Remembering Alexa, A Transgender Puerto Rican Woman Whose Tragic Story We Can All Learn From

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

La Fortaleza Street was colloquially renamed Resistance Street after Puerto Rico’s #RickyRenuncia movement last summer. On Saturday, an altar honoring Neulisa Alexa Luciano Ruiz—a trans woman murdered in Puerto Rico in the early morning hours of February 24—was constructed at the corner of del Cristo and La Fortaleza in Old San Juan. The cross street is within sight of the Governor’s Mansion—a landmark for local protests.

On Saturday evening, however, as the sun set on a crowd of about 100, there was no chanting or picketing on La Fortaleza. The only sound heard throughout the crowd was the occasional sniffle of a tearful mourner. Everyone spoke in hushed tones in between snaps and soft applause as speakers shared personal stories about the challenges and oppressions of the trans experience, or their heartfelt lament for what happened to Alexa.

An image of her seen half-smiling was placed inside a wreath made by queer Chicanx artist Broobs and illuminated beside a tapestry of candles, flowers and handwritten notes. A cake was later added to the mix as a crowd sang an emotional, belated “Happy Birthday.”

Alexa was murdered on her 29th birthday.

Numerous vigils and commemorations were held in her honor throughout the course of the week. This gathering, however, was helmed by trans people—a group that best understands the impact of Alexa’s life and its tragic end. María José, who organized the event with the help of friends, stood up front, flanked by many other trans women, men and non-binary Puerto Ricans—including members of the nonprofit organization Trans Tanamá and the grassroots transfeminist collective La Sombrilla Cuir.

Within a few days of local outlets breaking the story, news of Alexa’s killing spread worldwide and drew attention from the international press, as well as support from people and organizations like Bad Bunny, Indya Moore, Senator Elizabeth Warren and the ACLU.

The outrage fueled by the murder of a Black trans woman is immediate and multifaceted. Alexa was marginalized in more ways than one: She was black, poor, homeless and believed to have been living with a mental illness. Activists say Alexa’s story serves as a reminder of the brutal truth that transphobia, racism and a misunderstanding of neurodiversity, all thrive in Puerto Rico—an unfortunate reality that is generally the case throughout the world for all marginalized people.

On February 23, hours before her murder, Alexa was accused of using a mirror to look underneath the stall inside the women’s restroom at a McDonald’s. Police arrived to question her, but she was not detained and no charges were filed. Still, social media posts that warned of a “peeping Tom” went viral online. Most included photos of Alexa, which were taken during questioning. The image of her looking up at the officer standing over her is now familiar to many who have read about her murder.

At around 3:50 a.m. the next morning, a cadaver found in a grassy field in Toa Baja was reported to police. The body was immediately suspected to be Alexa’s. Her mother ultimately confirmed that that was, unfortunately, the case.

By Monday morning, a video of a group of cisgender males who authorities originally believed were responsible for her murder surfaced online. Obscenities (“Give me that ass!”) and threats (“You bet I’m going to shoot him”) are heard shouted into a dark field from inside a vehicle. The sound of a gun being loaded is heard after. The video then pans to a person, presumed to be Alexa, who was walking in the opposite direction of the car. When she turns around, at least 10 shots are fired in her direction.

Alexa allegedly left messages on the mirrors of public restrooms: “I always wanted to travel, but not like this,” one read.

Another resonates as a disclaimer: “I am pretty and feminine enough for you, motherf**kers. Don’t please this sh*t society, please yourself.”

Alexa was reportedly estranged from her family and neighbors have even reported suspected abuse during Alexa’s childhood. Relatives have provided little to no information of their own about her life. Thus, what the public knows of Alexa has been culled from the words of people who helped her or encountered her. Most notably, Nandy Torres, a friend of Alexa’s, told CBS the mirror was a go-to way for her to check her surroundings for safety.

Among the flowers and handwritten notes and candles at Alexa’s altar on Saturday was a line of handheld mirrors. When the memorial ended and the crowd dispersed, a few people paid their respects and approached the altar just enough to make their reflections seen. Around them, the predictable dim of a Saturday night in Old San Juan—music, laughter, cars honking—grew louder.

While an official autopsy has not yet been released, a preliminary report confirmed Alexa died as a result of multiple gunshot wounds.

Puerto Rico police questioned four suspects last week. But, what momentarily felt like steps toward justice have been halted. Officials now report that one of the suspects claimed the weapon heard in the video was a type of air gun used to scare, but not murder, Alexa. Thus, the suspects have been released and no charges have been filed. Some members of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQIA+ community wonder if authorities truly even want to solve the case.

“Because, as usual, we’re disposable,” local rapper Villano Antillano tweeted in Spanish. “For you all, it’s in the past, but know that the community is still mourning.”

In addition to a lack of urgency in solving the case, there has been frustration over the failure to properly report Alexa’s story.

In 2019, a local activist compiled a list of trans women murdered in Puerto Rico. But, the information is hard to verify, she notes, because these women are often misgendered.

