Mis Ángeles: Vanessa Guillen Should Be A Household Name In Everyone's Home

Screenshot showing Pfc. Vanessa Guillen from a Univision news report on YouTube. The columnist and his family followed the network's coverage of her disappearance closely. (Univision via Youtube)

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In a more perfect world, Pfc. Vanessa Guillen would be celebrating the Fourth of July on her Army base with the rest of her 3rd Cavalry Regiment. Even in an okay world, the 20-year-old Latina's disappearance would have led to a national outcry, a massive search party and Congressional investigation. But we live in this world.

Vanessa Guillen has been a household name in my home for about two months now.

Like concerns over COVID-19 and arguments about police brutality, the missing U.S. soldier has sat with my family at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Univision news reports that we watch have often featured Vanessa's mother Gloria and sister Lupe crying and pleading for a transparent, robust investigation into her disappearance. Their pleas have become part of the soundtrack to the absurd dystopia we are living through.

So Wednesday morning all I had to say was, "They think they found her remains," for my family to know who I was talking about.

My mother gasped and put her hand over her heart. "Estaba bien joven. Estaba tan bonita," she said. She was so young. She was so beautiful.

My father, who was on his way out the door to work, shook his head and cursed in Spanish.

My 18-year-old nephew, who is considering joining the military, spoke about how messed up it is considering how safe and secure a base like Fort Hood, the Texas base where Guillen was stationed, is supposed to be.

It's a good thing I didn't have to add much more to the conversation. I had to curl up into a corner and cry.

A few minutes later I got a message from my friend, Patty. "What can we do about this, Erick?" she said. "We need to bring attention to this."

In a year that has felt gratuitous in its propensity for tragedy, Vanessa Guillen's story has felt invisible at times.

"Two months! That's how long it took for the Army to announce they suspected foul play in the disappearance of a U.S. soldier," another friend, Mari, told me. "You know they'd be all over it if she was a 20-year-old white girl."

If you don't know the story, Vanessa Guillen disappeared from the Army base, leaving behind her car, keys and wallet. She had recently told her mother over the phone that she had been sexually harassed by her superior officer and others on the base. Her disappearance was reported on April 22. The Army announced "foul play" on June 24.

On the morning of July 1, a fellow soldier at the base, identified as Spc. Aaron David Robinson, was being pursued as a "person of interest" when he killed himself. He was dating the "estranged wife" of another soldier. The woman, Cecily Anne Aguilar, identified in a criminal complaint as Robinson's girlfriend, is now in custody.

While the human remains found in a shallow grave have yet to be publicly identified by the Army, Vanessa's family said they believe the remains are hers. They are suing the U.S. military for mishandling the case. (UPDATE: The Army reportedly identified her remains on July 5.)

I don't know if Vanessa's investigation would have been handled differently or if there would have been a much bigger national outcry if she were white. But from what experience can tell us, probably.

Women of color already get less support in their workplace and are more disenfranchised when you consider factors such as economic opportunity, access to health care and education.

Then there is what's known as Missing White Woman Syndrome.

Here's how Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch defined it a few years back:

"It refers to the mainstream media's seeming fascination with covering missing or endangered white women — like Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway — and its seeming disinterest in cases involving missing people of color."

Academics have studied it. A Northwestern University analysis of online media coverage called it a "real, empirical phenomenon" and concluded this:

  • Missing white women are more likely to garner media attention than their non-white counterparts
  • That coverage is much more intense and sustained for a longer period of time

This gap has "created considerable racial disparity in the world of missing persons cases," according to another study by William & Mary Law School. This disparity, the study found, negatively impacts "the ability to validate missing persons reports and begin allocating resources to the investigation of missing persons cases even if the person is classified as a runaway."

Might this disparity have affected the investigation into Vanessa Guillen's disappearance? We don't know. We do know this: It exists. Ask the family of Mitrice Richardson, who still have no answers nearly a decade after her body was found in a Malibu canyon in the summer of 2010. By then, she'd been missing for close to a year.

The truth is, we've become too accustomed as a society to violence against all women, trans and non-binary people. That's a tragedy all on its own.

I continue to mourn people I've never met, like Vanessa Guillen, Breonna Taylor, LaVena Johnson, Monika Diamond, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, Mitrice Richardson, Elisa Lam, Ashley Loring Heavy Runner and way too many more who should be household names, and to try in some small way to help fan the flames of justice in the hope of a more perfect world.

Frankly, I don't know what more I can add to the conversation right now. Instead, I yield the floor to these brave soldiers who have taken to Twitter, using the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen, to share their stories where they've endured sexual harassment, rape and violence while serving this country.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the relationship between the woman currently in custody and the unidentified soldier who killed himself. LAist/KPCC regrets the error.