• Homenaje a Jesus Estrada-Perez: Activism, Suicide and Memory

    Today Jesus would have been facing student conduct charges for what became a defining political moment in his life and the defense of Chicano Studies at the University of Minnesota. On February 8th 2015, Jesus and others staged a sit in at the office of the University of Minnesota President demanding improvements to the worsening racial climate on campus. They demanded greater racial and ethnic diversity in university hiring practices, more money for the school's ethnic studies programs, a removal of racial descriptions from campus crime alerts, an ethnic studies enrollment requirement for all students, greater bathroom access for "all genders," and a removal of a criminal history box from admissions applications for prospective students. 

     

     

     

    Today we remember his life and activism

     

    In my practice as a scholar of Guatemala and advocate for asylum seekers, I’ve always been fairly militant about describing unequivocally what happened. In Guatemala the largely indigenous Maya weren’t simply killed. The Maya that were taken at the hands of genocidal regimes were assassinated, disappeared, mutilated, dismembered and violated. Furthermore, it was not individual violence, it was systemic and unwavering. By pushing ourselves to be as accurate as possible it allows us to reckon with our past as a society, to stare in the mirror and come to terms with the devastation we are all possible of and can be complicit to. However, in as much as I obsessed about mass violence, I also learned about the beauty in the struggle, the music of Mercedes Sosa, Victor Jara and Violeta Parra. Leaders that emerged in a tumultuous time, despite every shred of evidence pointing to imminent death. In particular I hold close to my heart Monsignor Oscar Romero. He was a Catholic Archbishop who was transformed by the everyday reality Salvadorans faced under the thumb of military control. Romero was assassinated because of his compassion and commitment to the voiceless. My favorite book on Romero is called Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic. Instead of a linear biography the story of Monsignor Romero is constructed through the voices of those that were impacted by him, loved him and threatened by him. A mosaic of personal letters, radio addresses, newspaper articles and voices and perspectives of the people he died defending. The textures this process reveals is without comparison.

     

     

    What follows is a small mosaic of the life of Jesus Estrada-Perez has a group of us knew him, a fearless defender of Chicano Studies on the University of Minnesota campus and someone that lived with pain. It is with this in mind that I want to write about the apparent suicide while in police custody of a queer activist, scholar and friend Jesus Estrada-Perez.

     

    Jesus Estrada-Perez knew that with no struggle, comes no progress. He knew that power concedes nothing without a demand.”

     

     

    Solidarity with Chicano Studies at the U

    A photo posted by Filiberto Nolasco Gomez (@huateque) on

     

     

     An odd police report styled newspaper article in the Western Nebraska Observer describes the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ suicide:

     The title “Man dies days after hanging himself in county jail.”[1]

     Earliest reports that Jesus Estrada-Perez died while incarcerated at the Kimball County Jail were incorrect, but he later died after attempting to take his own life.

    Estrada-Perez, 28, died last week at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff. He was joined by family as he remained on life support for several days.

    At 1:35 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, jailer Annette Brower performed a regular jail check to discuss Estrada-Perez's recently released medication when she found him hanging in his cell. Brower called for assistance from the Kimball County Ambulance Service, the Kimball Police Department and KCSO reserve deputy Travis Terrill. Estrada-Perez was transported to Regional West.

     The Nebraska State Patrol was contacted to investigate the incident and KCSO Deputy Brandon Loy taped off the scene. During the initial NSP interview, Brower said that she was unaware that the inmate was suicidal, though she also stated that when the departments were searching for him the previous day he was suicidal and had medication.

     

    While not specifically about Jesus, this passage from Black Girl Dangerous was a helpful point of reflection once it was revealed weeks after his reported death that he in fact had been in jail.

     

    The shifting of suicide from a position of weakness is why I want us to not take suicide off the table and to recognize the power within that action, if she did commit suicide. Sandra, from the beginning, refused to give up her power. And in that jail cell suicide may have been a form of resistance and an astounding statement of self-love. A statement saying I will not give you the power to kill me and I love myself enough to not endure you killing me slowly.

