A Body in the Lake
Lorenza Arellano was wearing only undergarments when her body was found floating in Hollenbeck Lake.
When Raquel Román first heard that a body had been found, she had a terrible feeling that she knew who it was. She called around to neighbors in Boyle Heights, asking if they had seen Lorenza. She tried to get in touch with her oldest daughter, who lived nearby.
For six months, Arellano, 36, had been coming to eat dinner with her husband and baby at the Guadalupe Homeless Project, a shelter in Boyle Heights that serves mostly immigrants. When she became homeless, Arellano couldn't stay at the shelter because it housed only men, so she asked relatives to take care of her baby and she and her husband ended up living at Boyle Heights' Hollenbeck Park.
“She was a great mother,” says Román, the director of Guadalupe Homeless Project. “She did that with very little resources, and her child was flourishing.” Whenever Arellano came to the shelter, she would make people laugh and offer whatever she had — chips, Gatorade, soda — to the person sitting next to her.
When Arellano's body was identified, initial media reports referred to her as a transient and circulated a photo of her that looked like a mug shot. Police determined that her death was drug-related, but Román says they never got a clear answer as to why she was wearing only undergarments and in the lake.
It's likely that she was a victim of street violence, Román says, adding that one in four women living in the streets experiences sexual violence, and many women become homeless to escape domestic abuse.
“When people hear that drugs were involved, it's easy to be like, 'I knew it.' But the reality is, she shouldn't have been living in that park. She should have had a home. She should have been with her daughter,” Román says.
The Birth of the Eastside Mujeres Network
Arellano died in April 2014. Media coverage of her death sent shock waves through Boyle Heights, but it also brought together nearly a dozen organizations on the Eastside working to combat violence against women. The Eastside Mujeres Network is a collective of lawyers, social workers, church organizers, mothers, bike punks, artists, jiu-jitsu masters and filmmakers taking to the streets of L.A.'s eastern neighborhoods and flooding social media with the rallying cries “Where are our sisters?” and “All violence is public.” They demand compassion and answers for women who are assaulted in their homes or attacked in the street, for women who have disappeared, and for women who turn up dead.
In the past five years, there has been a surge in new women's collectives in East L.A., says Felicia Montes, whose group, Mujeres de Maiz, since 1997 has been hosting wellness clinics in parks, holistic healing assemblies at high schools, and poetry readings at community centers. Some of the new groups are workers collectives, some are focused on music or art, and some teach self-defense, Montes says. Regardless of their organizing principle, the groups combine feminist ideals with a Chicana/o organizing ethos.
Boyle Heights is currently a focal point for social justice organizing. Longtime residents are mobilizing around tenants rights and unjust evictions as new development companies move in and double rents. Most visibly, activist groups oppose the influx of new galleries in the past year, saying they will lead to more displacement.
“There definitely is an upsurge in young women's activism right now. And not just activism — being in the streets and being vocal — but organizing. Being an organizer is different than being an activist, because you have to bring people along with you who may or may not agree,” explains Maylei Blackwell, a professor of Chicana/o studies and women's studies at UCLA. “What defines this new generation is that they're not waiting for the police or historic institutions or city council to respond. They're taking things into their own hands.”
One of those groups is the collective Justice for My Sister (JFMS), which runs arts and leadership programs for young women in Los Angeles and Guatemala. After Lorenza Arellano died, the group's founder, Kimberly Bautista, joined Román, Montes and organizers from East Los Angeles Women's Center (ELAWC) to organize a vigil.
“The news was criminalizing her and local officials weren't taking action. It was nothing new,” says Bautista, who named the collective after her acclaimed documentary about a Guatemalan woman trying to track down her sister's killer. “Women victims of violent crime are alienated. That self-blame and blame of victims disrupts the healing process.”
After Arellano's body was found, the newly formed Eastside Mujeres Network held the vigil at Hollenbeck Park, where her family could mourn and see that she had been a valuable member of the community. The vigil also was a chance for community members to learn about counseling and legal services offered by ELAWC and the law firm Phillips & Urias, LLC, which specializes in immigration and domestic violence–related cases.
