Note: Kimberly Avila has been described by her sister Ivon Rodarte and members of the Rio Grande Valley LGBTQ community as identifying as genderfluid.
Family members, friends, and community members have used she/her/hers and he/him/his pronouns when talking about Avila. During our interview with Ivon, she used both pronouns when talking about her sibling. Her quotes are printed exactly as Ivon stated them. After a conversation with Avila’s family, we will use the name Kimberly Avila and use she/her/hers pronouns, as that was how her community knew her.
It was a quiet spring evening at Elida Avila’s Brownsville home. Her daughter Kimberly Avila was dressed up and thinking of going out that night when their family decided to gather last minute. They started playing chalupa, and Kimberly began handling the cards, reading them out loud to the family.
After several hours at home, past midnight, Kimberly asked her sister, Ivon Rodarte, if she could give her a ride. The two hopped into Ivon’s car and headed to the downtown district in Brownsville.
“She was real happy,” Ivon said. “There was nothing that you would say was worrying her, concerning, or nothing like that.”
Kimberly would usually kiss her sister when saying goodbye, but this time she just hopped out of the car and said, “See you in the morning. I love you.”
Those early morning hours on May 12, 2017, was the last time Ivon saw Kimberly.
Kimberly was born in Brownsville on Oct. 12, 1984, and spent the majority of her life in the border city. Her sister described her as a loving sibling with many hobbies. Kimberly was also a well-known person in the Brownsville LGBTQ community.
“She was real smart. She was a very good student,” Ivon said. “She loved writing; she always loved music. Always. She loved to dance. She loved to sing. Those were some of her hobbies.”
Ivon points to Britney Spears, Shania Twain, and later on Lady Gaga, as some of Kimberly’s favorite singers and influences. Kimberly had a journal that she would like to write in from time to time, but more often than not, she would use that journal to draw.
“She drew a lot,” Ivon said. “She would always draw. She would draw dolls, the clothes. She was really good at that.”
When Kimberly came out to her family, everyone was very accepting, according to the older sibling.
“We are a very close family,” Ivon said. “We loved her so much. When she decided to tell us, my mom, my dad, all of us told him you are our child; we are always going to be here for you. Always. You don’t have to be afraid of us turning our backs on you.”
Kimberly spent a lot of time with her sister, including taking care of her kids when Ivon needed a babysitter. Ivon had been expecting Kimberly to be at her home when she woke up the morning of May 12, 2017. When Kimberly didn’t return, it caused alarm due to how unusual it was.
“She knew she was going to go home to my house, ‘cause she was going to babysit my kids the next morning,” Ivon said. “So no matter what, no matter if she was drunk, or not drunk, she would always go home.”
After realizing that her sibling had not arrived, Ivon, called their mother, Elida Avila, and found that she was not at her home either. She immediately started calling hospitals and police departments across Cameron County inquiring if Kimberly was there. After work that day, the family went back downtown to where Ivon last saw her sibling. They started going through the different alleyways and streets, asking people nearby if they had seen their family member.
“Hours passed by and we couldn’t find him,” Ivon said. “I knew something was wrong.”
The Brownsville Police Department soon got involved, after Ivon contacted them, and they opened a missing person case.
It has been more than a year since Kimberly Avila went missing, and during that time, Ivon has started to feel that the Brownsville Police Department hasn’t been doing everything they can to find Kimberly. Ivon believes that if the missing person was straight and cisgender that the force and local politicians would have more urgency in their search.
“Because of his gender, I feel that they are not doing much,” she said. “I feel like they are not doing enough to help us. It’s been over a year, and we are out there almost every day, putting up flyers, and on the streets. Then the next day, the flyers are torn, burned, cut off. They are down.”
No one has been able to figure out who or if one or more people are tearing down the flyers.
Someone at the department told Rodarte’s mother, Elida, “If it was up to me, I would have already closed the case a long time ago. Because we have no leads, nothing, but it’s open because of [Detective Melissa Gonzalez].” Detective Gonzalez being one of the only supportive members of the force that has been working closely with the family, according to Ivon.
“It’s frustrating. It’s very frustrating,” she said of her experience with the department. “I think they are not giving us the support that we need.”
Another reason why some community members feel the police has not done enough or progressed in this case is due to the department’s stigmatized reaction to Kimberly’s sex work.
“We have heard about that [theory], but see, regardless of what he did, their job is to help us,” Ivon said. “If they are not doing their job because of what he did, then that’s discriminating. Just because my brother had a different way of life or a certain way of life, doesn’t mean that they should not help search for him [or that] he deserved it… That’s still my brother you are talking about. That’s my mom’s son. That’s someone we love.”
Nell Gaither, who is president of Trans Pride Initiative, a transgender justice organization in the Dallas area, says she has seen various ways in which police have neglected the transgender community.
“[They are] dismissing of persons who are not heteronormative or cisgender,” Gaither said of her experience of dealing with police when a trans person has been missing. “We’ve had arguments with the police when they misgender somebody, even presenting them on their blog as their birth-assigned sex rather than how they actually present… I think unfortunately a lot of people don’t care. It’s easy to write off somebody that is nonconforming and it especially happens when somebody is engaging in an underground economy like sex work or any other kind of survival work.”
There are no national or state-level numbers when it comes to missing or disappeared trans people. The report “A Time To Act: Fatal Violence Against Transgender People In America 2017” by Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition does document the tragic, widespread epidemic of trans people being killed in this country. They calculated that in 2017, there were 28 trans people murdered in the U.S. There are other reports from organizations, like National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and Black & Pink, that cover partner violence, bias violence, and issues that trans people face while incarcerated, but there appears to be no report that documents missing or disappeared trans people.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody talk about that specific demographic,” Gaither said. “I’m sure [disappearances and missing persons cases] disproportionately affects trans and queer persons, especially folks who work in the underground economy, because that tends to mean you get overlooked and people don’t look for you.”
While Ivon has been upset with the lack of support she’s received from the police department and elected officials, she is very appreciative of the support the family has received from local LGBTQ organizations. In May, on the anniversary of Kimberly’s disappearance, a vigil was organized in the area where she was last seen by the South Texas Equality Project (STEP).
“It was very, very emotional,” Ivon said. “That place means a lot to me because that was the last place I saw him.”
The support continued at this year’s Pride in the Park, also organized by STEP. Ivon shared some words on her sibling as Kimberly was honored as one of the grand marshals of the event. She was accompanied by her family, who were all wearing shirts with Kimberly’s photo on them.
“That means a lot to us, ‘cause we are going through a very, very hard time,” Ivon said of the LGBTQ community’s efforts. “We are getting a lot of support from the LGBTQ community. I feel they are giving us all the support that the police department is not giving us. So we are very grateful.”
Ivon Rodarte is not giving up hope and continues to urge community members to not forget about the search for her sibling, Kimberly. She dreams of being able to find Kimberly and telling her about all the people who supported the family in their search during these past 14 months. With every day that passes, she hopes that she will soon find out what happened to Kimberly Avila.