SALT LAKE CITY — In the three months following the disappearance of 62-year-old Navajo rug weaver Ella Mai Bege, unanswered questions sometimes threaten to overwhelm her niece.
Seraphine Warren organizes an exploration of the vast Navajo Nation landscape near her aunt’s home in Arizona, but is running out of money to pay for gas and food for the volunteers.
“Why is this taking so long? Why are our prayers not being answered?” He asked.
Bege is one of thousands of Indigenous women who have disappeared across America, some receiving no public attention, a disparity that extends to many other people of color.
The disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white 22-year-old woman who went missing during a cross-country trip with her boyfriend in Wyoming last month, has drawn a frenzy of coverage on both traditional and social media, a new take on the known incident. attracted attention. as the “missing white woman syndrome”.
Many families and advocates for missing people of color are glad that the focus on Pettito’s disappearance has helped unearth the clues that led to the tragic discovery of his body, and they mourn with his family. But some also question why the public spotlight is so important to finding missing people that other cases have been left shrouded in uncertainty.
“I would have loved that fast run, pushing my aunt to find it faster. That’s what I want,” said Warren, who lives in Utah, who passed through one of several states, Pettito and boyfriend Brian Laundry said.
In Wyoming, where Petito was found, only 18 percent of missing indigenous women cases had any media coverage in the past decade, according to a state report released in January.
“Someone goes missing every day… from a tribal community,” said Lynette Gray Bull, who is the Hunkpapa Lakota and North Arapaho and director of the organization Not Our Native Daughters. More than 700 indigenous people disappeared in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, and about 20 percent of those cases were still unresolved after a month. The report found that the rate is almost double in the white population.
One factor that helped people connect with Petito’s case was her Instagram profile, where she lived out her dream of traveling the country. Other social-media users contributed clues of their own, with a traveling couple saying they saw the couple’s white van in their own YouTube footage.
Although officials have not confirmed the discovery of this video, the vast open spaces of the American West may have haunted search parties for years and anything that narrows the search grid is welcome. Public pressure can also ensure that officials give priority to a matter.
The opportunity to create a well-curated social-media profile, however, isn’t available to everyone, said Lia Salgado, deputy director of Illuminative, a native women-led social justice organization.
“Who we care about and what we care about is curated in a way that harms people of color, and especially black and indigenous peoples,” she said.
Carol Liebler, a communications professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, said the reasons are layered, but the inherent bias in favor of both whiteness and traditional beauty standards, plays with newsroom diversity and a lack of police options in which to pursue cases.
“What has been told is that white lives matter more than people of color,” she said.
He said a sample of 247 missing teens in New York and California found that 34 percent of cases involving white teens were covered by the media, compared to only 7 percent of black teens and 14 percent of Latino children.
After receiving little notice in August, friends of 24-year-old Mexican-born day care worker Jennifer Caridad from Sunnyside, Washington, took to social media to draw attention to her case. As in Petito’s case, Caridad was believed to have been with her boyfriend for the last time. He was arrested on charges of carjacking and attempt to murder after police opened fire on him during a chase after his disappearance.
So far, officials have no answer for Caridad’s parents. Twice a week, Enrique Caridad visits the police station for any updates about his daughter.
“They tell me they won’t rest until she is found,” he said. “I ask them to please tell me about his last whereabouts so that I can also help find him. But they tell me not to get involved, not to harm the case.”
Detectives took DNA samples of the parents and said his SUV had blood stains, but they have yet to say whether it was Caridad’s blood. Initially, her parents struggled to understand the English-speaking detectives, but after the case is transferred to a small police department, they can tell one of the investigators that they speak Spanish.
“Not knowing what is killing us – not knowing if he is alive or if he has been hurt by that man,” Caridad said.
David Robinson temporarily moved from South Carolina to Arizona to search for his son, Daniel, who went missing in June. The 24-year-old black geologist was last seen at a workplace in Buckeye, outside Phoenix. A cattle rancher found his car a few miles away a month later in a ravine. His keys, mobile, purse and clothes were also recovered. But there is no trace of it.
The Petito saga unexpectedly elevated his son’s case as people used the #findgabypetito hashtag on Twitter to draw more attention to cases of missing people of color.
“I was first trying to get it out nationally for three months straight,” said Robinson, who communicated with other families about the coverage disparity. “It’s bigger than I thought. … It’s not just about my son Daniel. It’s a national problem.”
Another family whose case was highlighted by that hashtag – Lauren “L” Cho, a missing 30-year-old Korean American from California – said in a Facebook statement that they understand the frustrations, but cautioned that the differences between cases” It is deeper than what it is. What is in the public eye.”
Asians and Asian Americans certainly face the same issue of news visibility, said Kent Ono, a communications professor at the University of Utah. The “model minority myth”, that Asians succeed and don’t get into trouble, also contributes to the problem.
“This makes it very difficult for readers and viewers to imagine that Asians and Asian American people have a problem that they cannot take care of themselves,” he said.
Public attention is important in all missing persons cases, especially in the first day or two after a disappearance, said Natalie Wilson, who has worked with the Black and Missing Foundation to help bring more attention to underreported cases. co-founded. It is important to dispel racism and stereotypes linking missing people to poverty or crime.
“Often, families … don’t feel that their lives are valued,” she said. “We need to change the story of our disappearance to show that they are our sisters, brothers, grandparents. They are our neighbors. They are part of our community.”
Tang reported from Phoenix. Gomez Licon reported from Miami.