     

    I want us to hold multiple truths. Whether Sandra Bland committed suicide or not, we can indict a system. We must hold nuanced discussions that address the implications of state violence while removing the stigma around mental health and suicide, recognizing that state-sanctioned violence can produce suicide as a response. Black people, especially Black women, do not all possess the strength and resiliency to continue to move through a world made brutal by white supremacy. And we can fight against state-sanctioned violence while recognizing the ways in which suicide can be a manifestation and a resistance to that same violence.

     

    So #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, I ask you to do what I am doing for Sandra Bland. Do not deny me full humanity, including the possibility of suicide, and do not stop pushing and interrogating the circumstances surrounding my arrest and my death. Do not wait for a cause of death report to indict the system. Know that no matter how I died, by my hands or the hands of someone else, the system is guilty. Be it a bullet or a self-tied noose, this system kills Black people.

     

     

    Rest in Power hermano

    A photo posted by Filiberto Nolasco Gomez (@huateque) on

     

     

    I too share that belief that we carry a part of him and his spirit forward with us in our endeavors. The irony is not lost on me how so much love and community has been generated in this time of grieving over his death with this isolating plague. I believe that is firmly his spirit at work still, the power of this community in these cities, and the recognition of his plague as something deeply familiar, either in us or with close ones. 

     

     

     

    Jesus Estrada-Perez, you gave what was the last flicker of your flame to Chican@ Studies...what an amazing moment to dream with you, to struggle by your side and to learn from your brilliance. Rest In power compañero, and be assured you inspired me and many others to continue the fight for a better world.

     

     

    My dad rarely asked for help, but throughout my youth, he consistently asked me to come with him to his funerals. Partly perhaps because he was starting to feel really lonely losing his buddies, but also he wanted to try and introduce the idea of death early because he was convinced he would die soon. For 20 or so years, he described death as always being around the corner, tormenting my youth. It was like I was practicing saying good-bye to both of my parents, a series of dress rehearsals. So I think about grieving a lot. I think about how we say good-bye to those we have loved, and how they say good-bye to us.

     

    In the days after we found out about this death I cried a lot. The feeling of loss and grief left me with memories of the death of my parents. My father died with me while having a heart attack, clear about the end, coming at peace and almost grateful. He had lived a long life, filled with pain and tragedy, and he was ready to say goodbye, lonely and sad since my mother had died.  On the other hand there was my mom. Like Jesus, my mother was tormented by depression and hopelessness, and to some extent tormented us with her feelings. 

     

    It was hard for a young man to become aware of the depression of a parent, someone you love, and wonder why your love and affection wasn’t enough, why she wanted to leave us. Even though she didn’t commit suicide, I always felt abandoned because of how distant she could be in the throes of her depression. Like Jesus, she hid it well from the public, displaying boundless energy and enthusiasm, but when she got home, she would sleep endlessly, sometimes become cold and cruel. I was always frustrated as a young child why people on the outside got the best of her, while we where always stuck with the worst, the most damaging parts. In short, Jesus’s suicide has conjured these long distant memories but also opened up new reflections and some peace in the turbulence.

     

    Shortly after Jesus death I spoke to many of my friends who knew and organized with him. The one thing that I keep hearing from a lot of folks is describing feelings of responsibility over what happened to Jesus, that we didn’t and could of done more. That there is some way we could of saved him. I want to speak to that.

     

    From what I have learned from those in despair is that everything feels hopeless, feeling like the challenges faced are insurmountable, a deep sense of loneliness. I firmly believe that Jesus used activism as a way to fill the despair, for a purpose, a direction that would take him out of the dark places he would come to inhabit. I firmly believe that he genuinely cared about the struggle, but that he also threw himself into the work because he needed it; he needed it to keep him alive. In my view the problem is that, as we all know, the more we come to understand the nature of the struggle, the obstacles that we face, it starts feeling overwhelmingly hopeless. I think he was learning that and it devastated him. This struggle is hopeless in a lot of ways. I feel hopeless because of the way we fight now, the way we avoid being vulnerable with each other, and the way we often don’t recognize that being vulnerable gives us the strength and depth that we need to overcome what appear to be insurmountable challenges.

