Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Gwen Araujo

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Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Gwen Araujo

Bianca I. Laureano

Fourth in a series about leaders in the Latino community whose work centers on sexuality, ethnicity, racial classification, and social justice.

For Latino Heritage Month I’d like to try to expand our understanding and conversations about Latino sexuality during this month. Read previous people highlighted: Gloria Anzaldúa, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

Gwen Araujo is one of the top searches that leads people to my website and blog (Vanessa del Rio and uterus didelphys). I see her name everyday and am reminded of the privilege I have and of the power of Latino families.

Gwen Araujo
Beloved daughter, sister, aunt, niece, friend

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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October 4 will mark the eight year since  Gwen Araujo was brutally murdered. Eight years that her family has missed her, shared their stories in an attempt to collectively heal. A 17 -year-old transgender Chicana living in Newark, California, Gwen aspired to be a make up artist. Her family supports, loves and fights for her to this day.

Daisey Hernandez of Colorlines shares the details of Gwen’s murder:

In October of 2002, Gwen Araujo had also tried to go home. She was 17, transgender, dressed up to celebrate the birthday of her namesake idol, singer Gwen Stefani. But Gwen never made it home from the party. A group of men beat her repeatedly with a shovel, strangled her with a rope and buried her body in the woods near a campground. Her killers went to McDonalds for breakfast.

According to her mother and newspaper reports, she had been living as a girl since she turned 14, getting her nails done, finding in her Mexican family a warm acceptance. She had been pushed out of the local schools but no worries. She and her mom had talked: Gwen would find a job to help pay for beauty school. It was all working out somehow. She even knew these guys, Michael and Jose, who had taken an interest in her.
But on Oct. 3, 2002, they turned on her. According to court testimony, the two men, who had had sex with Gwen, suspected her biological gender and attacked her with two other men at a house party. The other party-goers left the house, chalking it up to a guys’ fight. No one dialed 911, even as the men punched Gwen and hit her across the head with a kitchen skillet. She bled profusely, and they told her to get off the sofa because she was bleeding on it. In her last hours, she must have thought of her mother, her sister, her brothers. She begged, “No, please don’t. I have a family.” The men beat her with a shovel and strangled her.

Murdered by four young men, all under 25 years old at the time of the murder, each young man had different sentences. Michael Magidson (15 years to life), Jose Merél (15 years to life), Jaron Nabors (11 years), and Jason Cazares (6 years). Magidson and Merél’s sentences were upheld last year.

A Lifetime movie called A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story was aired in 2006 (I have not seen the film so I cannot comment on whether it was well done, problematic, or something else). In addition, the Horizons Foundation created the Gwen Araujo Memorial Fund for Transgender Education which provided school-based advocacy to “promote understanding of transgender people and issues.”

The power of the Latino family is so present in this story. Reading the OpEd piece that Gwen’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero (pictured above holding Gwen’s foto) wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, clearly demonstrates how her family is using the pain, anger, sadness of losing Gwen to create change for more youth. Sylvia writes:

I’m also grateful. Grateful that my family and our friends rose to the challenge and sat through two gruesome and explicit criminal trials to make sure that everyone knew that Gwen was loved for who she was. I’m grateful for the support we’ve all received from perfect strangers who have told us in-person and through e-mail that we are in their thoughts and prayers. I’m grateful for the remorse that two of the defendants and some of their family members have expressed to me and my family.

And I’m sad. Sad that I’ll never get to see Gwen grow into the beautiful woman she would have become. Sad that four men chose to end my daughter’s life, and throw away their own simply because they thought they were acting like “real men.” And sad that other transgender women have been killed since Gwen’s murder and that we don’t have a realistic end in sight to that violence.

What Gwen’s life and murder says to me about reproductive justice and Latino Heritage Month is that we are not creating a world/society/space that loves our youth. We are not allowing ourselves to love our youth. We are not creating a reproductive justice movement that welcomes, centers, and sustains our transgender family members and friends. We are not holding ourselves accountable for the transphobia and transmisogyny that we perpetuate in the movement. We have a lot of work to do.

As Latinos alone, we have a lot of work to do as well. Gwen was not the last Latina to be murdered because of her gender identity. Our Latina hermanas are murdered more often than we care to even recognize. Angie Zapata’s murder gained a similar form of attention when she was murdered in Colorado last year. Unfortunately, limited Latino media outlets found her story important enough to cover. Ashley Santiago Ocasio was stabbed to death in her home in April in Puerto Rico and the bodies of two transwomen were found murdered on September 13, 2010 in Puerto Rico.

We must remember all of our family members regardless of gender identity and sex assigned at birth, and work to ensure their memory lives in ways their bodies have not. One way to begin is to put the same effort, time, money, and energies that we have into Latino Heritage Month (LHM) into the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), a day “set aside to memorialize those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.”  One month after LHM ends, TDOR occurs. Imagine the conversations, education, and opportunities for building community and establishing networks for support and care if we put the same amount of devotion into ensuring our community does not forget those of us who are no longer here in physical form because of transphobic actions.

Transgender Europe, a non-profit organization focusing on transgender people all over Europe, published an international report in 2009 that found every 3 days a transgender person is murdered, but a recent 2010 update shows a horrendous increase to 2 days. The report states: “The starkest increase in reports is also to be found in Central and South America, e.g. in Brazil (2008: 59, 2009: 68, January-June 2010: 40), Guatemala (2008: 1, 2009: 13, January-June 2010: 14) and Mexico (2008: 4, 2009: 10, January-June 2010: 9).” Let that sink in: A transgender person is killed every 2 days around the world, but a majority of these murders are in Latin America.

There is a lot of work to be done. Lives are being lost and there are almost no plans to end the violence. We must collectively value the lives of all of our community members. Let’s use this Latino Heritage Month to embrace everyone in our [email protected] family.

Foto credit: Horizons Foundation