Teri Orr: The missing and the murdered women…
Her name was Lourdes and she was sitting at my dining room table next to my two next-door neighbors — Holy Cross nuns, Sister Suzanne and Sister MaryAnn. We were peppering her with questions.
It was 2002 and Lourdes Portillo’s film “Senorita Extraviada” (Missing Young Woman) had been awarded a special jury prize from the Sundance Film Festival. It was a brave documentary looking at the women of Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, who been disappearing completely in numbers that started out in dozens and quickly became hundreds of unsolved murders and/or missing women reports. We had created a new program at the Eccles Center that year to show documentary films from Sundance. We brought the filmmakers back to have a discussion with the audience, months after the film had premiered. I don’t remember exactly what month it was, I just remember it was raining. Lourdes said at first she had just wanted to create the film as a memorial and then it became this perplexing “who done it?” And nestled all cozy inside my home, we just kept talking late, late into the night and trying to understand how all these women had disappeared so completely. And why it wasn’t a bigger story.
Lourdes looked at us — three women, well-intended. “Because they were all women of color,” she explained simply. And we all knew that but the three of us had never lived or really experienced that life. Suzanne and MaryAnn eventually made it to the border — multiple times — and worked with the children coming up from Mexico. I had a chance to go but I just couldn’t put enough time there to be useful. It remains a regret.
This summer I was at a conference in California with a variety of folks from radically different walks of life. A dinner one night with about 20 of us was meant to dig down into the talks we had heard that day. The young woman sitting next to me introduced herself first. “Hi — I’m Gina from Austin. I am queer, married to another woman. We are both Catholic and we do work along the border. And I play in a band.”
On my other side was a woman who ran a private school in the Bronx who was also Catholic and had done border work. I said I had lived next to three Holy Cross nuns and two of them had done border work. And then the woman across from me, who runs one of the largest charities created from tech money said, “I win. My sister IS a nun!” And then we talked about the border work and why it was the story of our times. The four poor guys at the end of the table, who wanted to talk about the Big Ideas we had seen and heard at the conference that day, were left in the dust. We bonded, as women can over good food and beverages and shared missions. I asked the woman who ran the charity if she had ever been to the border and she confessed no, but she always wanted to go and I confessed the same. We made a red wine vow to make it happen. I look forward to us keeping that promise.
A few years ago a native woman I know shared with me her concern over the increasing number of native women who were disappearing from rest stop areas along the interstates here in the West and in even greater numbers disappearing in Canada. It sounded crazy to me and so I did a small amount of research and learned the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (and Girls) exists to raise awareness about the missing. In Canada — there is a specific place from Prince George to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, that has become known as the Highway of Tears where native women have disappeared in large numbers. A CBC news report back in 2016 worked with activists who collected names of the missing — they had numbers topping 1,000. The investigation said they stopped counting at 4,232. An art project created in 2016 called the REDress project has red dresses hanging in trees in prominent public parks in Canada to focus on the missing and murdered indigenous women.
I don’t know that we have a name for the roads between California, Oregon and Washington leading from Mexico into Canada or those from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. I can’t find a reliable number of the women and girls who have been murdered or who are still listed as missing/disappeared but it is in the thousands.
This week the case of the missing young blonde white woman from Florida (who, as in all things strange, ended up for awhile in Utah) took over the news everywhere. Her body was discovered in a remote location in Grand Teton National Park. And while there are lots of things we don’t know, what we do know is all the law enforcement folks from multiple jurisdictions in multiple states jumped into motion, and it was the biggest news story on all the network stations including hours of coverage with experts on CNN night after night.
As a parent of both male and female humans (and grandparent of even more) I tried to imagine what I would feel like if either of those missing “children” had been mine — I would be moving heaven and earth to get answers. What I did do is I made myself revisit some of the stories of native/indigenous women whose remains have never ever, ever been found. No longer dozens of missing women, hundreds of missing women, now thousands of missing young women with brown skin whose families have begged law enforcement to keep looking for their daughters, sisters, mothers.
Closure is such an overused expression and sometimes it is a desire without much tangible hope. When the desire for closure is more an illusion — it becomes a lost hope — caught in a tacky dream catcher, purchased at a truck stop, off an interstate, in a place where the wind blows all the time and the sun is scorching hot, when the winds aren’t icy cold. It is an extreme lonely country without a bunch of blonde blue-eyed pretty folks of means who play well on the evening news. This is not meant in any way to diminish the pain and suffering both the families of Gabby and Brian are feeling. But there is a drumbeat in the distance that has been faint for decades and is now getting louder. Justice for all … for all … for all. For all the young women missing day after hopeless Sunday, in and outside all the parks and parkways and windswept parking lots.
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. She has been a member of the TED community since 2007 and founded TEDxParkCity in 2009.
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“The connected aspens are a good reminder of how things can be distinctly separate and independent above the ground but underneath — where they are rooted and where it matters — they are all interconnected,” writes Teri Orr.