Alexa, as of now—according to The Police Bureau’s official murder statistics—is among those misgendered and mislabeled deaths. The hashtag #SeLlamabaAlexa is being used to condemn both the media and police’s frequent misgendering.

Without proof of trends in crime, resources to combat them or help survivors are difficult to attain.

Puerto Rican media initially misgendered Alexa as well. They called her “a man dressed as a woman,” a “man in a skirt” and referred to her as “a transgender”—a descriptor considered by many within the LGBTQIA+ community to be dehumanizing—or assumed she was “a transsexual”—a term not all trans people identify with (and some find offensive). Many have retroactively been edited.

Then, at a press conference held the day Alexa’s death was reported, Governor Wanda Vázquez, too, misgendered Alexa. “El joven,” she called her amid promises to fortify defense against all violent crime in Puerto Rico. The following day, however, Vázquez told the press that Alexa’s murder would be treated as a hate crime. She used Alexa’s correct pronouns throughout, noting that what occurred was an act of “violence against a woman.”

That, along with celebrity evangelist Wanda Rolón referring to transgender people as folks who exhibit a “rejection of gender,” are just a couple of the many instances of discriminatory rhetoric heard last week.

During a radio interview, House Representative María Milagros “Tata” Charbonier would neither deny nor confirm that Alexa was a woman. Charbonier, widely regarded by progressives as anti-LGBTQ, has supported multiple attempts—as recently as last year—to pass a “religious liberty” law in PR, which opponents say would essentially legalize discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people.

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Vigilia para honrar la vida de Neulisa Alexa quien fue asesinada en la madrugada del lunes en Toa Baja. Ella vivía en la calle, un día antes de su homicidio se difundió información por las redes sociales que la acusaban de entrar al baño de mujeres de un local de comida rápida para “mirar niñas”. La acusaron de ser un hombre vestido de mujer que entró al baño que no le correspondía, pero sí, le correspondía. Ayer frente a la Fortaleza, en la Calle Resistencia conmemoraron su vida con un espacio de luto, silencio, reflexión, amor y paz. Le dedicaron un altar con velas, flores blancas y violetas, espejos de mano, y notas de amor. El dolor es colectivo. Aquí comparto extractos de la carta dedicada a Alexa escritas por @maria._jose._ Desde que te fuiste todos los días he llorado porque te siento,porque te pareces a tantas amigas mias. Nada es asegurado en esta vida, mucho menos para nosotras. El, el, el, perdón que tantas personas antes y después de tu muerte no te han identificado apropiadamente. No es justo que nuestra sociedad este tan mal educada y tan inconsciente. Nos deben mucho y no hemos logrado encontrar las soluciones, perdónanos. . . . . . . . . #Alexa #AlexaEsSuNombre #niunamas #niunamenos #NoMásOdio ‬ #photojournalism  #PuertoRico  #equidad #everydaylatinamerica #everyday_puertorico #womenphotograph #womenphotography #fotografaslatam  #fotografas_latam #fotofeminas  #latinosporlascalles  #latinoamerica #insidephotos #visura  #visuramedia #documentaryphotography #vigilia #StopTransfobia #TransphobiaKills #TransLivesMatter  #TransPeopleDeserveToLive #TransMatter #StopLGTBfobia #JusticeForAlexa

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A speaker for the Dignity Project—a newly formed, religiously conservative political party— even went as far as to say hate crimes do not exist in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, if hard data is his measure, he’s not wrong. There is in fact insufficient official information available regarding crimes against the LGBTQIA community in Puerto Rico.

In 2002, a law that makes aggravated offenses of hate crimes was put in place in order to prohibit discrimination based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. But, few cases have been classified as hate crimes in Puerto Rican courts and public police data does not separate hate crimes from other crimes.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of gender and sexuality education in public school curriculums, the system’s and the negligible adherence to properly classify hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community as such, the onus of eradicating transphobia and educating cisgender friends is overwhelmingly placed on trans people themselves.

Last week, many trans people in Puerto Rico were asked to publicly respond to Alexa’s murder. But, trans people have been telling their stories all along—on social media, through trans advocacy organizations and simply by living their truth on any given day.

Cisgender people’s indignation over Alexa’s murder and the in-person support offered at the myriad events held since her murder has not gone unseen by Puerto Rico’s trans community. But is it enough?

During the open mic toward the end of Saturday’s memorial, the father of a trans child stepped up to speak—but despite espousing love, support, and acceptance of his child, he repeatedly misgendered her. 

“I love you, but you are not prepared to have a microphone at this event,” María José told the man. “But thank you. Thank you for trying.” 

“I would have loved to have met you.” María José read aloud on Saturday. “I would have loved you.”

She then led the crowd in a pledge in memory of Alexa and in commitment to “be better allies to trans people, to feminine people, to black people, to poor people, to neurodiverse people, and to people without homes.”

The pledge ended with a promise to protect Alexa’s legacy.

“Que descanses en paz, Alexa, en paz y en poder. Buen viaje.”