Exclusive: Vanessa Guillen's Sisters Hope Documentary Sparks Beacon of Change for Sexual Harassment Victims
It has been two years since 20-year-old Army soldier Vanessa Guillén disappeared from Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020, but for her family, it feels like she disappeared yesterday.
Her sisters, Mayra and Lupe, remember her laughter, her advice and how much their life would be full of joy if she were still with them today. It has been their love for their sister and wishes to keep her memory alive that have led them and their family on a quest to ensure no service member ever goes through the nightmare their family has endured.
Vanessa's disappearance and subsequent murder launched a movement where thousands of service members shared their own experiences with sexual assault in the military through the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen—all detailed in a new Netflix original documentary I Am Vanessa Guillén.
The documentary, which premiered on November 17, gives an in-depth look into how the Guillén family was able to bring media attention to Vanessa's disappearance and claims of sexual harassment and how a family who still mourns the loss of an integral member united a community to help them seek justice.
In an exclusive interview with People Chica, Mayra and Lupe shared how they are fighting for lasting change in the United States Army, their hopes for legislative measures surrounding sexual harassment victims and how they are honoring their sister through the Vanessa Guillén Foundation.
This documentary not only tells the story of what happened to Vanessa but also of the journey your family has been on in trying to pass legislation that protects people from sexual assault in the military. Why was it important for you to tell both sides of the story?
Mayra Guillén: The documentary summarizes not only [the] legislation but [to] some extent what we had to live through at the beginning and towards gaining the public's attention to completely reform the way the military handles sexual assault.
I feel like it's important for people to see the way that we have to lift up our voice and work and just ask for justice. I feel like there [are] a lot of military families that are still currently going through injustices and I hope it inspires them to speak up, not be afraid and push forward with finding justice for their loved ones.
People can unite and get things done. It just takes an amount of effort and force and putting your emotions aside, but it can be done.
Provisions to the I am Vanessa Guillén Act were passed in December 2021, making way for the ability to prosecute sexual assault and harassment outside of the chain of command as well as protections against retaliation. Are you both still fighting for greater amplification of this law? What does that look like?
MG: Half of the provisions that were first introduced were not passed, unfortunately, so we do have that task for this upcoming year to lift those provisions up one more time, either amending the bill or bringing in new legislation.
We still have to figure out how exactly we're going to do that. But definitely, it's very important to point out that sexual harassment didn't make the cut, harassment was able to be criminalized in the UCMJ because it wasn't before, which is very bizarre, but unfortunately, it didn't make the cut to come out of the commander's hands and I feel like that's a priority because usually, sexual harassment leads to assault.
Why would we wait until a person gets assaulted so that we can ask for accountability? If the harassment is taken out of their hands, then we can avoid the assault and the trauma for that person.
Vanessa's disappearance saw the rise of the Latino voice and Latino community in this country almost like never before in an effort to help find her. What would you say is our greatest power as a community?
Lupe Guillén: I guess, in the documentary, it's very thorough with our family's history, especially with my parents being immigrants to this country and us being Mexican American daughters. I think in the Hispanic community and in the culture, there is this value of family and the love it represents. It doesn't just [show] us being there for each other in uncertain circumstances, but it can take us all the way to the White House, as you've seen.
It took us to the halls of Congress, and I feel that that driven love and passion that we have for our community should not only be used for our own families but to help us as a nation as a whole. From my perspective, when it comes to my parents, I feel that people tend to say that being an immigrant discourages you here in the United States.
But, I feel that, even more, today, it lifts you up and it doesn't determine whether it's possible for you to do something or not. I've seen it firsthand with my mom, she's an immigrant and she was able to talk to the president. Us being Mexican American, I'm very proud [of] my origin and especially for Vanessa. We have to wake up and do something about all these issues.
Mayra, you say that the work you've done over the last two years was for Vanessa, the military and America. You've also started a foundation in her honor. What are you doing with the foundation and how can people contribute?
MG: The main reason why I'm doing what I'm doing today is because of the unfortunate passing of my sister. I would have never imagined myself doing any of this if she were still alive today. This is just something that is still unbelievable to some extent. But we want to help our service members, this is not us versus the military.
We want to better the system. I still have current family members that are serving. There are still very dear people that are close to me that are serving. We're definitely trying to better the system and the foundation will help with that. We really want to take off in the upcoming year and just be able to help families that need guidance, that need legal help, we want to have those resources for them and just be able to help the community, be able to lobby Congress once again and just go forward with bettering the system.
Again, it's not an us versus the military. They accepted their wrongdoing to some extent and I appreciate that, but there's definitely work that we both need to collaborate on and make it happen.
Lupe, the world has seen you grow into your own as you've fought to tell your sister's story. In the documentary, you mention that you're going to pursue a journalism career in college. How do you hope to continue amplifying voices with your own?
LP: For the past two years, I've had cameras, microphones and all these questions asked to me. From there, I believe I gained experience about how sometimes the media works. For me and my family, I've seen it differently, I feel that with the justice system it has been very politicized, where we have to depend on Congress and the president for answers and for justice to happen.
In order for a change to happen, I don't think you have to ask for it, I think you have to demand it. With journalism, I feel that it holds a lot of power when it comes to writing and sharing compelling stories and the first-hand news media when it comes out in television or it comes out in social media. I feel that if it wasn't for that I wouldn't know where my sister's case would have been to this day.
If you could talk to Vanessa about everything that you've accomplished, what do you think she'd say to you?
MG: We grew up together, she was one year apart from me, so I really did live a lot with her. The 20 years that God allowed us to share, I will always cherish those moments and memories. I just hope she's very proud to see how far we've gotten and how we were able to lift her name up high, both in Congress [and] with people—it's just been a roller coaster of emotions.
There's been happy moments, frustration, sadness, but at the end, we just try to focus on building her legacy and keeping her memory alive. It's hard for me because it's still very emotional, but I feel like it just happened yesterday.
Sometimes I'm like, "It's been two years, how?" But I know she'd be very proud to see how far we've gone and how we didn't let this case just fall cold and be covered up like most cases do. A lot of families, they're afraid to come out and speak and I don't know where we got the strength to keep fighting—I think everyone that uplifted us.
LG: I think for us I remember her disappearance as yesterday. It's something that I think is always going to follow us in life. When I think about Vanessa being proud of us, I really do think she is. In the documentary, I go through how sometimes when I needed advice, she used to tell me, you know, "Just go for it," and "Don't give up," and not care about other people's opinions.
I guess with her I just remember her laugh a lot, and if she was here today we would just be full of joy, sort of something that's unexplainable to me.