"tell them that she even though she called the police a few times when he hit her she would [later] drop the charges. [we] could not use [that evidence] in court. he got away with murder."
Vanessa Otero, 21, oldest daughter, second of four children, kind, intelligent, beautiful, funny, popular, serious, diligent, loving. Vanessa at 21: a junior studying Psychology at Jersey City State and working part-time, a daughter mourning the recent loss of her father, a sister/cousin/niece, the delight of the family, a newlywed who lived with her husband of two years above the laundromat owned by his parents. Vanessa was 21 when she was killed in 1997, a bullet from a sawed-off shot gun pierced the right side of her forehead. Vanessa whose casket was positioned so the left side of her body faced the mourners because the stitching on the fatal wound could not be hidden. Vanessa whose famously long curls were shorn to the shoulder, a necessary cut we were told, in the failed effort to save her life. Vanessa's husband Jose Mendoza had arrived from his DJ gig drunk, violent, ready to fight. Knocky, his best friend, told us later that Jose had planned the murder: 'i'm going to kill her tonight' he'd said while they unloaded his equipment from the car and brought it up the two flights to the apartment where Vanessa had been sleeping. Knocky, the only one to hear these words, precursors to the events minutes later, lied on the witness stand, 'he loved her more than anything' he said. Jose served six years. This is a refusal to bear witness.
I search online for the news stories, look for the obituary, try to find the reports, and I come up empty-handed. I click page after page, but the internet, it seems, has scrubbed clean what I remember very clearly: being woken up by mami whispering, 'mataron a Vanessa,' and walking to the laundromat by moon-and-street light, waiting for answers. I remember my father, unmoored by the loss of his niece, his suffering only an echo of her mother's and siblings' pain. I remember the line for Vanessa's wake wrapping around 6th and Washington Street and my family inconsolable for all the accompaniment in grief. I remember the reporters and cameras and the papers with photos and the stories about the girl who was so loved in Hoboken. I remember that her burial was on picture day, that I went to school in the afternoon to sit red-and-swollen eyed for my 8th grade photo, that after school my best friend Dana and I went to get a slice of pizza at Benny's where two men joked about how 'the girl probably deserved it' and how she 'probably cheated'. This too, is a refusal to bear witness.
I asked my aunt for permission to write about Vanessa here. She wants you to know that Vanessa called the police on multiple occasions. Jose had a history of hitting her, threatening her, and she was afraid. She wants you to know that Vanessa dropped the charges every time, that those reports couldn't be used in court. We know that her in-laws, the Mendoza's, knew more than anyone else: they heard the fighting, saw the bruises, negotiated with the police, pleaded for Jose to stop. They'd told Vanessa to leave, to be careful, but they too lied on the stand. This is a refusal to bear witness.
There were so many possible witnesses to these violences against Vanessa. We know that there is more to Vanessa's life than what the official transcripts and court-documents could ever tell us. We, who hold the memory of her, were not there on the night of October 25th.
It has been nearly nineteen years since Vanessa. I search and cannot find her.
"The avoidable tragedies of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Falcon Heights Minnesota - and other places we don't happen to have cameraphone footage of."
[NY Magazine 10 July 16. Approval Matrix: Highbrow/Despicable]
When I heard the news of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile I was thousands of miles away from Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights.* I was away in Europe and the distance removed me from the immediacy of the mourning, the vigils, protests, the reeling punctuated by love and fear and fury. I witnessed this tumult of feeling from afar, trying to come to terms with how digital technology provided an ability to witness these deaths on social media sites in the form of automatic rolling videos and still photos. Horror on loop. And even as this footage showed so explicitly the violation of human life, many viewers engaged in an act of refusal. Instead of bearing witness to these murders, the video evidence was wielded against the dead over and again in op-eds comments sections, and conservative media (yes, I regularly dive into the chasm of the comments section, but I never feed the trolls).
Then on August 1st: Korryn Gaines, a 23-year old mother murdered by police as she cradled her 5-year old son in her arms. Her child, the sole witness, was also shot. Then on August 2nd, news outlets reported the murder of 23-year old Joyce Quaweay, beaten to death by her husband and his best friend (now former police officers) in front of her two daughters ages 2 and 10-months. There is no footage for Korryn and Joyce and Vanessa. For them we must make the choice to faithfully witness that which can never be seen. We are well versed in this labor.
We stand at an intersection: state-sponsored and intimate violence.
How do we witness faithfully at this intersection? In light of widely circulated footage? In the face of refusal? In instances where there is no camera or no documentation?
What do we call this labor? A labor of love and fury. An ethics beyond coloniality.
In my most recent academic writing (forthcoming) on Latinx Caribbean decolonial feminist thought and women of color feminisms, I propose that what fuels us toward radical relational decolonial praxes is "love and fury." That is, a love of one another across difference, a decolonial love steeped in differential consciousness that strives toward myriad forms of liberation, and a fury ignited by the living realities of coloniality (gender, power, being, knowledge, etc.).
In the face of state and intimate violence we are told that the "smoking gun" evidence of brutality, of surrender met with mercilessness, can supposedly induce sympathy from the viewing (and purportedly believing) public, and in some imaginaries leads to more reasonable uses of force. And yet, we know that even seeing is not believing when privilege and power (re)write the scripts. But, faithful witnesses have believed before the ubiquitous video, they remember the evidence that never made it to trial, they read against the tropes that render us eliminable. We have been faithful watchers without having to see.
We know the value of their lives over and against the faulty litmus tests of doubted digital footage, refusals to bear witness, and incomplete archives. In a time of love and fury, which branches farther than our imaginaries, we can choose to be faithful witnesses.
Vanessa's life and death is scrubbed from the internet, there is no trace of her there. We don't know who she would be now, but we can imagine that she'd be a more beautiful and loving version of herself.
** The term 'love and fury' bears a striking resemblance to the term 'love and rage' or 'amor y rabia' which is linked to revolutionary and anarchist movements (including the Zapatistas). This term of 'love and rage' also came up in the Dialogo Global (see previous note) during the lectures of Nelson Maldonado-Torres. My use of the term does not have any known relation to those contexts but rather emerged in January 2016 while I was writing an article on the relationship between postcolonial and decolonial feminisms. In talking about the kinds of oppressions we respond to as decolonial feminist thinkers and activists, I began to feel frustrated and feverish as if there was a ball of fire in my chest and throat, and it was there that the idea for 'fury' came along with with 'love' because it is only through, with, and for love that we can endure such pain.