“I learned to shout for those who couldn’t.”

Esther Chavez Cano

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

In honor of this day in 1862 when the Mexican army overcame insurmountable odds to defeat invading French forces from conquering the state of Puebla, I’m going to honor a Mexican woman who overcame insurmountable odds and brought the world’s attention to the killings and rapes of hundreds of women in the border city of Juarez, with only the sound of her insistent voice.

Tiny, indefatigable Esther Chavez Cano was a corporate accountant for an American food-processing company in Juarez when in 1993, she began keeping files on something a lot more serious. A series of savage murders of women whose brutalized bodies kept turning up in the harsh desert surrounding the city haunted her. Most of the victims were young women from poor families who had migrated to Juarez to work in the assembly plants known as maquiladoras, operated by Japanese and American owners. These slain girls had no family to protest to indifferent police investigators. But they had Chavez.

A force to be reckoned with!

Clutching boxes of information she had compiled on each killing and rape in excruciating detail, she demanded attention and justice from the local authorities, then went out and shared her outrage with the world. Plastering the streets of Juarez with pink ribbons for the dead women, she led demonstrations, gained the attention of the international press, and in 1999, founded Casa Amiga a violence treatment and prevention center that has sheltered thousands of victims of sexual abuse and violence in the border region of Chihuahua, and provided them with psychological counseling, medical assistance and legal aid for the last ten years.

In 2008 Esther Chavez was awarded the National Human Rights Prize in Mexico, and in December, 2009 (shortly before her death at the age of 76 on Christmas Day) the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Mexico had violated human rights conventions by failing to adequately investigate the 2001 murders of 3 women in Ciudad Juarez. It was a clear vindication of Chavez’s years of work, but fell tragically short of solving the 500 murders of women in Juarez since 1993.

So instead of lining up margaritas on the counter today (well, maybe later), I’m celebrating the life of Esther Chavez Cano this Cinco de Mayo and sending my $100 to Casa Amiga.

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