EL PASO – Esther Chavez Cano was no bigger than many of women and children she stood up for.
“Esther, I remember as being short, smaller than most of us in this room, but oh, she was so powerful,” said UTEP professor Kathy Staudt.
Cano’s small, unassuming stature was misleading. She was relentless in her efforts, and her voice, which spoke for the scores of women who were abducted, raped and brutally murdered out in the desert shanties of Cd. Juarez, Mexico, was heard around the world.
“She taught communities, regionally, nationally and internationally, that there is honor in fighting for people who can no longer fight for themselves,” said Cynthia Bejarano, who met Cano at Casa Amiga in 1999.
On Christmas Day, another message was send to many on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Chavez had succumbed to cancer. She was 76.
A ceremony was held in Juarez two days after her death.
On Feb. 5, family, friends and community leaders gathered on the other side of the Rio Grande to commemorate Chavez’s life and accomplishments.
“I hope this ceremony honors our dear friend, Esther Chavez Cano, and unites us all to carry on her work,” said UTEP’s Associate Provost Irasema Coronado, who knew Cano well.
Family, friends and colleagues, from both banks of the river, shared poignant and often humorous and inspiring stories of the compassionate activist.
Bejarano, co-founder of Amigos de las Mujeres de Juarez, said Cano was slowly preparing everyone for her departure.
“She taught me and several other women, girls, and people that were her contemporaries how to fight the good fight,” Bejarano said.
Bejarano said one of her fondest memories was visiting the mercado (market) with Cano.
Bejarano, who was planning a wedding at the time, recalls a flower merchant who did not treat her well and, one day after a meeting, Cano negotiated with the merchant on behalf of Bejarano. This time Cano was in control.
“This is my niece, and you are going to give her whatever she wants. And the price is a good price that you’re going to give her,” Bejarano said. “She negotiated it within 30 seconds and things were always like that.”
Cynthia Morales Caro, who organized and led demonstrations with Cano, recalls Cano’s advice when choosing a name for her first child.
“She’s like ‘No, you got to give her a strong name. You got to give her something like Victoria” Caro laughed when telling the story.
Caro said she has so much to thank Cano for.
“Esther thought me that I had a voice and how to use that voice,” Caro said.
Victor Munoz, co-chair of the Coalition against Violence toward Women and families at the border, said Cano established Casa Amiga in her 60s, at a time when most people are thinking of retiring or looking forward to their restful years.
“She started this challenge to society and to the government authorities to do something about the deaths of the women,” Munoz said.
Cano brought widespread attention to the hundreds of women murdered along the border and the way apathetic Mexican officials mishandled the cases.
In the 1990s, Cano began investigating and doing the difficult footwork that Mexican authorities and officials were accused of taking lightly. She collected news clippings and gathered factual information related to the missing and murdered women.
She frequented the local newspaper with her columns, which often included the horrific details of the femicide, a term defining the mass numbers of murders of women, which mostly still remain unsolved, occurring in the city.
In 1993, Cano started organizing marches, leading demonstrations and increasing awareness as a means of focusing attention on the problem in Juarez, which is now commonly referred to as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
“Now more than ever, we need more Esthers in the world. People who take action,” Coronado said.
The death toll in Juarez increases day by day, while warring cartels fight to supply the U.S. demand for drugs. Some 5,000 murders have been reported in the past three years since Mexican president Felipe Calderon announced a War on Drugs.
In 1999, Cano founded Casa Amiga, the first rape and crisis center in Juarez. The non-governmental organization empowers victims of violence’s and shelters women and children from their abusers in the border region.
Casa Amiga serves thousands of Juarenses a year.
Mark Lusk, director of the social program at UTEP, helped initiate the partnership that sends students across the bridge to volunteer at Casa Amiga.
Lusk only knew Chavez for a few years, but he immediately noticed her ability to reach people, such as the students in the exchange program. Lusk said she was the best role model his students could have.
“When they were around Esther they were just in awe,” Lusk said.
He also said if anybody qualified to be a candidate for sainthood, “it would have to be Esther Chavez Cano.”
Cano was born in the city of Chihuahua, where she worked as an accountant before moving to Juarez in the 1980s. She stayed in grassroots organizations thereafter.
Chavez received many awards for her efforts such as the Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation and Mexico’s National Human Rights Award in 2008. On Dec. 10, Juarez’s city council ordered a street to be named after her.
Councilman Beto O’Rourke, on behalf of the Mayor and Council of the City of El Paso, proclaimed Feb. 5, 2010 be known as Esther Chavez Cano day.