SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – In the three months since 62-year-old Navajo weaver Ella Mae Begay went missing, haunting unanswered questions sometimes threaten to overwhelm her niece.
Seraphine Warren has organized a search of the vast Navajo Nation landscape near her aunt’s house in Arizona, but has run out of money to pay for gas and food for the volunteers.
“Why is it taking so long? Why aren’t our prayers being answered? She asks.
Begay is one of thousands of indigenous women who have gone missing in the United States. Some receive no public attention, a disparity that extends to many other people of color.
The disappearance of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who went missing in Wyoming last month while traveling across the country with her boyfriend, sparked a coverage frenzy on mainstream and social media, drawing news Pay attention to a phenomenon known as “missing white woman syndrome”.
Many families and advocates for missing people of color are happy that attention to Petito’s disappearance helped uncover clues that likely led to the tragic discovery of his body, and they mourn along with his family. But some also wonder why the public spotlight so important to locating missing people has left other cases shrouded in uncertainty.
“I would have liked this quick rush, push to find my aunt faster. That’s all I want, ”said Warren, who lives in Utah, one of the many states that Petito and her boyfriend Brian Laundrie have passed through.
In Wyoming, where Petito was found, only 18% of cases of missing Indigenous women in the past decade have received media coverage, according to a state report released in January.
“Someone goes missing just about every day… from a tribal community,” said Lynnette Gray Bull, who is Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho and director of the Not Our Native Daughters organization. More than 700 indigenous people went missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, and about 20% of those cases were still unresolved after a month. That’s about double the rate for the white population, according to the report.
One factor that helped people connect with Petito’s case was her Instagram profile, where she lived out her dream of traveling the country. Other social media users have provided their own clues, including a traveling couple who said they spotted the couple’s white van in their own YouTube footage.
Although authorities have not confirmed that the video led to the discovery, the vast open spaces of the American West can confuse research teams for years and anything that narrows down the search grid is welcome. Public pressure can also ensure that authorities prioritize a case.
However, the ability to create a well-organized social media profile is not available to everyone, said Leah Salgado, deputy director of IllumiNative, a social justice organization run by indigenous women.
“Much of what we hold dear and dear to our hearts is organized in such a way as to disadvantage people of color and blacks and aboriginals in particular,” she said.
The causes are overlapping, but implicit biases in favor of whiteness and conventional beauty standards play a role, along with a lack of diversity in newsrooms and police choices in which cases to prosecute, said Carol Liebler. , professor of communication at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
“What is being communicated is that white lives matter more than people of color,” she said.
A sample of 247 missing teens in New York and California found that 34% of cases of white teens were covered by the media, compared to just 7% of black teens and 14% of Latino children, she said.
Friends of Jennifer Caridad, a 24-year-old educator of Mexican descent, have taken to social media to draw attention to her case in Sunnyside, Wash., After receiving little attention in August. Just like in Petito’s case, Caridad would have been with her boyfriend for the last time. He was arrested on charges of auto theft and attempted murder after shooting at police in a chase after his disappearance.
So far, authorities have no response for Caridad’s parents. Twice a week, Enrique Caridad visits the police station for any updates on his daughter.
“They tell me that they will not rest until she is found,” he said. “I tell them to please let me know where she was so I can help find her as well.” But they tell me not to get involved, not to harm the case.
Detectives took parental DNA samples and said there were bloodstains in his SUV, but they have not yet said if it was Caridad’s blood. At first her parents struggled to understand English-speaking detectives, but after the case was transferred to a smaller police department, they can speak Spanish to one of the investigators.
“Not knowing is what is killing us – not knowing if she’s alive or if she was injured by this man,” Caridad said.
David Robinson temporarily left South Carolina for Arizona to search for his son, Daniel, who went missing in June. The 24-year-old black geologist was last seen at a construction site in Buckeye, outside of Phoenix. A breeder found his car in a ravine a month later a few kilometers away. His keys, cell phone, wallet and clothes were also recovered. But no sign of him.
The Petito saga surprisingly elevated his son’s case as people used the #findgabypetito hashtag on Twitter to draw more attention to cases of missing people of color.
“I was working hard before to try to broadcast it nationally for three straight months,” said Robinson, who has contacted other families about the coverage disparity. “It’s bigger than I thought.… It’s not just about my son Daniel. It’s a national problem.
Another family whose case was highlighted by this hashtag – Lauren “El” Cho, a 30-year-old Korean American who disappeared from California – said in a statement on Facebook that they understood the frustrations, but warned that the differences between the cases “ran deeper than what the public saw.”
Asians and Asian Americans definitely face the same problem of news visibility, said Kent Ono, professor of communications at the University of Utah. The “model minority myth,” that Asians are successful and have no trouble, also contributes to the problem.
“This then makes it very difficult for readers and viewers to imagine that Asians and Asian Americans have problems, that they cannot take care of themselves,” he said. declared.
Public attention is vital in all missing persons cases, especially on the first day or two after a disappearance, said Natalie Wilson, who co-founded the Black and Missing Foundation to help attract more attention. on underreported cases. It is essential to dispel racism and stereotypes linking missing persons to poverty or crime.
“Often families (…) do not feel that their life is valued,” she said. “We need to change the narrative around our missing to show that they are our sisters, brothers, grandparents. They are our neighbors. They are part of our community.