Bertha Rendon and 500 Austinites raise their voices for justice for Vanessa Guillén and all victims of sexual assault.
By Lauren Castro, Photo by Connie Vazquez
Bertha Rendon, activist and founder of Arte Texas, stood at the podium with only her heart to guide her through her speech. Standing in the very park where Chicanos protested injustice in the 1980s.
More than 40 years later, the community gathered in East Austin at Edward Rendon Sr. Park, otherwise known as Chicano Park, in July to remember Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén. Over 500 people showed up, dressed in white and with flowers in hand.
“Our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles were all doing this. Because this movement is so powerful and because we have been connected to this story for so many months, I think that there was a lot of built-up emotion and anger, a lot of built-up resentment and a lot of built-up words that needed to be expressed [in my speech].”
For years, the Hispanic community has faced oppression that has led to an internal divide. From economics to education, Rendon understands the struggle that her community goes through. But she also recognizes the need for unity in times like these. She calls upon history to help guide their way.
“It’s time for us to start to find ways to bring out [our history]so people can then be able to learn it, understand it and respect it. This movement of Vanessa has brought us women and men, but mostly women, together in a way that we can relate to each other. Because that was our daughter.”
When Rendon first heard about Vanessa’s story, her 20-year-old daughter came to mind. Rendon’s daughter had been dating a soldier at Fort Hood since last June. Rendon was there to counsel her as she went through a “toxic” and “possessive” relationship.
“He had my daughter emotionally and mentally abused. Made her feel like she wasn’t pretty. Like she wasn’t smart.”
More information about Vanessa and her time at the base was revealed in the news. Rendon started to put together all the red flags from her daughter’s previous relationship. She felt as though “these girls don’t have any protection,” and that there must be a change.
“Something is happening to all of our children if we don’t really step up and start talking.”
According to Rendon, the problem is most people won’t know the signs unless they have already gone through it and received help. While in the race for the next Travis County district attorney, she learned there are sexual assault cases that “have not been held as a priority.” They’ve been sitting there for years.
“Because I come from abuse and I’ve had to get counseling and education for that, I have learned what the signals are, what the red signs are, what’s toxic, what boundaries are and what’s safe. You learn that when you’re already in the system, and that’s the problem. People that are normally just going to work, people that are serving like Vanessa did, people that are in their workplaces, in their schools, they’re not in the criminal justice system. So they’re not getting that education.”
Rendon grew up in a political family with an activist mother and a Brown Beret father. She is aware of the importance of voting and education amongst underrepresented communities. She says that we must pick up what we do know and help others understand what they don’t know.
“Being around campaigning and politics, voting signs, picketing, activism and that type of environment teaches you that it is important. But when there’s other people that haven’t been around that, when there’s other people that haven’t had parents and grandparents to educate them, they don’t know.”
The call for justice for Vanessa Guillén’s death continues as her family drives for the passing of the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill. The bill would allow military members to report sexual assault and harassment allegations to a separate independent prosecutor.
“We have a continuing cycle here in our society—a lack of education, a lack of protection, a lack of unity. The march brought us that unity that we are powerful. People are powerful. Allies are powerful, and we must stop all of this and make a difference.”