In October 2015, teenagers Gabriela Calzada and Briana Gallegos were found brutally murdered in Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Heights. Two male teens later were charged with the killings, which police said were gang-motivated. As soon as word got out about Calzada and Gallegos' deaths, Eastside Mujeres Network organizers quickly mobilized, working with gang-intervention groups to plan a vigil, going door to door to get the word out and starting social media campaigns to call for justice.
Earlier that year, Justice for My Sister held a series of workshops, forums and marches as part of their “All Violence Is Public” campaign, and local artists contributed posters that they hung in restaurants, cafes and juice bars in Mariachi Plaza.
By this time, the network had grown to include the bike crew Ovarian Psycos — best known for their monthly, women-only bike rides to campaign against gentrification in Boyle Heights — along with Warrior Womyn Self Defense and arts activism group Corazon del Pueblo.
“The Ovarian Psycos embody transportation issues, exclusion, gentrification, body issues,” says Blackwell, the UCLA professor. “A lot of the new generation of groups are inspired by Zapatistas and autonomous organizing. You're not just solving the problem that you're critiquing but also doing community-building.”
That community-building crosses generational and ideological boundaries. In the Eastside Mujeres Network, some organizers don't trust police or believe justice in the courts is possible, while others work closely with authorities and depend on institutional grants.
“We might organize in a different way, but we're in the same community, and we're affected in the same way. Whether I'm a lawyer or you're a 19-year-old kid, we have a common struggle,” says Laura Urias of Phillips & Urias.
Many social services agencies can be working in silos, Román explains, which is why it's important to put a face to each group. A year after Arellano died, the Guadalupe Homeless Project opened a 15-bed shelter in Boyle Heights for elderly, undocumented women.
“Last Christmas, the Ovarian Psycos donated sweaters and jewelry to the women,” Román says, and if someone in the network finds someone who needs a bed, they can text Román directly.
And they are seeing results. Recently, a Franklin High School student went missing, Montes says, so Eastside Mujeres Network members started knocking on doors to ask if people had seen her, and putting alerts out on social media. Because of the high visibility of the murders of the girls in Debs Park in 2015, a lot of people were following Eastside Mujeres Network on Facebook, and the alerts were widely circulated. Within a few days, the girl turned up.
“We're not sure if it was a runaway or a kidnapping, but it was an underage woman who was missing,” Montes says. Somehow, she adds, the message that people were looking for her got back to her or to her captor and she was able to get home.
The Roots of the Anti-Rape Movement in East L.A.
The rise in women's organizing on the Eastside parallels a growth in popular feminism and a focus on violence against women in the media — with stories about rape cases, sexual assault on college campuses and domestic violence drawing the attention of the public and celebrities. But there have been many generations of Chicana feminist activism in Los Angeles, according to Blackwell.
“In the '60s and '70s, organizers faced a lot of barriers in Chicano and feminist movements, and pushed through them to do the work,” Montes says. “That paved the way for these new organizations.”
In fact, the nation's first 24-hour bilingual rape crisis hotline was established 40 years ago right here in East L.A.
In 1975, if a Spanish-speaking rape survivor wanted to call a crisis hotline in Los Angeles County, there was only one person she could talk to: Irene Mendez-Banales.
In the early 1970s, an anti-rape movement was mobilizing around the nation, but it was largely a white women's movement. That's why members of L.A.'s first rape crisis hotline, the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW), reached out to Mendez-Banales, one of the founders of the Chicana feminist organization Comisión Femenil Mexicana Nacional, in hopes of expanding its services to L.A.'s Spanish-speaking communities. Even though she had a full-time job and was raising two kids, Mendez-Banales took the training and started filling shifts in the Westside office.
After a few months of working the hotline, she was swamped. Calls were pouring in every day, and Mendez-Banales couldn't keep up. Meanwhile, on the Eastside, Connie Destito, an emergency room social worker, was establishing the first rape trauma center at L.A. County USC Women's Hospital but had nobody to whom to refer Spanish-speaking clients for follow-up care.
So, in 1976, Mendez-Banales and Destito started their own hotline — the East Los Angeles Women's Center (then called the East Los Angeles Rape Hotline) — drawing on their network of comadres, friends and family. The 15 founding members met on Saturdays in one another's homes, and each put in $25 to pay for the phone line. Mendez-Banales's daughter baby-sat Destito's son as the women designed training modules, wrote schedules of shifts and did the paperwork to become a nonprofit.
