Ending men’s silent suffering in the MMIWG crisis

Antonio Ortiz never thought he would be able to speak publicly about his late daughter Rhia Danae Almeida because it would require him to be vulnerable and express his emotions freely.

His wife, Elayne Gregg, has been able to share her experience publicly for a few years now, but Ortiz has only ever opened up about his feelings on what happened to Rhia with his wife.

“I’ve only been vulnerable with her,” Ortiz said, explaining how, growing up as a Tohono O’odham man, he was taught that showing emotion wasn’t “strong” or “manly.”

But that mindset started to shift once he heard Roland Ramon from Tohono O’odham open up publicly about his experiences with trauma and grief.

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Ramon and Ortiz opened up about their experiences as part of a four-person community panel that featured Indigenous men who are survivors of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). 

The panel was hosted by Indivisible Tohono and Emerge Tucson in Sells, Arizona, on Oct. 19 and again in Tucson on Oct. 21. 

The other two panelists were Dr. Selso Villegas from Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui Attorney General Alfred Urbina. 

Sharing Experience is Part of Healing

Each of them shared their experiences and talked about ways Indigenous men can move forward in expressing their emotions and why it’s important to do so.

Ramon shared how it was for him growing up in an abusive home and the grief of losing his mother at a young age, but also how he has worked toward healing.

Ramon said his mother, Angie Ramon-Lopez, life was tragically taken on Father’s Day in 1990 when a fight occurred between his mother and her partner at the time.

Ramon said he remember hearing screaming, furniture being tossed around, and his mother’s cries. When he couldn’t hear her anymore, he went to check on her but found her unresponsive on the floor, surrounded by blood.

Ramon said he pleaded with her to get up, but when she didn’t, he kneeled beside her as she took her last breath.

“Thinking back about the tragic incident that happened to my mom, I had to be strong,” Ramon said during the panel in Tucson. “I didn’t get a good cry out.” 

As he was driving back to Tucson from Sells on Oct. 19, Ramon said that he thought of how the other men on the panel shared their experiences, and what stuck with him was how Villegas said: “If you need to cry, cry.” 

Ramon said he realized that he never got a chance to, so on his drive back, he rolled his windows down in his truck and started to scream and cry. 

“I had that good cry, and I felt rejuvenated,” he said, and these panels have provided him a form of healing. 

“I feel like I can move forward,” he added.

Ortiz said seeing Ramon share his experiences prompted him to start thinking about his own and how he might be able to share his story publicly.

“He really helped me realize that I can be strong enough to do this,” he said, and he talked publicly about his daughter for the first time as part of the community panel sessions in October. 

“It wasn’t uncommon for Rhia to go and play with her friends,” Ortiz said during the panel session, his emotions building as he continued. “I think about her every day.”

During these panel sessions, Ortiz opened up about his daughter’s story for the first time. Rhia was seven years old in June 2009 when she was murdered in Ajo. She left the family home and rode her bike down the street to visit her friend. 

The friend wasn’t home. But their 19-year-old brother was, and he sexually assaulted and murdered Rhia. Her body was later found in a wash a few feet away from the friend’s house.

“I don’t know how to talk about her without thinking about the way she was taken from us,” Ortiz said during the panel in Tucson. After opening up on how he lost his daughter, he opened up to sharing stories about how she lived.

Ortiz said they had a shower in their old house that would often have frogs in it, and they would have to stand on a crate to take a shower. He recalled how Rhia fell off the crate one time, but she was never scared of frogs. She would often bring frogs in from outside and smile about it. 

“I try hard to remember the good things about her,” Ortiz said. 

When the panel concluded, Ortiz’s family gathered around him, each of them embracing him and praising him for sharing his experience. 

Ortiz said there must be more safe spaces for Indigenous men to share their experiences because they often can’t be vulnerable otherwise. 

“It’s important to show people because that’s part of how to heal,” he said. As he spoke during the panel discussion, Ortiz’s voice cracked and he wiped away tears while telling her story. 

“That’s important for other men to see,” Ortiz added. 

He said having his children, as well as the other men and women, witness his vulnerability was vital because it’s part of the healing process. 

“Men not being able to express emotion is probably a big obstacle,” he added. “Having to put myself in this situation opens the doors for other men to, hopefully in the future, be able to express their feelings.”

Ortiz said sharing the space and hearing from Ramon, Villegas, and Urbina is a form of breaking that cycle for them and others. He said it shows that men don’t have to conform to social norms, which is a big issue. 

“I hope men and boys eventually get out of that cycle,” he added. 

‘It is a men’s issue’

Most often, the public discussion around MMIWG features the voices and experiences of Indigenous women. It has been rare for spaces to be specifically for Indigenous men to share their experiences or participate in the overall discussion on MMIWG. 

“The focus of these two panels that we organized was the men in our community who are survivors,” Indivisible Tohono Co-Founder April Ignacio said. “It was very powerful and impactful to see men in our community be vulnerable and talk about the challenges they had as survivors.”