     

    I know for sure he wanted to move on from the academy and devote himself to organizing full time. It was the first time I realized that something was wrong; he had texted me in a panic about wanting to be an organizer. He asked me how he should he go about doing it, a clear strategy. It felt like he was looking for a compass. I got a sense of how deep his anxiety lay and how much it dominated him. It reminded me of my mother. I think what Jesus wanted and needed, was a space that could have grinded past all his barriers and fears. My suspicion was that he wanted to make contact, and the movement that we are building struggles to do that. That said, not one person is responsible but sadly we are all complicit in what has happened. I also think about my mother, and offer that perhaps at some level Jesus must have not have known or felt comfortable embracing our love and affection. In my mind that is a weight he had been dragging around for some time. Of course there was a reason he felt this way, an origin he couldn’t shake loose.

     

    That said, I feel responsible too. There were things that I was sensing and noticing that indicated something more menacing was happening. The first thing I thought of when I saw the go fundme was how peculiar it was written. I quickly, uncomfortably concluded that he had committed suicide. That it was so obvious to me haunts me. Because of my mother I can sense folks that are in despair more than others. I was always afraid of them, traumatized by how unstable my mother was, and tried to avoid them. It is something that I have to work through and with greater urgency, knowing that I also contributed to the environment that harmed Jesus so much.

      

    In grieving my parents over the last 9 years, the one thing I have learned is that despite them not being physically near me my relationship with them is changing. I remember my mother less in her final years, in the daily pain of a women dying from cancer. I am less angry about things that seem silly now, and through that act of compassion and forgiveness, the gaze into my memories focuses more on the bright and loving moments. It is slow, like the morning light burning through the early morning Los Angeles fog.

     

    In much the same way my relationship with Jesus is changing. When I met him the first time I remember feeling so uneasy around him. I immediately felt his unease and crippling anxiety. It reminded me of the worst parts of my mothers presence, and I was reticent to really get to know him; unwilling to share intimate moments and generally get to know this budding new activist.

     

    I love you now Jesus.

     

    I see you. I see you in my everyday when we convene together in community to examine the ills of our society. I see your in your relentless flirtation of me and how much I miss it. I see you in the flamboyant, I see you when I see someone have a look of mischief in there eye. I see you in Chicano studies. I see you when I look at a loteria board remembering your cool tat. I see you in the community we formed around you as we grieve. I see you everyday. I see your impact on the people you touched. I will always see you brother.

     

    I am sad that Jesus is gone, but I am also looking forward to continue discovering what I will carry from him. Time will give us an opportunity to reflect over his life and discover what of ourselves he was able to contribute to. We can still make peace with him, even though he is not with us anymore.

     

    His life was a gift to us, tragically short but no less meaningful.

     

    Con Amor y Angustia

     

    Filiberto Nolasco Gomez

     

     

  • Comments on this post (3 comments)

    • Bril says…

      Con todo en mi corazón, gracias. I also used to push away people who I could feel were struggling with the same journey of anxiety and depression as me. It wasn’t until I came to terms with my own solutions in coping that I could start creating safe boundaries in helping others.

      on August 08, 2016

    • Chris Avila says…

      This is so beautiful, and touching! Life is short and every single moment of our lives must be lived with the notion that we are not eternally humans, we are driven by such forces as birth, growth, and death! Finding meaning to our existence is crucial and finding love within ourselves is flourishing! Sorry for the lost.
      Happy Christmas!

      on December 24, 2015

    • Andrew Gonzales says…

      Jesus, we miss you.

      on December 12, 2015

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