A look back at the 2011 Hurtado murders, a hate crime against the LGBT community, that examines how issues of race, religion, economic status, and homophobia are often intertwined…
by: Doug Greco
On April 18th, 2011, Jose Aviles approached the house of Maria and Norma Hurtado with an automatic pistol in his hand. Maria and her 24-year old daughter Norma lived in the working class, immigrant neighborhood of Dove Springs in Austin, Texas. When Norma opened the door that night, Jose Aviles emptied fifteen rounds into her and another round into her mother, who had stepped in front of Norma to protect her. Both women died instantly.
At the time of her death, Norma had been in a romantic relationship with Aviles’ daughter, Lidia, for over a year, and was open about her same-sex relationship. A manager at a Dove Springs Wendy’s, Norma helped support her own parents as well as Lidia’s daughter. Jose Aviles had been sending text messages to Norma over the preceding months threatening to kill her. He wanted the relationship to end.
I taught Norma at Johnston High School in East Austin ten years prior to her murder. I recognized her face and remembered her name when I picked up the newspaper the day after the killings. My mind shot back to my 9th grade classroom, Norma standing in front of my desk with her athletic build, confident smile, and deep brown eyes.
Her murder was among the record-high 30 anti-LGBT murders in 2011 in the United States, the highest number since such records were kept. The majority of victims were persons of color and transgender individuals, and like the Hurtado murders, many made local and national headlines. One example was Camila Guzman, a Latina transgender woman who was found stabbed to death and face-down in her East Harlem, New York apartment.
The previous fall nationwide had seen a rash of at least 10 high-profile deaths by suicide amongst teen and young adult members of the LGBT community, mostly due to anti-gay bullying. “The September Suicides,” as they would come to be known in the fall of 2010, included Seth Walsh, who was relentlessly bullied for being gay in school in a small town near Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley. Seth hanged himself on September 19th, spent the next ten days on life support, and died on September 28th.
The next several years saw a monumental shift in public opinion and acceptance of the LGBT community and a surge in support for LGBT rights, in large part due to increased advocacy and awareness on the part of the LGBT community and allies within the broader society. I believe this was largely our country’s reaction to this horde of high profile suicides by LGBT youth and young adults and anti-gay hate crimes in 2010-2011.
Despite the progress, the Hurtado murders remind us of the incredible cost of just two lives during this tragic time, and how issues of race, religion, economic status, and homophobia are not easily separated. The brutal murders also remind us of the ways in which families and communities’ response to horrors in their community can help shape and catalyze a larger movement for equality and dignity.
LIFE IN DOVE SPRINGS
Dove Springs was originally a white working-class neighborhood with 1950’s-60’s era grey brick, small ranch style houses. Today it is mostly older housing developments and apartments, with more recent prefab houses built around its edges. Because of its cheap and abundant rental housing, it is home to lower-income residents, the majority immigrants from Mexico like the Hurtado and Aviles families. Dove Springs has no town center, just a few roads with strips of fast food restaurants, dollar stores, check-cashing establishments, and small churches.
As a high school student Norma was self assured, athletic, and dressed sporty. She always looked you in the eye when you spoke with her. Though homophobic remarks could be fairly common at Johnston High, where I taught Norma in my 9th grade Geography class, Norma never overtly hid her sexuality.
Norma started working at Wendy’s when she was nineteen and continued for the next five years, eventually becoming manager. She was popular with coworkers and her supervisors, and had a wide circle of friends.
As a young adult, Norma also played competitive soccer, which seemingly formed the core of her social network. Pictures online show Norma with her friends and family together at parties, with her mom often crying happily. Norma consistently looked like the leader of the pack.
It was at Wendy’s that Norma met Lidia Aviles. Norma was twenty three and Lidia was seventeen and raising her daughter, which she had given birth to a few years earlier. They began seeing each other romantically, and when Lidia was eighteen she and her daughter moved in with Norma and her parents, posting on Facebook that she and Norma could now be together in peace.
The situation with Lidia’s family was far different than with Norma’s. Her father, Jose Aviles, didn’t approve of her relationship with Norma from the start, and increasingly pressured Lidia to break up with her. He would say it was because she was neglecting her motherly duties and her schoolwork when sneaking away to spend time with Norma. Lidia later said at her father’s trial that he had a special relationship with his granddaughter, almost acting as if he was the child’s father.
Lidia and her daughter moved in with Norma once she had turned eighteen, relieved that she was finally able to live with her girlfriend. Jose Aviles began to threaten Norma’s life through text messages. He warned her to stay away from Lidia and felt that Lidia should focus on school and raising her daughter. Lidia felt the safest place for her and her daughter was at the Hurtado house.
Lidia’s father attended an evangelical church in the neighborhood. Lidia had an older brother, and on least one occasion came to the Hurtado house searching for his sister. Police had to intervene at the Hurtado house at least twice during the next several months. There was a report of a sexual assault in September and then a family disturbance in October, but they chalked it up to a family conflict.