Ignacio said that Indivisible Tohono has concentrated on the topic of MMIWG for more than five years, and it’s a topic that the grassroots organization is passionate about.

“It’s important for us that our community can see that we can create these safe spaces for our people to talk about these issues,” Ignacio said, adding that they want to ensure survivors understand that they are not alone. 

The panelists not only shared their grief from their losses or experiences with violence but also what they have done to move past the trauma. 

“Listening to those stories gives our communities a sense of relief and hope,” Ignacio said. “They can get past that point of trauma, and they’re willing to help combat this issue.”

Ignacio said Indivisible Tohono recognizes that MMIWG is a men’s issue because, with the little data that is available, it shows that men are committing violence. For example, Ignacio said that when IT received statistics from the Tohono O’odham court system in 2019, it showed that about 90% of all court cases going through tribal court are domestic violence cases.

“The violence where women lose their lives is often by men,” she said. “It is a men’s issue.”

Ignacio said it took Indigenous women to publicize the issue, but being more inclusive of men’s experiences is “a way to hold our men accountable in our communities and a way for them to hold themselves accountable for the violence that is perpetuated in our communities.”

Indivisible Tohono would never want to put people in a situation that would re-traumatize them, Ignacio said, and the goal is to help others see the issue differently.

Oritz said that having more spaces available for men to come together to speak about MMIWG in a public setting has the potential to open more doors not only for participation but will get Indigenous men “to look within themselves as how they are treating women and girls.”

MMIP in Arizona

Ignacio is also a member of the state’s MMIP Task Force and the Pima County & City of Tucson MMIP Task Force. During the panels, she offered community members an update on the work both task forces are doing.

Ignacio could not provide a detailed update from the state, but she noted how the task force meets every six weeks, though their meetings are closed to the public. 

The state task force has different working groups that are identifying goals and objectives that will help move their work forward, she added, and it is looking to host an open meeting in December.

When the public meeting is scheduled, Ignacio said it’s important that the community shows up to demonstrate that Indigenous communities are still interested and want to know what is happening. 

“This task force needs to be held accountable to the people,” Ignacio said, because there are times when tribal, county, and state governments lay out all the work to do the right thing, but then politics get in the way of ensuring that Indigenous communities receive justice. 

This is why when events, legislation or discussions surrounding MMIP occur, Ignacio said that it’s important for Indigenous people to show up and support the efforts.

“Showing up is the least you can do to make sure that the people that are fighting so hard to fight that fight isn’t lost,” she added.

Ignacio also provided an update on the work with the regional task force for Pima County and Tucson. She said that task force is at the beginning stages, and since it is an election year, it may take some time to get off the ground.

“We ask for patience,” Ignacio said of the regional task force that launched in May.

Indigenous people have been advocating for missing and murdered Indigenous peoples for generations, but it’s only within the last few years that state and national officials have started to pay attention. 

Indigenous women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Institute of Justice found that 84% of Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime, compared to 71% of white women.

Homicide has been reported as the fourth-leading cause of death among Indigenous women under 19 and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. 

Tucson has the fourth-highest MMIWG rate in the country, and the state of Arizona has the third-highest rate, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute. 

It has been seven months since Gov. Katie Hobbs established the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Task Force, the first for an Arizona governor.

“This is a long-term project,” said Jason Chavez, the director of tribal affairs for the governor. “It’s going to take some time.”

In an interview with the Arizona Mirror in September, Chavez said that the issues surrounding MMIP are complex and multilayered. 

“There’s no simple solution to any one aspect of it,” he said, because MMIP can include everything from substance abuse and domestic violence to the sober living home crisis and gender-based violence. 

With all of these different aspects of MMIP, Chavez said it would take some time for the state’s MMIP task forces to lay the groundwork for what they want to achieve. 

The MMIP task force has 14 members, and Hobbs named state Sen. Theresa Hatathlie as its chair. 

Chavez said each of the task force members provides a unique perspective on the issue, and the Governor’s Office creating a space for them to work on the MMIP issue at a state level will help create a model that other states can use to address the MMIP issue in a “meaningful and sensible way.”

As part of the executive order, the MMIP task force is required to prepare and submit a report to Hobbs with recommendations for administrative or legislative action on or before Dec. 1 of each year through 2026

The task force is working through recommendations set in place by previous committees, which include 83 recommendations for the state in nine key areas: legislative, administrative, Arizona victim compensation program, victim services, data improvement, resource allocation, training and education, collaborative, and law enforcement.

Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya, the MMIP Coordinator for the Governor’s Office, supports the work of the MMIP Task Force, and she said they are currently reviewing the recommendations and “creating more meaningful areas and improving their responses to MMIP.”

***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Roland Ramon’s mother died on Father’s Day in 1999; the correct date was in 1990.

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