Vanessa Guillén was a 20-year-old Army soldier whose death sparked a movement for protecting women from sexual harassment in the military but before that, she was a daughter and sister who loved sports and was determined to join the military one day. Her name gained national attention when she went missing on April 22, 2020 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas where she was stationed. Her dismembered and burned body was found not far from the base and in the wake of her murder there were calls for justice from lawmakers, celebrities, and military veterans who also experienced sexual harassment. The new Netflix documentary I Am Vanessa Guillén centers the Guillén sisters, Lupe and Mayra, as well as their mom, Gloria, as they fight to keep her legacy alive as they work alongside their lawyer Natalie Khawam to get the “I Am Vanessa Guillén Act” act to pass.
In the documentary, we see the eldest daughter, Mayra, take the lead, working with Natalie and speaking up during rallies demanding justice. She shares with HipLatina that what drives her is “the love that I have for my little sister, knowing that her name will be known for decades to come all the way from a small community in Houston to Capitol Hill, across the globe,” she says. “Vanessa’s death wasn’t in vain and I’m here to show that, the way she was treated and took from life was very unjust and will not be left at that. I promised her justice and she will receive just that.”
Throughout the film we see her and Lupe comfort their mom and mourn their sister while simultaneously calling attention to Vanessa’s case with the hashtag #whereisvanessaguillen. We see her mom recall the energtic and loving daughter she had who was set on joining the military. She later recalls seeing Vanessa more withdrawn once she was stationed at Fort Hood and saying she later revealed an officer had sexually assaulted her before she went missing. Lupe, Mayra as well as school friends share memories of Vanessa as an athlete and a loving sister and friend making it clear that in her last days her behavior was odd.
“Vanessa was such a cheerful person, I wish people would remember her as a happy girl that enjoyed playing sports and trying new foods and as a brave soldier that was willing to fight for us till the very last moments of her life,” Mayra recalls.
We see the sisters passionately talking with supporters, meeting with then-President Donald Trump about the act, and learning about the process of getting it passed. President Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act this year which enacted parts of the “I Am Vanessa Guillén” act which took effect at the start of this year. As a result, commanders will no longer be involved in military sexual harassment or sexual assault investigations allowing for victims to report cases without fear of retaliation. The family aims to continue to introduce more legislation to help victims and survivors through the I Am Vanessa Guillén foundation.
The documentary provides a peek into Mayra’s prominent role in the movement and she shares that it inspired her to one day run for office. “I aspire to run for office one day in the near future since the passing of my sister has really opened my eyes as to how things work from the top. Being able to help the community is something that I aspire to do and bring justice and light to issues that other people are afraid of talking about,” she tells us. “Everything I will do will be in my sister’s memory, it is because of her that I am here today.”
Since the documentary’s release in November, Cecily Aguilar, the only person charged in Vanessa’s murder, waived her right to a trial and pleaded guilty to a single count of accessory after the fact and three counts of making a false statement. Aguilar was dating Army Spc. Aaron David Robinson, the officer who allegedly sexually assaulted Vanessa. Robinson killed himself when officers were going to take him in for questioning regarding Vanessa. “Aguilar pleading guilty gives me some peace, I hope she speaks out about what else she’s withholding and we can close this chapter with her for our own peace and Vanessa’s eternal peace,” Mayra says.
Vanessa didn’t just make an impact on her older sister, her youngest sister Lupe is also seen in the documentary rallying the crowds despite her young age. Now that she’s graduated high school, she’s pursuing a degree in journalism after the interviews and public speaking engagements she participated in for Vanessa. “The news media plays a medium in politics, I believe the justice system has been politicized,” she tells HipLatina.
In the documentary she recalls how influential both her older sisters have been. She shares that she wishes people knew how Vanessa helped people any way she could and never gave up. It’s that tenacity that she finds inspirational that’s also lit a fire within her to continue Vanessa’s legacy through her journalism career and the mission to help those in need. It’s a legacy she hopes inspires viewers as well.
“I hope people who watch the Netflix film are open-minded to the message of being a voice [and how[ it’s not about having a platform or the finance, it’s about the cause to help those in need. Change cannot happen if we as a society stand by and see. Instead, we must stand up and use our voices.”
I Am Vanessa Guillén is available to stream on Netflix