Esther Chávez Cano: An Army of One

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Esther Chavez Cano

Esther Chávez Cano (Courtesy of Victor Munoz)

EL PASO — She stood five feet two inches tall in her sensible heels. With her short-cropped blonde bob and piercing blue eyes behind rounded spectacles, Esther Cano looked more like a school librarian than a scrappy fighter for human rights for women in crime-plagued Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

But Cano, who died of cancer on Christmas Day at age 75, could definitely deliver a mighty wallop and often did, taking aim at political indifference and the lack of legal and police protection for women victims of violence in Mexico.

Some who gathered in El Paso recently to celebrate Cano’s life and activism remember her as, “an army of one.”

Esther Cano's nieces, Marta Strobach (left) and Sylvia Berdeja (right)

Esther Cano's nieces, Marta Strobach (left) and Sylvia Berdeja (right), listen to speakers at a recent gathering to celebrate Cano's life.(David Smith-Soto/Borderzine.com)

“She said she was not a saint or Mother Teresa but just a human-being fighting for justice,” said niece Marta Strobach.

The diminutive “güera,” or blonde, as some friends affectionately call Cano, was largely responsible for bringing international media attention to the previously ignored murders of hundreds of women and girls in the scrappy border town of 2 million residents, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, TX.

As pink crosses with the words “ni una más” (not one more) proliferated on Juarez lamp posts, street corners and a prominent border crossing, so did news stories and a slew of movies about the grisly murders of young, single, working-class women and girls in Juarez.

Esther Chavez Cano memorial in El Paso

UTEP's Associate Provost, Dr. Irasema Coronado (left), and Dr. Kathy Staudt (right), listen to Cynthia Bejarano of Amigas de las Mujeres de Juarez (David Smith-Soto/Borderzine.com)

Professor Socorro Tabuenca, a friend and fellow rights activist, recalls Cano’s tireless determination. Once, during a protest march in front of the Juarez cathedral, Cano requested that she and others, including a nun, sing out loud so others would join in the march. Click here to read Tabuenca’s reflections on Cano in Spanish.

During the 1990’s, a time when Mexican politicians and law enforcement were oblivious to crimes against women, Cano began combing through newspaper archives and other sources for names of victims, dates, information on family members, and other relevant details of each disappearance, every body discovered in an isolated neighborhood or desolate field.

She eventually amassed an extensive database of relevant information. Click here for the Esther Cano collection at the NMSU library.

Not satisfied to just document the murders, she wrote (click here to read two of her columns) often in the local newspaper about women’s rights, domestic violence and called on authorities to investigate the growing murders.  In 1999, she convinced a relative to lend her a house in central Juarez to open a rape crisis center. Later, a group of local businessmen donated a house and Casa Amiga found a permanent home.  Cano raised money to run the center through fundraisers and private donations, and the center expanded its mission to help victims of domestic violence.

In 2004, the murders of women caught the attention of playwright Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, who brought a number of U.S. and Mexican actresses to El Paso-Ciudad Juarez for a bi-national march that drew thousands.  Later, Ensler wrote a story in Marie Claire magazine about her visit to the border and the crimes against women, which were referred to in the press as “femicide.” ( Click here to read Ensler’s story).

The event drew worldwide press attention and later in 2004 Cano received an International Human Rights Award in London, and in 2008 she won Mexico’s National Human Rights Award.

Despite the accolades, Cano remained grounded in the grassroots human rights activity she started two decades ago.

“Soon there will come a time when my voice becomes silent so that new voices can be heard,” Cano wrote on her website recently. “Voices that will carry forward the cause of women and also the cause of men leading us all to a more just and democratic society.”

Memorial to Juarez's murdered women 2004

Memorial to Juarez's murdered women and girls at a Juarez border crossing into El Paso, 2004. (Courtesy of David Smith-Soto)

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Related links:

V-Day obituary of Cano

Los Angeles Times obituary of Cano

NMSU librarian Molly Molly’s memorial to Cano

Los Angeles Times story about a recent ruling against Mexico for failing to investigate the murders of three women in Ciudad Juarez in 2001.

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