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In East Boston, advocates call for stronger voice for missing women

Julia Martinez, 6, placed a battery operated candle at a vigil and community meeting after the disappearance of two teens, who were later found, at the Bremen Street Park.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The discovery of an open bedroom window on Saturday, March 4 spurred family members and East Boston residents into a frantic search for a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl. That same night, a 15-year-old walked out of her East Boston home and couldn’t be reached for days.

Meanwhile, Reina Carolina Morales Rojas, a 41-year-old East Boston mother from El Salvador, was last seen getting out of a car in Somerville in November. She hasn’t been heard from since.

That’s three Latinas from the same neighborhood, appearing on the city’s missing persons radar at one given time — without a sense of urgency to act on their behalf, community advocates say.


Alarmed that the disappearances of Latinas from the same immigrant neighborhood too often fall below the public’s radar, community advocates are calling for more awareness among public safety authorities and pressuring city officials to act with greater urgency when young women of color go missing.

Last month, six Boston city councilors sent a public letter to Mayor Michelle Wu and Police Commissioner Michael Cox demanding a thorough investigation into Morales Rojas’s case. Meanwhile, the full council approved a resolution calling for equal treatment in missing women cases. And at-large Councilor Julia Mejia called for a hearing to audit how Boston police treat all Latino and Spanish-speaking residents.

“The status quo is unacceptable, especially for communities of color, and a ‘business as usual’ approach will not protect Ms. Morales Rojas or other cases like hers,” the letter read.

Days after she went missing, Boston police ultimately found the 15-year-old at the home of a friend. And days after that, the 16-year-old returned home. The reasons the teenagers went missing are unknown. The friends of one family said one disappearance arose from a mental health crisis. But the frantic search for the teenagers — driven largely by a community service organization — with little support or notice from the general public has community advocates concerned that young immigrant women, some of whom don’t speak English, are left without a voice in such circumstances.


The investigation of Morales Rojas’ disappearance has not received the type of attention paid in cases of more affluent women or those from the suburbs, advocates said. Her roommate and boyfriend reported her missing to Boston police within two days after she was last seen. But it took until Jan. 12 — two months later — for the police to share her case with the public.

Mariellen Burns, chief of communications for Boston police, said police have canvassed neighborhoods with Morales Rojas’ photo, reviewed relevant surveillance footage, and used drones and dogs in what she called an ongoing search.

“We want anyone who is a victim or witness of a crime to know we are here to help them regardless of race, ethnicity, or immigration status,” Burns said in an e-mail. “There has been a narrative contrary to this reality that has been put forward, which is concerning because promoting distrust in the community may dissuade victims or witnesses of crime from coming to the Boston Police for needed assistance.”

But at a vigil earlier this month, more than 30 East Boston residents and elected officials huddled at Bremen Street Park to decry what they called a lack of policies and resources dedicated to people who don’t have relationships with city officials, law enforcement, or the media who can speak on their behalf.


“We don’t want to just be reacting when someone disappears,” said Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a community organization that had been sounding the alarm over the recent disappearances. “We need to work together in order to change public policy and educate the community, police, and policymakers.”

Dozens of flameless candles illuminated flowers. Hot pink, lime green, and neon orange signs bore affirming messages in Spanish and English about women’s empowerment. In black marker, someone wrote, “Los derechos de la mujer son derechos humanos,” or “women’s rights are human rights.”

City Councilor Gabriela Coletta, who represents the neighborhood, said she plans on meeting with those who attended the gathering to see how the city can use the annual budget to fill gaps in services for Latino and Spanish-speaking residents.

“One person missing is one too many,” Coletta said.

Alexandria Onuoha, director of political advocacy at Black Boston Inc., a Black-women-led grassroots organization, said policymakers must consider what type of resources a young woman, and her family, have when she goes missing.

“We have to think about equity and resources, and that changes the experience from individual to individual,” said Onuoha, a doctoral applied developmental psychology student at Suffolk University. “Asking the question of what resources and support these girls had ... all of these [questions] are important.”

In recent weeks, following public outcry over Morales Rojas’ case, state and city officials have started to address some of the concerns. Earlier this month, Governor Maura Healey announced that her office is devoting $300,000 to a statewide missing persons task force, though many details on its operations remain unknown.


And during a recent press conference, Wu said the Police Department is working with the city’s Office of Police Accountability and Transparency to clarify gray areas in its missing persons’ protocol, such as the timeline for public alerts and disseminating those notices to multilingual outlets.

The aim of the effort is to “reflect the reality of what we see today,” with women of color from immigrant and multilingual communities often receiving little attention from the public or authorities, Wu said.

Advocates agree that schools, elected officials, and agencies must work to improve situations that make certain people more vulnerable to disappearing — whether that’s suspension and expulsion rates at school, deep poverty, or a disruptive home environment that leave someone with limited safe spaces — well before they go missing.

For Daniela Carbajal, a Centro Presente immigrant rights organizer, solutions could lie in schools hiring more teachers, psychologists, and social workers who recognize the circumstances young immigrants, people who don’t speak English, and people of color face.

“I just want to emphasize this point about really understanding where communities are coming from,” Carbajal said. “That starts with listening directly to these stories and experiences, and in our case, our girls and women.”

Anyone with information on the disappearance of Reina Carolina Morales Rojas or any other Boston missing person case is asked to contact police. Tips can be shared anonymously via its CrimeStoppers Tip Line at 1 (800) 494-TIPS/ 1 (800) 494-8477 or by texting ‘TIP’ to CRIME (27463).


Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her @tianarochon.