Courtesy of Cristy. 

'A Shock to All of Us': LA's Trans Latina Community Mourns Viccky Gutierrez

Before being stabbed to death in January, Viccky Gutierrez was a vibrant member of the tight-knit Los Angeles trans Latina community.

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Nov 20 2018, 12:06am

Courtesy of Cristy. 

At least 22 transgender Americans were killed in 2018. In honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, read all of their stories here.

The 1700 block of South New Hampshire Avenue in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles is, like so many others in the city, lined with the non-native palm trees that populate the city. Cacti tower overhead, planted in the front yards of tan stucco bungalows, shielded from the street by chicken wire or, like house number 1721, a white painted gate.

It’s an early November evening, as cars roll smoothly up the block’s small hill. An older couple speaking Spanish unload a step-ladder from their SUV while a man sits in his yard across the street, sanding a piece of wood under the dim glow of a street lamp. A Chihuahua runs silently from one yard to another. Meanwhile, the two-story house at 1721 stands empty. Its windows are boarded over, and there’s a hole in the roof, blackened by a fire. In the shadows between street lamps, it marks a solemn vacancy in the wake of extreme violence.

January 10, 2018, should have been a similarly quiet night on the block. But at 3:00 AM, a fire was started on the second story of the house at 1721. Inside, 33-year-old transgender woman and Honduran immigrant Viccky Gutierrez had been stabbed. The fire, which police say was started using an accelerant, shot out of the roof and through broken windows as black smoke rose upward and outward, rolling into the night air. The scene was caught on video by a curious fire-watcher and uploaded to YouTube.

According to NBC Los Angeles, it took five-dozen firefighters to extinguish the flames. The fire also drew people who knew Gutierrez, including Bamby Salcedo, the director of the LA-based TransLatin@ Coalition, where Viccky had been a client. Later that night, Salcedo wrote on Facebook: “It is with deep sadness, rage and pain that I have to share with all of you that one of our sisters was brutally murdered.”

The next day, LAPD apprehended 29-year-old Kevyn Ramirez, who they later charged with Viccky’s murder.

According to the LAPD, Ramirez’s motive was burglary. They wouldn’t give any comment on whether this case could be considered a hate crime, and did not comment when asked how frequently the LAPD encounters transgender violence. According to reports, prosecutors say Ramirez and Viccky met online.

1542670138864-viccky-body
Courtesy Cristy.

In January, a vigil was held in Viccky’s honor, and a fundraiser earned more than $12,000 for Viccky’s family back in Honduras, where her body was returned. According to multiple friends, Viccky loved her family in Honduras and supported them financially when she was able.

As is the case for many trans women of color who are killed each year, Viccky’s story made national news when it occurred, but quickly fell out of the media spotlight. Initial reports detailed the events of her death, but didn’t go much further. After Ramirez was charged, the stories stopped altogether. But like all trans women lost to violence, Viccky could never be defined by the way she died. And for some who knew her, it has been unbearably painful trying to live without her.

On a recent afternoon, I visited 3055 Wilshire Boulevard, where several sister organizations that serve transgender women—including TransLatin@ Coalition, APAIT, and the Trans Wellness Center—sit clustered. In LA, many trans Latinas like Viccky support each other through peer-led organizations like the TransLatin@ Coalition. These community centers offer a place for friendship, help with housing and healthcare, or a meal in the middle of the day.

On the day I visited, a group of trans women of color shared a lunch of rice, beans, and roast chicken with tortillas. An educator made a presentation about the transmission, prevention, and treatment for Hepatitis C, as the women ate and asked questions. After their meal, the Latina women stayed as others made their way out. They were planning their upcoming Thanksgiving event, Transgiving, for anyone who doesn’t have another family with which to spend the holiday. The room was filled with excitement as the group planned their menu. One woman, Cristy, remained relatively quiet.

Cristy was Viccky’s close friend she’s known since their childhood in Honduras. Cristy remembers long days playing in the park, then bathing in the river together when they were kids. They both grew their hair long. She also remembers part of the reason why they wanted to leave Honduras: A transgender friend was was murdered. Cristy says she moved to the US in 2005, and Viccky followed her in 2011, calling her for advice beforehand.

At 9 AM on January 10, six hours after the fire at Viccky’s house started, Cristy got a call from mutual friend. “They were saying there was a person that was burned alive in there,” Cristy told me through an interpreter. “But I didn’t know at that time that it was Viccky. I got worried, and sad, and took a car in a hurry, and when I got there, the police wouldn’t let me go in. I was crying, I was hysterical.”

The firefighters had to access the apartment through the roof. “When I got there, the fire was out,” Cristy said. “I saw when they took her body out in a black bag, and I started screaming.”

“It was a shock to all of us,” said Maria Roman, chair of the board for the Trans Latina Coalition, and a friend of Viccky’s.

Roman met Viccky in 2013 at a support group for transgender people living with trauma. “She was really young,” Roman recalled, sitting in her office on Wilshire. “She was always put together. I remember her having this beautiful, long black hair. She was always engaged in the conversation with everybody around her.”

Viccky stood out to Roman as a vibrant woman who was eager to be involved in her community. “We would see her really regularly, not only here, but they would have, like, volleyball games. And a lot of Latina women locally get together for somebody’s birthday or go to a different park. She would be there.”

“She wanted a change because the life here was too crowded, too fast, and she wanted something more relaxed."

Roman finds Viccky’s death exceptionally disturbing because, just three months prior to being killed, Viccky had volunteered at the LGBT Center in LA for the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day meant to honor trans murder victims. “Her death shows us that no matter how we are living our lives, we are all at risk.” Roman said.

Roman says that Viccky was in the process of learning English, wanted to go to school, and dreamed of a career as a hair stylist; she’d always been good with hair. “She was really trying to do the right thing. Even though she had to do things to survive, like many of us have had to do,” Roman said. “There’s no empathy when it comes to our lives.”

When Viccky started her life in the US, she and Cristy stayed as close as ever. They both lived in LA, not far from one another. They traveled together, met each other’s significant others. “I guided Viccky to get hormone treatment, introduced her to a lot of friends of the community, and helped her when she was in surgery,” Cristy said. “I was the one that kept telling her to come see what’s going on in the community, so she can be informed.”

In November 2017, three months before Viccky’s death, she and Cristy traveled to Utah together. Viccky had begged Cristy to take her; something about Utah reminded them both of Honduras. They were both also tired of LA and wanted a change. After their trip, she and Viccky made a plan to relocate there. They planned to move in May.

“She wanted a change because the life here was too crowded, too fast, and she wanted something more relaxed…,” Cristy said, explaining Viccky had just gotten her work permit and wanted to work in restaurant.

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Nearly one year after Viccky’s death, Cristy is still struggling with the trauma of her close friend’s killing. When she leaves her home, she worries she could be killed, too. To help cope, she goes to every trans Latina support group she can find, which she says helps.

Cristy saw Kevyn Ramirez for the first time in court, through a window. She didn’t recognize him. She said that she wanted to bring some of her other transgender friends down to the court house, so they could see Ramirez for themselves, to see if anyone knows who he is. “There was a preliminary hearing, but it was cancelled,” she said.

If the opportunity was there, Cristy said, “I would ask him why.”