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A mother’s struggle 20 years after trans daughter’s brutal murder

Sylvia Guerrero, whose transgender daughter Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002, sits for a portrait with a photo of her daughter on Saturday, Oct.1, 2022, in Tracy, Calif. Araujo, who spent a lot of time in San Francisco as a teenager, was beaten and strangled to death in Newark, Calif., when she was 17 years old. | Olivia Cruz Mayeda/The Standard

Sylvia Guerrero had never heard the word “transgender” until four men murdered her daughter. 

Gwen Araujo’s brutal death two decades ago drew international attention and prompted the passage of a law in her name, as well as a movie about her life. In court, two of the men who strangled, beat and buried the trans teenager claimed “gay panic.” 

Many have since forgotten Gwen. And likely even more have forgotten the woman at the center of the media storm and trial proceedings that followed: Gwen’s mother.

After the initial deluge of sympathy letters stopped arriving and donations dried up, Guerrero was left with an eviction notice, no source of income and unimaginable trauma.

“When they killed her,” Guerrero said, “they killed a part of me.”

On Tuesday, trans rights advocates and Gwen’s loved ones will gather at San Francisco’s Main Library to honor her legacy on the anniversary of her murder. Trans people are being killed in record numbers. At least 48 trans people were killed in 2021, making it the deadliest year for transgender people in the United States, where the majority of victims are Black and Latinx.

Gwen’s mother is one of the victims that transphobic violence leaves behind. Her loss has multiplied outside of the public eye in a system unequipped to support her.

Finding Acceptance in SF

Traumatized by her daughter’s murder in the East Bay city of Newark, the ensuing trials and an onslaught of invasive media attention, Guerrero has had a hard time finding a job. Yet the disability benefits she originally depended on were rejected in court.

Guerrero has few possessions at this point, but she holds on to the lessons Gwen taught her. Over the course of the teen’s life, Guerrero learned how to better support her daughter in a transphobic world. Gwen felt most accepted as a trans woman in San Francisco, according to her mother. She and Guerrero shared a deep love for the city for that reason, and in the year leading up to her murder, Gwen came to the city almost every weekend.

“I’ve always loved San Francisco,” Guerrero said. “Gwen loved going to the city because she could be herself there.”

Beto Lopez, Gwen’s childhood friend, remembered sneaking out of the house in their hometown of Newark to go to San Francisco Pride with Gwen in 2000. Lopez stood next to her on a packed BART station escalator. As the escalator ascended to the street, Gwen transformed.

“Her face lit up,” said Lopez, who came out to Gwen in high school. “She just wanted to jump into the crowd.”

A shrine to Gwen Araujo, who was murdered at age 17 in 2002 by four men who discovered she was transgender, rests in her mother’s home in Tracy, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. | Olivia Cruz Mayeda/The Standard

Guerrero always knew Gwen’s relationship to her gender was different from other kids. At first, she didn’t know how to talk about it.

When Gwen was 8, Guerrero stopped her daughter as she was getting out of the car for school and asked her if she knew she was a boy. 

“I was not perfect,” Guerrero said, reflecting on that moment decades later. “And I’m still learning.” 

Guerrero grew up with zero knowledge of gender outside the binary. She was the oldest of 11 children to immigrant parents from Irapuato, Mexico. Her father was a mushroom farmer for the Campbell Soup Company in Pescadero, where she was raised.

“When you’re in a big family, you’re either going to want a bunch of kids or you’re not going to want any,” she said. “I love children. I always have.”

Guerrero looked after her 10 younger siblings while her parents worked, getting them ready for school and packing their lunches. She taught them how to pick wild blackberries and catch salmon from the creek by their house, a place still close to her heart. 

Days before the 20-year anniversary of her daughter’s murder, Guerrero stood in front of the TV at her son’s apartment in Tracy and flipped through generic photos of Pescadero’s foggy coastline.

“This is where I sleep now,” she said, pointing to the bare floor of her son’s living room. 