Despite all this, the threatening text messages from Lidia’s father continued.
7171 DIXIE DRIVE
Most of the houses on Dixie Drive in Dove Springs are now gone, torn down after the horrific “Halloween Flood” which devastated the neighborhood in 2013. Aside from a few houses, the street now looks desolate. But to visualize the street on April 18th, 2011, you would have to imagine both sides filled with ranch style, worn down houses, and tree-barren yards.
At about 7pm that evening, Jose Aviles and his son drove up to 7171 Dixie Drive in a dark green SUV. Aviles later claimed that they had come to get his daughter. Reports are unclear about his son’s role, though I spoke to the wife of a next door neighbor who heard a car door slam just as the car pulled up, leading him to believe that Jose Aviles must have been the passenger, not the driver. Aviles then came to the door with an automatic pistol, knocked, and Norma’s mother Maria opened the door. Aviles asked for his daughter, Lidia.
Maria yelled to the back of the house, where Lidia and Norma were in a room together, to let Lidia know her father was here. Instead of Lidia, Norma came to the front door and stood by her mother. When Aviles saw Norma, he riddled her with fifteen bullets from his automatic pistol. Norma fell to the floor bleeding, but still alive. At some point Maria stepped in front of Norma to shield her. Aviles shot Maria in the neck, severing an artery, and she fell to the floor and died instantly. In a police interview Aviles later said he would have continued shooting Norma if he had more ammunition.
Lidia ran to the door, and when she saw what happened she fell upon Norma, trying in vain to stop her bleeding. She then called 911, screaming. Aviles fled the scene. Neighbors had heard the shots and the screaming and came to the scene. Soon the police flooded the neighborhood and launched a manhunt.
Aviles, in his green SUV, eventually made his way to a relative’s house. His relative later told police “Jose was nervous, intoxicated, and had a gun in his waistband.” Aviles repeated that he had “done” something and needed their help. His relative called the police.
The police interviewed Lidia who explained how her father disapproved of her relationship with Norma, and that there had been conflicts between them. A friend of Norma’s told police about the threatening text messages Aviles sent Norma. “She stated that (the girlfriend’s) parents have sent text messages threatening Norma because of the relationship.”
Aviles’ wife, Roselia Martinez, and her son, showed up at the scene of the crime that night. They told police that they were also looking for Aviles. Martinez said she believed he was drunk and that he owned an automatic pistol. Police searched for Aviles all night, in conjunction with the Lone Star Fugitive Task Force, the local arm of the U.S. Marshals Service. Early Tuesday morning, about twelve hours after the murder, they located a Nissan Altima, associated with Aviles, in a carport in the town of St. Hedwig, in Eastern Bexar County, ninety minutes South of Austin and thirty minutes east of San Antonio.
According to the San Antonio Express News “About 30 San Antonio police officers and U.S. Marshals, backed by canines and SAPD’s helicopter Blue Eagle, surrounded Aviles around 3:30 a.m., officials said, and he surrendered.”
A friend and neighbor of the Hurtado family told me that almost all the neighbors, mostly monolingual Spanish-speakers, declined to speak to the media. Curiously, however, later that day Aviles’ wife, Roselia, let a reporter and photographer into her home for an interview. But a group of family members asked them to leave before Martinez could answer questions.
Two white caskets sat at the altar of Cristo Rey Catholic Church on Austin’s East Side on April 25th, 2011. According to reporter Claudia Grisales of the Austin-American Statesman, over one hundred and fifty friends and family attended the Hurtado funeral, many wearing tee-shirts that read, “Like a rainbow gone too soon, but never forgotten.” Father Jayme Mathias, now a school board member in Austin, was the pastor. His sermon was affirming and one of inclusion. “Some take Bible verses out of their context, to reject some based on their sexual orientation.”
The Hurtado murders first hit the local papers as a family squabble went awry. As details emerged, the story changed. Norma’s relationship with Aviles’ daughter came center stage and it became clear — This was a hate crime. Reaction from the community was swift.
Local LGBT groups were the first to speak out, joined by political and community leaders. Members of the city’s hate crime task force, created earlier that fall in response to an attack on two gay softball players in a City Hall parking garage, weighed in. Eventually it popped up in LGBT papers around the world. Even the president of Pisces Foods LP, the company that ran the Wendy’s where Norma and Lidia worked, spoke on behalf of his employees, “They are in some disbelief, especially someone so important and well-liked in our group.”
There was a candlelight vigil with about 200 people outside of the Hurtado home on Dixie Drive. Friends described Norma’s mother Maria as her biggest champion.
