AUSTIN: Mourners Crave Justice at Vigil for Slain Working Mother, Revolutionaries Unite with Family to Keep Police Out

Photo: Mourners of Veneranda Martinez embrace at a vigil held on Wednesday evening.

By Mike Talavera

On December 11, a few hundred people gathered at a Montopolis lot in East Austin for a vigil commemorating the life of Veneranda Martinez-Gutierrez, the working mother of three who was killed last week by her estranged husband at the Riverside gas station where she sold tamales. The Austin Police Department (APD), who had ignored Veneranda’s repeated calls for help in response to her husband’s stalking, had originally intended on joining the event, but no police showed up after Veneranda’s family stated, with the support of local revolutionary organizations, that they did not want any police to attend.

“We want no presence on the part of the police,” her family wrote in a signed open letter that was shared by revolutionary organizations Defend Our Hoodz-Defiende El Barrio (DOH) and Popular Women’s Movement-Movimiento Femenino Popular (PWM) in the lead up to the event. The groups relayed the family’s sentiment that, the police “weren’t there for [Veneranda] in life, we don’t want them there in her death.”

The event was coordinated by Veneranda’s Catholic church, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, and it was Father Juan Barragan Mendoza who had pushed for police participation. In his speeches, he preached “the politics of nonviolence” and declared that the violence that took Veneranda’s life originated in “the human heart.” But violence does not originate in such abstract places as the “human heart,” but in the concrete nature of an exploitative and oppressive class society.

Under the glow of Christmas lights lining the house in which Veneranda used to live, parishioners distributed arroz con leche, pan dulces, and other treats as church musicians sang songs like “Behold” and “America the Beautiful.” Activists distributed English and Spanish printouts of the Incendiary article about a previous vigil held for Veneranda, while DOH and PWM members stood at the front gate holding a banner which read, “Honra a Veneranda (Honor Veneranda).” The banner and roses were later presented to Veneranda’s sister.

The packed yard was a testament to the impact that Veneranda had on her community and the outrage at her death. Her experience of being neglected by the police was one that resonated with the Montopolis crowd. One attendee named Rosita, whose husband had known Veneranda, said that she understood why police had been kept out of the event. “It takes a tragedy for them to actually listen,” she said.

The people of Montopolis do not see the police as protectors, because that is not how they act on a day-to-day basis. The patrol cars that creep down the streets of Austin’s poorest neighborhood do not inspire safety but fear. For Latin American immigrant residents, apprehension by APD and their coordination with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can mean the path towards deportation. It is clear APD does not serve the mostly Chicano and immigrant working class people of Montopolis who they target and terrorize, but the wealthier gentrifiers.

A view of the altar with a candles and a photo of Veneranda

East Riverside, where Veneranda worked, has been the focus of the Riverside Togetherness Project, a Department of Justice initiative that has increased the police presence in the area to aid in the oppression of the working class. Riverside Dr. is also the same street where the massive Domain on Riverside is set to be constructed, a gentrifying project that is still being resisted by the community under the leadership of DOH.

As they aid this invasion into workers’ neighborhoods, the police are not regarded as defenders of women. Veneranda, who pleaded for police protection in the final months of her life, heroically died by shielding her children from the gunshot fired by her estranged husband Florencio Barron (who then took his own life). She is one of thousands of women killed each year by a current or former romantic partner. Within the ranks of the police, this rate of domestic violence is significantly higher.

Instead of centering who Verenanda was, a working class mother, the police, and the bourgeois media at their behest, have chosen to focus mainly on Christopher Douglas Kempf, a 47 year old homeless man, who in conditions of grinding poverty thought he could sell the firearm he found at the murder scene before police arrived. Kemf, a convicted felon for possessing a small amount of narcotics, likely an addict, now faces substantial prison time and is in custody with a bond out of reach to anyone experiencing homelessness. This sad situation has been manipulated by police to present themselves as a righteous force and conceal their role as enemies of the poor and working people of Austin.

The city of Austin, and its police force offer no security or protection for either working people, especially undocumented workers, or the homeless population which are on the rise. Instead they use poverty conditions to justify ruining more lives, incarcerating people and allowing working women to fall prey to sexist violence. After all this, they still have the nerve to attempt to use such tragedy as a public relations stunt to rehabilitate their image.

It was these systemic problems, which are enforced by the police, that the speeches of Father Barragan and representatives from the nonprofit Stop the ABUSE did not address. The calls for loving one’s enemy or volunteering for a nonprofit were met with silence. It was not until revolutionaries made speeches that the crowd applauded, their longing for justice finally spoken to.

“The police didn’t help Veneranda, ultimately, they are part of the same corrupt system that produces men like her ex-husband. The police wanted to be involved in the vigil, so that they could look like heroes, which they are not,” the speaker from PWM said. “The only thing they care about is the image of the police department.”

When the speeches were over, many in the crowd approached DOH and PWM members asking if there would be a march for Veneranda or a protest against the police they could join. The community showed that it was not satisfied with the business-as-usual solutions offered by other speakers and that more direct action was needed.

One mother in attendance told the activists, “Us immigrants are expected to not know our rights, but even if we do, we know that authorities aren’t there for us. It’s the job of our communities to defend each other from abusers, even if they are the police.”

The reactionary violence Veneranda’s killer resorted to originates in this exploitative imperialist system and the inequality and backwards ideas it reinforces. In the US, it is imperialism that concentrates wealth for a few at the top and impoverishes and divides those at the bottom. Because of this unequal system, Veneranda and her husband both did not have the means to resolve their hardships. For Barron, who had previously been deported as so many other undocumented immigrants have, this meant there was no way to treat any mental health issues or to challenge his anti-woman views. For Veneranda, this meant there was no way to save herself from her husband’s wrath.

Revolutionaries call for the organization of working women to take matters of defense and protection into their own hands by the formation of people’s defense groups on the community level, forces which can both retaliate against abuse, mitigate conflicts, and be called upon in place of the police, who only serve the wealthy.

Veneranda’s tragic death, facilitated by US imperialism, does not diminish the heroism that she modeled for others and for her children. One of her daughter’s teachers was in attendance at the vigil. “I went to her binder and reread all of her writings,” he told Incendiary. “She put her mom as her hero and every week she wrote about their weekends, spent together around food, family, and togetherness. This student is always helping her peers and working hard with a smile that fills the room.”

Veneranda’s hardworking and community spirit lives on not only through her children but through everyone who fights back against the causes of her death.

A neighbor of Veneranda is running an online fundraiser in order to continue to support her children. Incendiary encourages readers to donate here: 

Veneranda’s altar filled with candles towards the end of the event