Before Gwen’s death, Guerrero was a legal assistant and had a 401(k) pension account. Immediately after, she appeared on talk shows and at events with her hair styled, wearing crisp button-downs and leather boots. Now at 58, she wears flip-flops and jean shorts. Her hair is dyed black and falls flat against her back.

“I was treated differently when I was wearing my business clothes to now that I’m in shorts and have no money,” Guerrero said, waving her hand over her figure. “I don’t have my nails done. I don’t have contacts anymore. I can’t afford it.”

Her depression, anxiety and PTSD are so debilitating, Guerrero hasn’t been able to find a full-time job. She frequently encounters psychological triggers that derail her days. She can’t afford the surgery to remove an IUD that should have been taken out in 2005 and has painfully embedded itself in her uterus.

Guerrero’s community—along with members of the LGBTQ+ community—has rallied to help support her, raising almost $25,000 to help her pay her bills over the last seven years.

‘We’ll Get Through This’

Gwen was 14 when she and Guerrero were painting their nails in bed, and Gwen told her mom that she didn’t feel like a boy.

“That’s OK,” Guerrero recalled saying. “People are going to be hard on you, and it's not going to be easy. But I love you, and we’ll get through this.”

Guerrero wasn’t just a mother and confidante to Gwen and her three other children but to anyone who needed her. Most people in their neighborhood called her “mom.”’

In high school, Gwen would regularly ask Guerrero to give her friends advice on their relationships and drama at school. One of those friends was Daisy Bernal, whom Guerrero took in for three years when she was 16.

“I’ll never forget the day Sylvia opened the door to her house,” said Bernal, now a single mother of seven. “It was raining. I still call her ‘mom’ when I talk to her.”

Sylvia Guerrero kisses her own mother at Gwen Araujo’s funeral on Friday, Oct. 25, 2002, in Newark, Calif. Guerrero said she keeps the photo with her daily. | Olivia Cruz Mayeda/The Standard

A month before Gwen’s murder, Guerrero decided to talk to Gwen about her future. Gwen was going to be 18 soon and had aspirations of going to beauty school. Guerrero also knew her daughter had a drinking problem and brought up rehab.

“It was shocking,” Guerrero said. “She wasn’t mad. She was calm about it.”

On their living room sofa, Guerrero and her daughter planned out the future.

“It was a beautiful conversation that I’ll always cherish,” Guerrero said. She held her gaze as tears welled in her eyes.

As she struggles to heal and support herself, Guerrero has also found a deep appreciation for the impact of Gwen’s life.

“In her death, she’s allowed me to see how much I took for granted,” Guerrero said. “Like the little flowers on the side of the freeway that no one notices. Stuff like that. She left me with no filter, too. I think it was toxic anyway, keeping all those emotions in. Now, I express how I feel like she did.”

A Legacy Lives On

Gwen’s murder and Guerrero’s advocacy have led to legislative change. 

In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act into law, challenging the “gay/trans panic” defense used by her killers to lessen their culpability. Years later, Jerry Brown signed legislation as governor that banned the defense strategy altogether.

Bevan Dufty is the lead organizer for Tuesday’s event and has known Guerrero for years. Dufty was elected as a supervisor in San Francisco a few months after Gwen’s murder and witnessed the community organizing that followed.

“Sylvia was relentless,” Dufty said. “She was fearless, she was angry. She was insistent that the justice system would not ignore or betray her daughter.”

Back in Tracy, Guerrero examined a broken taillight on her car while holding her daughter’s framed picture in her left hand. It was warm out, and the air smelled like basil from a nearby farm.

“I’m kind of worried I’ll get pulled over,” she said, bent over and laughing, “but I roll deep with angels.”

In life, Gwen dreamed of being a part of San Francisco’s transgender community and its history. On Tuesday, Sylvia Guerrero will step into the spotlight once again to keep her daughter’s legacy alive.

The Civic Remembrance and call to action for Gwen Araujo will be held Tuesday, Oct. 4, from 4-6 p.m. at San Francisco Main Library’s Koret Auditorium.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Sylvia Guerrero was the youngest of her siblings.

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