Hate in Arizona: Two Mothers Mourn Their Murdered Children
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Two Latina mothers are the main witnesses in parallel murder trials that shed light on the political climate of a state that has become a hotbed of extremism, according to human rights organizations.
The women’s stories have slipped under the radar of Arizona’s conservative political leaders, who have fueled the illegal immigration debate by shifting the spotlight to undocumented immigrants and border violence and away from deadly vigilantism.
Paula Valera, Mother of Juan Varela
Paula Varela testified recently about the day she watched her son, Juan Varela, fall to the ground after he was fatally shot in the head a few feet outside his home in South Phoenix on May 6, 2010.
She took the stand as a key witness in the murder trial of the man accused of gunning him down, their next-door neighbor, Gary Kelley.
According to Kelley’s attorney, Kelley approached Juan Varela to talk about Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, and shot Varela in self-defense.
But Juan Varela’s brother, Anthony, testified that Kelley, who was drunk at the time, was armed and looking for more than neighborly conversation.
Kelley reportedly yelled racial slurs at his neighbor and said, “You f-----g Mexican, go back to Mexico!"
Varela, 44, and his family are Mexican Americans who have lived in Arizona for several generations.
In the aftermath of the passage of SB 1070 -- one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the nation --the Varela family’s attempt to highlight the murder as a hate crime has gone largely unnoticed. And so has the trial of his accused killer.
Gina Gonzalez, Mother of Brisenia Flores
Varela’s mother is not alone in her sorrow. Another mother recently took the stand in a different trial in Tucson for a shooting that happened almost a year before Varela’s. This time the victims were a 9-year-old girl and her father.
On May 30, 2009, Gina Gonzalez pretended to be dead after intruders shot her and fatally shot her husband Raul Flores inside their home in Arivaca, Ariz., a town about 13 miles from the Mexican border.
She listened as her 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores, pleaded for her life. Then the shooter reloaded the gun and killed the little girl.
The alleged ringleader of the crime is 42-year-old Shawna Forde, a leader of Minuteman American Defense (MAD), an armed watch group whose goal is to detain and report undocumented immigrants attempting to cross the border. Prosecutors argue that Forde tried to finance her anti-immigrant activities with robberies like the one that led to the fatal shootings in 2009. She is facing the death penalty.
Jury deliberations have started in the Varela murder case, and are expected to begin this week in the Flores shootings.
Where Were the Media?
Carlos Galindo, a local pro-immigration activist and radio talk-show host, calls the case of Brisenia Flores a “red flag.” If Arizona politicians and communities had rallied against the killing of the 9-year-old and her father, he says, Juan Varela might never have been slain.
Galindo believes Varela’s murder would have created an uproar in Arizona but for the fact that Phoenix police made early statements pushing the case under the rug, denying that it was racially motivated or related to SB 1070.
The case was later labeled a hate crime under former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, after pressure from the family with the help of ethnic media and community members like Galindo.
Galindo speaks about the murder often on his bilingual radio show on Radio KASA in Phoenix. “If you allow rhetoric to continue to escalate against a certain ethnicity, it’s going to become a situation where it’s okay to violate, to abuse and to kill,” he says.