transition will probably be the most important thing you will ever do, and the most difficult to give the attention it deserves. I think you will get as much out of it as you put in.

Elizabeth Savage defines herself as “retired, 70 years of age, an African American transsexual woman who has always known that she was different, but couldn’t articulate that as a child, she knew she wasn’t a boy like everyone told her, then I started living my truth in 2011, that I’ve never felt like I belong in the US and am finally searching for a home. I don’t know if sharing my journey with other trans people can be of benefit and I’m always concerned about my personal safety, but I’m willing to put this out there.”

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