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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Latinx students reflect on the death and disappearance of Vanessa Guillén

Vanessa vigil
Vanessa vigil

Elianne Rodriguez and Vanessa Guillén were born only a month apart.

Guillén, a 20-year-old Mexican-American soldier, disappeared more than two months ago in Fort Hood, Texas. In late June, her remains were found close to Leon River in Texas, dismembered and burned. Prior to her disappearance, she told her mother that she was being sexually harassed by an Army sergeant, but was afraid of the repercussions that would result from reporting them, according to Time.

She never filed an official report to Fort Hood about her assault, according to The New York Times. Army officials do not think the officer identified as her murderer was also the one who sexually harassed her.

Besides Guillen, at least seven other soldiers have died or were found dead at Fort Hood since March, CNN reported, and there have been 23 deaths this year.

Rodriguez is one of more than 60 students who tuned in to an online vigil and memorial for Vanessa Guillén held by multiple Latinx UF organizations July 15. The Alligator spoke with her and four others about sexual assault and gender norms in the Latinx communities.

Rodriguez, a 20-year-old UF psychology and international studies junior, is angry. She’s angry about what happened to Guillén, and afraid that it could have happened to any of her friends in the military, too.

“I understood that feeling of ‘you're in a corner and don't know who to turn to,' and you don't know who to trust,” she said. “I really, I felt for her.”

Luz Mata, a 20-year-old UF biology junior, helped organize the vigil. She said she hoped the event would bring awareness to Guillén’s story and the events that led to her death.

Participants discussed toxic masculinity in Latin and Hispanic communities, including the idea of “machismo,” which is the urge to to provide and protect his family to feel masculine or “manly.”

Aaron David Robinson, the officer accused of Guillén’s murder, was not Hispanic or Latinx and reportedly was assisted by his girlfriend. She was charged with conspiracy to tamper with evidence and is facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted, according to The New York Times.

Mata said she hopes that Guillén’s story will spread through the family members and friends of those who attended the vigil. These conversations are difficult but necessary, she added.

“You're a strong person when you stand up for yourself, but you’re a strong person when you stand up for others,” Mata said.

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Noralbis Barrientos, a 19-year-old UF biology sophomore, sat by her 15-year-old cousin as she listened through a screen to other womens' stories during the online vigil. Women feeling small, being told to stay quiet and always look presentable. She said she hoped that her cousin would learn more about how to protect herself from feeling this way.

As a child, Barrientos, was taught to never talk back, to stay away from crowded areas and always dress “appropriately," she said. That means no pajamas when a man comes into the house, she said.

Now, she said she sometimes feels powerless. She wants to make a change for other young girls and boys, but doesn’t have enough support.

“In general, society has this toxic masculinity that embraces intimidation and violence just to create an authority figure, which instills some type of fear and we do not have to live like that,” she said.

Mauricio Perez, a 21-year-old UF political science senior, found out about Guillén’s story through spanish news organizations like Univision and Telemundo.

“Something is genuinely wrong,” he said. “It was so out of the norm, and yet at the same time those actions are so familiar.”

Perez said he actively tries to be an ally for those around him by actively listening to the stories of sexual assault and experiences of others.

Guillén was afraid to speak out because her assailant was a man and of a higher rank than her, which is disheartening and incredibly frustrating to hear, said Mary Faas, a 20-year-old UF psychology and criminology junior.

“It's important to have those uncomfortable conversations, in order to educate people to understand that this issue is important,” she said. “And if you're uncomfortable speaking about it, it's because you recognize that the issue is present.”

Faas said she gets emotional thinking of Guillén. She reminds her of a friend in high school who was in an abusive relationship and didn’t leave her partner until he became physically abusive.

“I wish I was wrong and I wish she had left before that,” she said.

Editors note: This article has been updated to reflect additional contextual details surrounding Guillén's death.

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