Community remembers Gaby Ramos, domestic violence victims on Día de los Muertos
For many who celebrate, the holiday is accompanied by a hope of hearing a loved one’s voice, feeling their presence or receiving some sign of their visit
The altar was similar to thousands made every year to honor loved ones on Día de los Muertos: filled with personal effects, flowers, food, drinks and candles to help guide spirits back to earth.
But the dozen women whose photos sat atop the altar had something else in common other than their journey back to the land of the living — each lost their lives to domestic violence in Utah. At the center was a large photo of beloved radio host Gaby Sifuentes Castilla, better known as Gaby Ramos, who was fatally shot Oct. 17, 2021 in Taylorsville.
"There were so many more victims. There's not enough space to put all their photos," Rocio Sifuentes, Ramos's sister, said in Spanish. "Even though it's hard or heavy, I always say that Gabby didn't die, she was killed. It's different celebrating Día de los Muertos with someone who died and not for someone that was killed."
Sifuentes and Ramos grew up celebrating the holiday — which, despite its focus on death is still a joyous celebration — with their grandparents. But now this time of year, especially so close to the anniversary of Ramos' death, is difficult, says Sifuentes. For many who celebrate, the holiday is accompanied by a hope of hearing a loved one's voice, feeling their presence or receiving some sign of their visit.
"We always think, 'Yes, I left the cup of water full and now it's a little empty — they did come. But these are beliefs that I think we have because we have the hope of seeing them again," she said. "Sometimes, I think, maybe she is here, enjoying the celebration and hopefully she realizes how much people loved her."
Sifuentes partnered with cultural nonprofit Oaxaca en Utah for a Día de los Muertos event Thursday. She said she hopes the event helped plant the seeds for those who may be experiencing domestic violence or know someone who is. Such cases appear to be rising in Utah, with Utah investigating more domestic violence-related deaths in the first six months of 2023 than it did the previous five years during the same period.
Ramón Ramos, owner of La Juana and art director at Oaxaca en Utah, said the event shows the need for the community to continue to push for justice for domestic violence victims and survivors.
"Because her abuser silences her, people can think you can't get justice anymore, you can't do anything. But we are the voice and we can do something," Ramos said in Spanish. "Gaby was an example for many here in Utah. … She helped many people in her radio program and inspired a lot of people."
Searching for justice
It has been almost a year since Manuel Omar Burciaga-Perea, who is charged with aggravated murder in Ramos' case, was arrested in Chihuahua, Mexico. He was extradited to Utah in May, and the case is working its way through 3rd District Court.
"My energy is drained after I see him. … There are a lot of things in our favor, but there's always a fear that he won't get the correct sentence," said Sifuentes, who says she witnessed her sister's shooting and relives it each time she sees Burciaga-Perea. "Thinking about her is sad, and sometimes I don't want to wake up and do things. But I push myself to do it because I'm thinking of her and I tell myself this is what she would want, probably. Sometimes I'm like, I don't want to do this. I didn't ask for it. ... But I always get up and do it."
Sifuentes has been tireless in fighting to get justice for her sister and to raise awareness about domestic violence. When officials told her it would likely take about six years to arrest Burciaga-Perea, she took matters into her own hands.
"I told him, 'That's not an option for me,'" she said. "I began my own fight to catch him and I did a lot to catch him. If I had followed the protocol, they still wouldn't have him. ... To find justice, you do what you have to do."
Sifuentes lobbied officials on both sides of the border, organized marches and other events to raise awareness, and even asked Burciaga-Perea's neighbors in Mexico whether they had seen him. She said Ramos' case is the shortest amount of time Utah law enforcement has taken to apprehend a suspect who had fled to Mexico — the second-shortest was five years.
"All of this cut down the time, but it shouldn't be like that," she said. "The families shouldn't be investigating for themselves. The authorities need to have shorter times to solve cases. I know that maybe they don't care that much about domestic violence, but I think that it is important. ... I investigated cases in Texas and California, cases on the border, and they're quicker. But here in Utah they take too long."
Sifuentes believes a "Gaby Alert" — which would act similarly to an Amber Alert but for domestic violence cases — would cut down on that time. Although efforts to push legislators and law enforcement to adopt it have been unsuccessful, it's something for which she'll keep advocating. She believes the alert will show both victims and abusers that Utah is taking such cases seriously. In her sister's case, she believes the lack of such an immediate, direct link between the public and law enforcement allowed Burciaga-Perea more time to flee to Mexico.
"Sadly, unfortunately, the topic of domestic violence sometimes doesn't get enough attention. Sometimes people think it's a crime of passion, because of love, or that the woman provoked it or it's because the women don't report it," she said. "Women don't disappear because they want to leave. If you have a daughter, a mom or an aunt and they're suddenly gone, it's because someone made her disappear. Someone has her — kidnapped or abused or something."
She added that although it's great the state recently announced additional funding to address domestic violence, officials need to bring the resources to where women are, like schools, swap meets, factories or meat packing plants. She started the Gabby Ramos Foundation and hopes to eventually open a safe house to help women leave abusive relationships and become self sufficient. It's something Sifuentes believes her sister would have been proud of.
‘I can’t let go’
Sifuentes still lives in the Taylorsville home she shared with her husband, sister and niece. It's difficult to pass Ramos' room, but they're not ready to leave.
"A lot of people ask me why I don't move and I think it's because I can't let go of my sister. I just simply can't let go of her. I don't know, it's like there's something tying me there, to her — maybe until he has a judgment," she said.
After Ramos's death, Sifuentes was haunted by the thought that Ramos, wherever she was, felt alone. Those worries have eased since their mother died, about a year after Ramos. The thought that the two are together brings her a bit of peace.
"Every day I pray to the universe, energies or whatever people believe in, that people don't forget Gabby," she said. "And I hope that people see from her example that we are all vulnerable. Yes, it can happen to me. It can happen to your daughter. Gabby was a good person, cheerful. ... No, she wasn't perfect, but she was not a bad person."