Meet the three Latino artists demanding ‘Justice for Soldier Vanessa Guillén’ and honoring her life by painting murals.
Juan Velázquez of Fort Worth, Texas, was following Vanessa Guillén’s story on social media when he saw her family in tears, begging for someone to help find her. The artist knew he had to do something with his art to bring attention to the soldier’s tragic death. “I was still holding on to hope that they would find her alive, and I knew I wanted to do something,” Velázquez said.
He gathered 30 local artists outside a business on Fort Worth’s Southside, and under the scorching sun, they got to work. They spent several hours painting Guillén’s image in her Army uniform on a sunflower yellow background, surrounded by bright-colored roses and next to the Virgin Mary.
As the 31-year-old artist worked on Guillén’s mural, he watched as strangers would come up to stare into her face. Sometimes for a few minutes and sometimes for an hour. He knew his art was sending them a message, and that’s what he wanted. “It’s saying we have to stand up against sexual harassment. It’s not OK. These are our daughters, our sisters. We should be protecting them and not turning a blind eye,” he said.
“It’s saying we have to stand up against sexual harassment. It’s not OK. These are our daughters, our sisters. We should be protecting them and not turning a blind eye,” Juan Velázquez said.
In press conferences, Guillén’s family had repeatedly said the Army failed to protect her, and that a superior officer at Fort Hood sexually harassed her. Guillén’s remains were found almost two months after she disappeared. Investigators say a fellow officer murdered her, but they don’t believe he ever sexually harassed her.
Velázquez also took Guillén’s death personally, because he is in the Army Reserves. As a fellow soldier, he hopes Guillén’s family understands her Army family does care what happened to her. “I’m part of the military. The military is not an institution. It’s the people. And I’m here for her. Not everyone in the military has turned their back on her,” Velázquez said.
On July 18 he painted his second mural of Guillén near downtown Fort Worth. This time her smiling face was highlighted with a backdrop of sunflower petals. Both murals have become memorials where many stop by to leave cards, candles, and roses, and several soldiers have stopped by to give her a salute or offer a prayer.
Velázquez doesn’t know if the 20-year-old’s family has seen his murals, but he hopes he has made them proud. “I want them to know they are not alone. That in Fort Worth, we care about them.”
California Artist Cherine Mendoza Finds a Purpose for Her Art
In Whittier, Calif., Cherine Mendoza was at home when she saw a video on social media of Guillén’s grief-stricken family. “I heard her mother speak at the press conference, and that killed me. It killed me…and I said, ‘This mother is crying for help. How can I help out?'”
“I heard her mother speak at the press conference, and that killed me. It killed me…and I said, ‘This mother is crying for help. How can I help out?'” Mendoza said.
The 33-year-old was overcome with sadness and immediately put those emotions into a digital piece of art of Guillén on a yellow background with sun rays beaming down on her. Mendoza posted it on Instagram, and it went viral. It got the attention of members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in Killeen, Texas. Within a few days, she and her husband were on a flight to the Lone Star State to paint a mural.
For two days, Mendoza painted the mural of Guillén on a sign outside a tattoo shop. She was always surrounded by strangers who brought her water and food as she worked in the Texas heat. Mendoza said she quietly talked to Guillén for inspiration. “I said, ‘Vanessa, you need to come through. I need this wall to be beautiful…I said, please help me.'”
Mendoza also painted Guillén’s image in her Army fatigues with two Virgin Marys, one over each shoulder. On the lower part of the mural, she painted the hashtag that has become a calling for sexual harassment victims in the military: #IAmVanessaGuillen.
Soldiers arriving and leaving Fort Hood will not be able to miss Guillén’s mural because it’s near the base’s gates. Mendoza believes it will be a constant reminder that Vanessa Guillén’s life mattered. “It’s also for future soldiers that go in 10 years from now…and don’t know about her. They’re going to go by and say, ‘Who is that?’ And then they will look up the hashtag.”
Mendoza, a wife, and mother of three, was searching for a purpose for her artwork. Because of Vanessa Guillén, now she’s found it. “All the questions I have ever had about my career and how I, as a person, can impact the world have been answered,” she said. “Making that trip and painting that mural was the most beautiful experience.”
Artist on U.S.-Mexico Border Honors Guillén With 3 Murals
Near the U.S.-Mexico border, Alexander González was on a mission to make Vanessa Guillén’s name as well-known around the country as George Floyd’s, who made national news when he died in police custody. González, known among friends as “PopC_ulture,” didn’t have much money, but enough paint to start his first mural in Donna, Texas, a small town north of the Rio Grande. “A lot of people didn’t know who she was, and I was like that’s the reason I’m doing it,” González said.
“A lot of people didn’t know who she was, and I was like that’s the reason I’m doing it,” Alexander González said.
In less than two weeks, the 27-year-old has painted three murals of Vanessa at three different locations in South Texas, each one capturing a moment in her life. Outside a car wash in Donna, González painted Guillén in her Army fatigues with the backdrop of the U.S. and Mexico flags. He was honored when Guillén’s relatives drove to the small town from Houston to see it. “It was just all love and hope. They didn’t say much; I knew they were family,” he said.
His second mural of Guillén was on the exterior wall of a barbershop in San Juan, Texas. This time it was an image of Guillén’s smiling face with a white dove flying above her as her spirit lifted into the heavens. He finished his third mural on July 16 outside a business in Weslaco, Texas. He painted Guillén in her black military dress jacket. A more serious look.
González hopes Vanessa Guillén becomes a household name, known for making other female soldiers in the Army safer from sexual harassment. “I want people to know who she was. Look at her and get to know her and now do something about it because I already did my part,” he said.