What Puerto Rico’s State of Emergency Means to a Mother Who Lost Her Daughter to Domestic Violence
Activists, survivors, and families have been calling for the government to take action since 2018
Nearly three years ago, Suliani Calderón Nieves, a 38-year-old health care worker in Puerto Rico, was murdered by her ex-husband in front of their two children. Since then, her mother, Sonia Nieves, has become a relentless advocate against gender violence, traveling across the island to speak to communities and call for government action.
Nieves’ activism couldn’t have come soon enough. A GEN investigation found that after Hurricane Maria in 2017, the number of women killed by their partners in the territory doubled and that the government was doing little to protect victims from their abusers. Puerto Rico has also seen a wave of murders of transgender people and an uptick in missing girls and women.
The pressure from activists, survivors, and families like Suliani’s led Gov. Pedro Pierluisi to declare a state of emergency over gender violence at the end of January. Pierluisi’s executive order freed up funding to deal with the crisis immediately, created a committee tasked with reviewing current public policy, and called for development of a mobile app to report domestic violence incidents.
We asked Nieves for her thoughts on the executive order and to explain what comes next in the fight against gender violence.
GEN: What do you think about the state of emergency declaration?
Sonia Nieves: I hope this will provide some solace for all the women who, to this day, are still suffering and fear for their lives because of gender violence. But this is just the beginning. We’re seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll see how it is implemented. I just ask God to give wisdom to everyone involved in this process.
And I hope other people will find it within themselves to have empathy and common sense so they can understand why the governor took this step. I’ve been hearing such negative, ugly comments about the state of emergency already. I hope that, at the end, people will understand why this step was taken. Gender violence destroys our society. It breaks families apart.
I know the negative comments you’re talking about. Many people argue that you need to remove gender from the equation and simply focus on the violence, or that advocates are exaggerating the scope of the crisis. And I’m sure you’ve heard the far-right lawmakers who oppose the state of emergency and have said that any public policy designed to curb gender violence is discriminatory because a higher rate of men are killed on the island — even if it’s due to other violent reasons. How would you respond to that?
Look, I have a short story. That December after my daughter was murdered, I was in the doctor’s office and a TV reporter was talking about how another young woman had been killed. I’m not sure if that trial is still pending. One of the patients in the waiting room said out loud, “They kill these women because they don’t know how to choose a partner.” I looked at her and asked whether she had daughters. She said yes. I asked her, “And did your daughters know how to choose well?” She answered yes again. I told her, “Be thankful that your daughters knew how to choose. My daughter knew how to choose well, too: a professional man who believed in God. He had no tattoos. He didn’t drink. They were together for nearly 16 years. But he ended up killing her in front of my grandchildren.” The lady got up and left because she didn’t know how to respond.
So, how do these arguments make me feel? I wish these people could say these things in front of my face. I would not insult them. I’d just like to ask them some questions. What they don’t get is that gender violence is like cancer: Until it happens to you or your loved ones, you won’t understand. Like cancer, it requires immediate action.
What areas do you believe should be addressed most urgently?
There are so many factors that need to be attended in order to solve this crisis. What happens to the children, like my grandkids, who are left behind? How do we solve the victims’ economic situation once they leave their abusers? And what are we going to do with abusers so they can unlearn this violence and that women don’t belong to them? The father of my grandchildren believed that my daughter could only belong to him, no one else. There is also the issue of protective orders — worthless pieces of paper that the wind blows away.
We also need to prioritize what victims really need. We hear a lot about hotlines, for example, but the reality for many victims like my daughter is that they didn’t even have a phone. The abuser doesn’t want them to have any external contacts. Measures like that need to be part of a multifaceted effort that includes reform and education.
One thing we talked about in the past was your family’s desire to publish all of Suliani’s poems in a book. The book, La Mujer con Lápiz Labial Rojo, just came out. What do you want people to take away from it?
It was a mixed experience going through her poems. I cried, as you can imagine. We could publish it thanks to my son and one of the poetry groups Suliani belonged to. We couldn’t get all of her poems, because we didn’t have full access to her computer. But at least my daughter from heaven can see her dream turned into a reality. We want people to know her thoughts were on what it was like to be a woman, a mother, a survivor. It was a window into her experiences, her life.
Advocates have said the emergency declaration is a victory, but the work is not over yet. Do you agree?
At this point I’m like the Apostle Thomas when it comes to how effective the government will be: I’ll believe it when I see it. Still, I really hope that Gov. Pierluisi has an open mind and that his administration works toward short-term and long-term plans that will help victims. All I want is for us not to lose another mother like Suliani, to not see her children crying for her every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.