Pressure mounts on Brownsville officials over disappearance of Kimberly Avila

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 both 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.

Almost every weekend, Ivon Rodarte and her family go to downtown Brownsville to put up flyers of their missing sibling, Kimberly Avila.

Avila, a genderfluid person from the Rio Grande Valley is a well known member of Brownsville’s LGBTQ community. She went missing more than a year ago on May 11, 2017, after her sister dropped her off in the downtown district of Brownsville. It’s been 18 months since anyone has seen or heard of Avila since then, with still no updates as to what might have happened that day or the possible whereabouts of Avila.

Throughout, Rodarte and her family have been working tirelessly to find out exactly what happened to their sibling. Posting flyers is just one of the ways they fight to keep Avila’s story and her case alive. But almost every weekend, they get torn down.

It’s an issue Rodarte said she and her family have pointed out to the Brownsville Police Department before, but they just sidetrack their questions and concerns.

“It’s been over a year and a half and they do it every single week,” Rodarte said about the flyers that are vandalized and destroyed. Once, the Brownsville Police Department told her the posters were being torn by someone who is “mentally ill.” Rodarte didn’t buy the explanation; it strikes her as incredibly odd that it’s just the flyers relating to the disappearance of Avila that are being torn down, burned down in some cases.

Avila’s family at the Transgender Day of Remembrance gathering at UTRGV Edinburg.

Still, Rodarte and her family refuse to give up. They put up the flyers. Every weekend. And every weekend, they get torn down.

Like a symbol of their struggle, the flyers speak volumes to what appears to be a larger theme of what Avila’s family and supporters are now describing as a pattern of official apathy and indifference.

In an interview with Neta, Rodarte said those sentiments extend well beyond the flyers. In general, she said she and her family have felt dismissed and confused throughout their interactions with officers and hurt by what they perceive as a systemic lack of care and support.

More than once, she said the police have dismissed her family’s concerns, offering that perhaps Avila just ran away. In their hearts, however, the Avila family can’t believe that. They are confident that Avila knew how much she was loved and that she would not run away from them.

At times, the Brownsville Police Department has been openly disrespectful. In one particular instance, Rodarte said one officer went as far as to imply Avila was to blame for her own disappearance. According to her, in that instance the officer told Elida Avila, Kimberly Avila’s mother, that because of what Avila “did,” an allusion to sex work, and Avila’s “lifestyle,” a reference to her identity, that Avila had to know what was “coming.”

“Like why would you even mention something like that to my mom?” Rodarte questioned. “How do you think that makes us feel?”

To their credit, Rodarte said it wasn’t always this way with the Brownsville police. She noted that she felt that the detective that was in charge of the case previously, Detective Melissa Gonzalez, was doing an earnest effort to try to find Avila.

“I have nothing bad to say about her because I could see how much she was working hard,” Rodarte said. According to Rodarte, on one occasion the police chief actually admitted to her mother that had it been up to him, the Avila case would have been closed already; it was only thanks to Gonzalez’s work that the case remained open.

But Gonzalez has transitioned to a different role in the Brownsville Police Department and now, with new people on the case, Rodarte feels that Avila is falling victim to indifference and discrimination that she can’t help but see rooted in her genderfluid identity.

“But that shouldn’t matter, he’s still my brother, he’s still a human being,” Rodarte said. “He’s still missing and they are not doing anything.”

It’s not just the Brownsville Police Department that has failed to give her and her family support, Rodarte said; it’s also local officials.

Courtesy of Ivon Rodarte

The Mayor of Brownsville, Tony Martinez, she noted, has refused to make any statement regarding the disappearance of Kimberly Avila, even after the local publicity the case has garnered.

According to Rodarte, at one point Commissioner District 2 Brownsville City Commissioner Jessica Tetreau Kalifa promised Rodarte that she would help the family with their search. To Rodarte’s knowledge, however, the help never came.

On August 3, 2017 at a South Texas Equality Project (STEP) press conference,Tetreau Kalifa did promise the LGBTQ community and supporters that were present that she would donate $200 for the search for Kimberly Avila, but Rodarte said she doesn’t know whether or not the donation ever materialized.

Throughout the family’s ordeal, one of the only and consistent groups to stand by the family’s side has been STEP. Most recently, they ran an advertisement about Kimberly Avila’s disappearance on the Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018 edition of the Brownsville Herald. According to Valerie Severn, Public Relations Officer with STEP and Transgender Advocate, they purchased the ad in hopes of obtaining helpful tips and to give the Avila family “some reassurance that someone cares about their child.”

When asked specifically about the donation pledge made by Tetreau Kalifa, Severn could not “confirm or deny” to Neta whether such a donation happened due to the organization’s internal policies regarding private donations.

As far as the support or lack thereof of elected officials, Severn stated that she could not “speak for the Mayor or the City of Brownsville but [that STEP] can only imagine what it has been like for the family, to go out every week and make copies of their flyer and post them all over downtown Brownsville only to see the flyers vandalized or torn down week after week.”

“That feeling of desperation and abandonment is something we hope no one would ever have to experience,” she added.

Neither Martinez nor Tetreau Kalifa responded to Neta’s emails and phone calls requesting comment.

In a second follow-up email to Tetreau Kalifa, the Commissioner was asked to confirm whether or not a donation was made to the Avila fund, but, once again, no response was received.

Speaking on behalf of her family, Rodarte insisted her family will continue fighting for Avila. “We’re not going to give up, we’re not gonna stop until we find out what happened.” Although she claimed the Brownsville Police Department and city officials have been nothing but “just pure disappointment,” she said she is deeply grateful for the help that she has received from STEP and LGBTQ community members throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

On behalf of STEP, Severn added that until Avila is reunited with her family or the Avila family finds closure, they too would remain “one hundred percent committed” to finding out what happened to Avila in the early morning hours of May 11, 2017.

Severn also urged individuals and organizations to donate to the Kimberly Avila Fund so that STEP could continue its efforts to find Avila. According to Severn, in the past similar cases involving cisgender individuals have tended to prompt community members and businesses to be more generous and willing to help raise money for efforts that may lead to more information or an arrest. Sadly, that has not been the Valley’s response to fundraising efforts for the Kimberly Avila Fund, Severn said. Severn thinks that needs to change.

To donate to the efforts to find Avila, visit any Lone Star National Bank and ask to make a deposit to the “Finding Ramiro Avila” account.

Read next: One year since the disappearance, family of Kimberly Avila remains hopeful