On October 8, 2020, Nicole Pastrana was severely beaten with a bat and stabbed by two guests in her rented apartment in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. She had been hosting four men, two of whom turned on her during an argument. Naked and disfigured, the transgender woman limped to a nearby hospital before being transferred to another medical center in critical condition, with trauma to the head and four open wounds across her body.
Months later, Pastrana hasn’t fully recovered. She’s in counseling and recently required an operation as a result of one of her injuries — a stab wound to her chest.
Her friends and family were shocked to learn that one of the attackers was a neighbor Pastrana had known in Rio Piedras, on the island’s northern coast.
“I am very upset,” said Karina Torres, a close friend of Pastrana who is also transgender. “When it’s someone close to you—someone you’ve known for many years—going through all of this during such a difficult time, it makes you feel sad. I feel unprotected.”
It’s understandable that Pastrana is now in seclusion. Ivette Rodriguez, the supervisor at the AIDS treatment center where she works, said Pastrana is at home, recovering. (Pastrana did not respond to two messages left for her.)
THE HORRIFIC NUMBERS
Puerto Rico, which has only 1% of the United States population, accounted for 15% of transgender killings in 2020 — more than any state, according to the Human Rights Campaign. There were at least seven cases of deadly violence towards this demographic in the last year alone; six people were shot to death. Non-fatal violence, as occurred with Pastrana, is also exceedingly common on the island. The result is that trans and gender non-conforming Puerto Ricans live in fear.
On Jan. 24, P.R. Governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency related to gender violence. Though the governor’s press statement did not specifically mention transgender people, much of the press coverage cited those killings.
(This story first appeared in Palabra, the online magazine for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.)
Sheilla Rodriguez-Madera, a Florida International University professor, attributes the increase in cases of violence to misogyny and hate. “Violence against this population happens in multiple levels of society — structural, interpersonal and institutional,” she said. “The hate against women in the context of Puerto Rico [is] undeniable.”
The prodigious transphobic violence on the island is attributed to the strong influence of socially conservative religion. The majority of victims are trans women of color. Homophobia, misogyny and gender violence are also catalysts; it’s often male aggressors lashing out after discovering the birth-assigned sex of a trans woman during a romantic or sexual encounter. Both trans men and women experience abuse and dating violence.
“I don’t think anyone feels safe existing as they are on the island,” said Charlie Rosario, a Puerto Rican trans man and grad student at the University of Florida who began his gender transition only after leaving the island in 2015. “There’s a lot of sexism and homophobic dialogue in general, so imagine not even being brave enough to come out as gay [and then] trying to transition as a male-identified individual… It’s different too, because I am a trans man and this is disproportionately affecting trans women of color.”
The list of trans people stabbed to death or gunned down recently in Puerto Rico is grueling to read.
The first incident, which brought national attention to the issue and the island, was the murder of Alexa Negrón Luciano on February 24. The homeless transgender woman was killed on the side of a road in Toa Baja, after becoming the subject of mockery on social media thanks to a run-in with the police. She had been wrongfully accused of using a mirror to spy on strangers from beneath the stalls of a restaurant restroom — a mirror she used to look over her shoulder in case of a violent threat. On her 29th birthday, Negrón was found dead. She had been shot multiple times.
During a press conference that took place the day Negrón died, then-Governor Wanda Vazquez misstated her gender while pledging to increase defense against all violent crime on the island. A day later, Vazquez called it a hate crime and a crime against women. Amid what was finally recognized as a surge in femicides in Puerto Rico, a state of emergency was not declared until last month.
After Negrón’s death, a video had surfaced, showing a group of men approaching Negrón in a vehicle. The video shows the men shouting obscenities and threatening to kill her, before loading a gun and firing 10 rounds. The men were questioned by the police, only to be released when one of them claimed it was an air gun merely meant to scare her. Almost a year later, the case has yet to be solved.
Negrón’s death ignited a national outcry. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren condemned the case, tweeting “I’m heartsick for Alexa and her loved ones. This epidemic keeps growing. We must use every tool we have to end it and protect trans women of color.” Reggaetón artist Bad Bunny paid tribute to her on the “Tonight Show,” wearing a T-shirt with the message “They killed Alexa; not a man in a skirt.” His blunt message was a condemnation of how initial media reports on the island misidentified her.
“Alexa brought the attention of locals particularly because it was a very cruel situation, and after that, it was like a catalyst,” says FIU’s Rodriguez-Madera. “After that, the media—and social media particularly—has been following up on what is going on with violence towards this population.”
In the last 13 months, incidents of violence against trans people in Puerto Rico include:
- Yampi Mendez Arocho, a 19-year-old trans man, was murdered on March 5 in Moca, a small town in the far northeastern corner of the island. He had been assaulted by a female acquaintance five hours before being shot three times.
- On April 13, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, another trans woman, was found hanging in a cell at a men’s prison in Bayamón. A fellow inmate was charged with murder, accused of throwing away a cloth allegedly used to strangle her. Díaz Ramírez had been beaten prior to her death.
- On April 21, Serena Angelique Velázquez Ramos and Layla Pelaez Sánchez were shot and left in a burning car under a bridge in Humacao, near a nature preserve. Two men were charged with murder and federal hate crimes—the first such prosecution in the island’s history. Velázquez, who was from Queens, had come home for a visit. Sánchez had recently moved to the island.
- Michelle Michellyn Ramos Vargas was killed on September 30 in San German. The nursing student was found on a road near an isolated farm with multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
- On January 15, Samuel Edmund Damián Vargas, a trans man, was shot to death in Trujillo Alto, 15 miles outside of San Juan. His body was found after a driver accidentally hit his corpse on the road. Police have yet to announce any motive or suspects.
Last June, Governor Vazquez signed a new civil code prohibiting corrections to the sex designation on individuals’ birth certificates, instead allowing a side annotation next to birth sex. Critics argue this could subject transgender people to further discrimination and possibly even physical harm as it would disclose transgender identity. The new civil code contradicts a 2018 court order in a case titled Arroyo González v. Rosselló Nevares that ruled in favor of transgender Puerto Ricans changing the sex marker on their birth certificates.
Although the island still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing violence against its most vulnerable populations, trans individuals have shown notable resilience in the face of oppression.
Activist Karina Torres met Nicole Pastrana more than 10 years ago when they were sex workers in Rio Piedras. In 2006, Torres founded Trans Tanamá, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources like HIV testing to trans and nonbinary people and their partners.
Pastrana became known in the transgender community for her involvement with Puerto Rico CoNCRA, a community network for clinical services and health advancement. She can be seen raising awareness of HIV in videos on the organization’s Facebook page.
Pastrana has alleged to police that three of the four men who visited her were involved in the attack; two of them were arrested for attempted murder. The others have so far faced no repercussions for their alleged involvement in the assault. Justice for Pastrana and her loved ones remains unclear, and the case can become lost in a notoriously corrupt and misogynist whirl of Puerto Rican politics, like that of Alexa Negrón and so many more before her.
“Nicole is a very joyful person,” Torres says. “She likes sharing and has always put in a lot of effort to help the trans community. Who knows what’s going to happen moving forward, if this could be cleared up so that these people pay for what they did.”
Story by Ursula Muñoz Schaefer. Video by Muñoz Schaefer, Dabney Richards and Vanessa Sanchez.