Two years ago today, in a story that shook me to my core, a woman walking her dog found a femur in the desert. She alerted the police, who began a three-month dig, covering a vast area of the mesa near my home. The police found the bodies of 11 women, one of whom was four months pregnant. Many of the women were close to my age and grew up here like me. Were brown like me. Had struggled here, like me.
But when these women were found dead, President Obama did not come to town. There was no jam-packed memorial to mourn their lives cut short. What we had instead were devastated families whose greatest fear had been realized when their daughters' remains were discovered on the mesa.
As the story unfolded, terrible sounds echoed in my ears. Not the sounds of shovels in the desert, but the sound of these lives being erased. Not only through death, but through the official description of the events. The women were not brave heroes who faced histories of poverty, abuse and trauma with the best tools they could find. They were “addicts.” And because they used drugs, many earned money the best way they could—by selling sex. And so they were “prostitutes.” The authorities thought the story could begin and end there: bodies found, case closed. 11 more prostitutes dead. Done.
The $100,000 reward for information leading to the killers was rarely advertised, and by most accounts from the families of the missing and dead, the police have been less than enthusiastic about pursuing the case. When challenged on their lack of results they said, “The only suspects we have are dead.”
I often found myself wondering if that would fly if these were 11 white college students found buried under a football field.
After the initial news accounts, many of us pounced on the local authorities for the language they were using to describe the women, for the shrug of the shoulders they seemed to use when talking about their “high-risk lifestyles.”
We held monthly vigils to memorialize the women and their lives. Over 400 people came out in force for our April vigil: Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, whites, the young and the old. All held hands, raised our heads, cried and sang.
And I knew we were winning hearts and minds when I received a phone call from the city administration asking me to remove the pink crosses we had left standing in the park because workers refused take down our memorial, or to disgrace the crosses by putting them in the city dump.
We fanned the flames of something that was already here, in Albuquerque, in our barrios. Compassion, love and heartbreak. Even for women who use drugs, even for women who sell sex to buy them.
And we saw a change. After we called attention to the language the officials were using in the case, we saw a powerful shift in their words. Instead of prostitutes and addicts, they became women, mothers and daughters. The investigation remains open, if slow. The families have been connected, and can draw on each other for support.
There are many fronts on which we continue to fight this battle. There are three bills moving through the New Mexico legislature right now that would help. Together, they would work increase access for substance abuse and mental health treatment for young women and pregnant women. YWU and many other organizations, law-makers, health-care providers and families are working together to create an effective web of services.
These women are national heroes to us. If President Obama had come to our stadium to help us mourn, remember, and make sense of these lives and deaths, he might have said this:
I want America to be as good as these women needed it to be. Let’s live up to their dreams, that this could be a country where you can be born without much, but live a life that is safe, and full of promise. Where you can get a good education, a job, a home. Where if you stray from the path, there are nets to catch you. Where you are never found dead, dismembered, and alone on a mesa.
Adriann Barboa is the Director of Young Women United in Albuquerque, where she was born and raised and lives with her two children.