Mendez-Banales and Destito were a rare thing in the '70s — activists in both the Chicano movement and the women's movement. Other than the Comisión Femenil, there was little overlap between the two at the time.
“Chicanas who raised issues of poverty or race in the women's movement were always told that gender was primary,. and they had to leave race at the door. And women who were active in the Chicano movement and raised issues of gender were told they were dividing the movement. They were called agringada, or whitewashed,” Blackwell explains. That's why issues of violence against women of color were slipping through the cracks. The only option women had for addressing violence was to call the police, Blackwell says, something many Latina and immigrant women weren't willing to do because there were few Spanish-language resources or because they didn't trust authorities.
Destito and Mendez-Banales wanted to give these women other options. The East Los Angeles Women's Center's driving philosophy was hermanas por vida, or sisters for life. Drawing on the family-oriented, collectivist Chicana culture, the members became a family not only for one another but also for the many women who called the hotline or approached them at community forums.
The Most Vulnerable Women
As ELAWC grew over the years, so did the understanding of how cycles of violence are connected, especially in poor and immigrant communities. In the '70s, the movement was about sexual assault, and in the '80s it expanded to include intimate-partner violence, explains Barbara Kappos, current executive director of ELAWC. Today, organizers are focusing on the connections between sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and HIV.
“Most women we work with have gone through multiple traumas,” Kappos says. Sixty-five percent of clients who come in to report domestic violence have had a history of sexual assault, she says. Of the HIV-positive population the organization serves, the majority are immigrant women. Most are living with intimate-partner violence and were infected by their partner. Because women are excluded from much of the HIV funding and services, many don't know they're at risk. “They journeyed here and expected a better life. Then, this happens,” Kappos says.
She recalls one client who had been assaulted by her father as a child, was gang-raped, was in an abusive relationship and was living in extreme poverty with her four children. It wasn't until three years after she first came to them that the woman was able to leave her violent relationship and get help to pay for an apartment of her own.
Urias, the lawyer, says many of the women she represents have criminal records that keep them from seeking legal support in domestic violence cases — like getting a restraining order or negotiating for custody of their children. They might have theft or burglary convictions because their abuser was the only one who worked and they needed to find a way to feed their kids, Urias says, or their abusers would force them to sell drugs.
“It's not the 'ideal victim,' where they're a perfect angel and suddenly something horrible happened to them,” Urias says. “We have clients with a more complicated past, and those tend to be the most vulnerable clients we see. Because of their past, they're so afraid to come forward and ask for help.”
The Shift to Transformative Justice and Grassroots Organizing
“When we started the hotline, it was more about a need in the community,” says Diane Araujo, the first executive director of ELAWC. “As we got more involved, we realized there were a lot of political issues and unjust practices that women were facing.” For example, victims had to provide their full name and address in court, which would become public record and could put them in further danger.
“You don't go out of the family to air your dirty laundry,” Araujo says. “There's the fear that people will know about a sexual issue, a fear of being deported.”
So, in the '70s, ELAWC began building coalitions with the authorities, such as Peggy York from LAPD and Sgt. Miriam Travis from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, to help survivors seek justice in the courts. Today, they hold 65-hour trainings twice a year for hotline volunteers, which include presentations from LAPD detectives and victim and witness representatives from the district attorney's office, who help survivors navigate the courts. Today, only the survivor's first name and last initial are recorded in court, and the DA will advocate for the use of “Jane Doe” in some cases.
In the '70s, Blackwell explains, part of the Chicana feminist movement was this sort of institution-building. While that still exists today, some of the newer groups are looking for alternatives outside of the system.
“Many people don't see the criminal justice system as reconciliation,” says Justice for My Sister's Bautista. “It's punitive in communities of color.”
Her group and other newer collectives are discussing what they call transformative justice — holding assailants accountable for assault through community channels, like putting out a public statement on social media. The most important part, Bautista says, is that survivors of assault or intimate partner violence be able to make their own choices about what actions to take, especially since they've often had so many other people making choices for them.
Even established nonprofits like ELAWC still use grassroots strategies.
In the past decade, ELAWC and other service providers such as Planned Parenthood have rolled out programs in which community members go to parks, schools and churches to talk to peers about resources for survivors of assault. Most are not trained counselors but survivors themselves.