During the time of the murders I was the Lead Organizer of Austin Interfaith, a grassroots coalition of religious congregations, schools, and unions that had been working in Dove Springs on health and community safety issues. There had been a spate of murders in the neighborhood that year, so when I picked up the article on the Hurtado murders I assumed it was part of the crime spree. And then I saw the pictures. I said to my boyfriend at the time, “I know who this is.”
STOP THE BLEEDING
The trial of Jose Aviles for the murder of Norma and Maria Hurtado began in December of 2012 and hinged on questions of intent. Aviles and his lawyer made no bones about the fact that he fired all the rounds of his automatic pistol, and that all those rounds killed Norma and Maria Hurtado. He did argue, however, that his intent was to kill Norma, and not her mother. This is relevant for Aviles because intending to kill more than one person in Texas can raise a penalty from murder, which carries the possibility of parole, to capital murder, which generally eliminates the possibility of parole. The state was not seeking the death penalty in the Hurtado case.
Aviles’ defense against capital murder was that Maria “got in the way” when he was riddling Norma with bullets. She was collateral damage, he claimed, and not part of what he planned when he approached the house. But Aviles and his lawyer confused “premeditation” with “intent.” Though he may not have planned beforehand the murder of Maria Hurtado, he could certainly have intended to kill her when she got in the way.
Aviles gave his testimony in Spanish, and the Spanish phrase he used was actually a clearer connotation of Maria’s own intention. Aviles said Maria “passed in front of” Norma during the shooting. Getting in the way could imply an inadvertent position of her body, or maybe she tripped in front of Norma. But “passed in front of” implies that Maria was trying to save her daughter. There are many ways a parent of an LGBT child can stand with, and protect, their child. But there will be no better example of this than what Maria did that day on Dixie Drive.
The jury didn’t buy Aviles’ explanation, and after just one hour of deliberation, they convicted him of capital murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
2010 and 2011 were particularly brutal years for LGBT people in the United States. The rash of LGBT deaths by suicide and anti-gay murders were a low-point in our history, and one that hopefully will not be forgotten. But this same period sparked a reaction from our country that eventually led, within just a few years, to some of the most monumental LGBT civil rights victories in our country’s history. I will go to my grave believing these victories were, in large part, our country’s response to the countless tragedies during these two years.
It started with the “It Gets Better” movement, which was a critical intervention to give hope to staunch the immediate loss of just one more life during this time. Thousands of LGBT people and allies gave online testimonials of hope that if a teenager or young adult in despair could just hold out, chances are their lives would improve.
The entertainment industry also took a lead role, with celebrities coming out and an increasing number of LGBT characters appearing on television and in movies. Pop singers penned anthems to inclusion and diversity, like Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”, Katy Perry’s “Firework”, and Kesha’s “We R Who We R“.
LGBT civil rights and advocacy organizations dug in deeper in their fight at the ballot box, in State Houses, City Halls, and the halls of Congress. Targeted education campaigns to change public opinion were coupled with both state and federal judicial strategies to chip away against the prohibition on same-sex marriage, which became this period’s defining fight. Eventually, bit by bit, state by state, public opinion changed and statewide bans put in place over the previous decade were being overturned at breakneck speed. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and finally in 2015, the Obergefell ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. This was just one issue, albeit a foundational one, in the fight for LGBT civil rights. A monumental battle had been won. The next phase of the LGBT movement would be defined by the move to a broader set of issues at the intersection of socio-economic status, race, and gender, as well as transgender rights.
I was never fully satisfied with my own response to the Hurtado murders. I tried to have some conversations in my organization around this tragedy, but it was as if I couldn’t quite connect the dots, partly because I had some pretty rigid categories built in my mind around issues of race, class, and sexuality at the time. I left Austin for a spell for various reasons, one of which was to pursue work in the LGBT movement. I eventually landed a position with California’s statewide LGBT civil rights organization, Equality California, in 2015. My focus was to address healthcare access for LGBT undocumented immigrants in California’s Central Valley. With two Latinx organizers about Norma’s age named Justin and Roman, whom I supervised, we drove to cities like Bakersfield and Fresno every week to work with health clinics, immigration groups, and small LGBT Centers. I learned just as much about intersectionality from Justin and Roman as I did from the material we presented.
Norma and Maria Hurtado were among the many lives lost to anti-LGBT murder and suicide in the years surrounding April 19th, 2011. The nation witnessed, and read about, a wave of bloodshed, hate, and violence during this time. Unfortunately, it hasn’t stopped. 2016 and 2017 saw nearly as many murders against transgender individuals alone. But if the nation’s response to the previous tragedies was a flourishing of advocacy, changing public opinion and acceptance, and monumental victories in LGBT civil rights, it can happen again.
Doug Greco is a writer and grassroots organizer in Texas. He has covered the LGBT movement for Frontiers Magazine and is the author of the blog The Yellow Pig. Greco holds a Master of Professional Writing from USC and a Masters in Public Policy from Princeton University.