“The promotora model works because the chances of a survivor trusting them, as opposed to you or me, are better,” says Veva Lopez, who directs the programs at ELAWC. Promotoras have long been used in Latin America to bring health care resources to people who might not seek them out — providing information about vaccines, diabetes, or prenatal health — but using them for sexual assault prevention is fairly new.
“I started as a victim, then was invited to be a promotora,” says Myrna Medina, a former ELAWC staff member. “Most Latinas can associate with other Latinas in the community. It not only gives you a way to speak but, for some women, when they finish the training, it's the only certificate they've ever gotten. It motivates them.”
Still, many promotoras would not consider themselves feminists in the way the young organizers starting the new wave of women's collectives do. The Ovarian Psycos' philosophy is “feminist ideals with indigena understanding and an urban/'hood mentality”; Justice for My Sister leads workshops on dismantling the patriarchy; and Mujeres de Maiz creates “intersectional, multidimensional safe spaces for holistic healing with a feminist spirit,” Montes says. But stigmas against feminism and women's movements still exist in the Latino community.
“Feminist is like a mestizo word, something that happens in the dominant culture,” Blackwell says. “I think it benefits some people not to use the word. It allows you to be more undercover in the community. You could be talking to church women, and a feminist ideology could make it difficult to organize.”
Chicano Men in the Women's Movement
Woman aren't the only ones organizing on the Eastside. There is a growing movement of men joining the fight to end violence against women, on both grassroots and institutional levels.
“We have to acknowledge that the issue of violence against women and girls, it's a men's issue,” says Osvaldo Cruz, who works as a prevention specialist at ELAWC's Wellness Center at the Historic General Hospital. “Boys and men aren't encouraged to talk about it. Part of engaging them is giving them practical tools to know what healthy relationships are about.”
While grants that fund men's programs related to domestic violence and sexual assault are limited, according to Kappos, engaging men and families has been important historically in the Chicana women's movement.
Most anti-rape movements in the '70s were adamant about not including men. But Destito says that while it was important that their movement be woman-led, she knew they needed to have men organizing, too.
“If you don't transform the whole family, then you're not going to get change for women,” Blackwell explains, emphasizing that separatism in women's movements is historically a white strategy. ”
ELAWC was the first anti-rape hotline to have male board members. Later, in the 1980s, executive director Alva Moreno worked with Jerry Tello, the co-founder of the National Compadres Network, to create programming for Latino men and boys. They produced a series of teatros about whole families talking about sexual assault and domestic violence.
Today, Luis Mendoza is one of a growing number of men to complete ELAWC's 65-hour hotline training. A recent college graduate, he has an office at East L.A. College to educate bystanders and support survivors of assault. Cruz taught him to hold men's healing circles. “I never saw myself being an advocate. I thought people needed resources, not support,” Mendoza says. “But trauma and healing affects students in classes. I wanted to give back to my community.”
Breaking the Silence
On a recent early summer afternoon, a dozen teenage girls sit in a circle of couches and folding chairs at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory.
Hilda Franco asks them to introduce themselves by completing the sentence: “I believe violence is …”
“I believe violence is … far too common,” says one of the young women, and the rest go around: “Violence is swept under the rug.” “Violence changes you forever.” “Violence can happen to anyone.” “Violence can be stopped.”
“Speaking about violence can change the chemistry of the brain,” Franco says. She is running a workshop for Justice for My Sister, and she explains to the girls that everyone in their collective is also a survivor of some kind.
Then she talks about what patriarchy means, and some of the ways it shows up in their lives — when their mothers tell them to serve their fathers, or let their sons go wherever they want but closely monitor their daughters' movements.
The girls listen, rapt, nodding their heads and raising their hands to offer more examples. At the end of six weeks, they will have produced short films that challenge the cycles of violence they see in the media and their lives, films that will screen in Guatemala and Los Angeles.
Today, through the actions of Eastside Mujeres Network and the countless people fighting for a better life for women, there is strength in numbers. Forty years ago, Destito, the founder of ELAWC, had a dream that there would one day be a billboard in L.A. that said, “If this happens to you, call this number, you are not alone” — an invitation to speak for women who have been assaulted or abused. She never imagined that, one day, so many people would be listening.