Transgender woman describes hate-filled attack that almost killed her

CNN's Sara Sidner speaks with a transgender woman about the hate-filled attack that almost killed her, and reports on the disturbing rise in hate crimes against the transgender community in the US.

Posted: Oct 10, 2019 11:10 AM
Updated: Oct 10, 2019 11:10 AM

The staples keeping Daniela Calderon Rivera's skin together look like a zipper down her abdomen.

Stitches and scars mark her right arm. There's an exit wound on her back.

She was shot six times in an apparently hate-fueled attack by a stranger she thought would kill her.

She survived. But her fear is far from over.

Calderon Rivera lives in Dallas, where there has been a string of brutal attacks on transgender women in the last few years.

And Texas, along with Maryland, leads the nation for deaths of transgender people through violence this year, according to the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

Calderon Rivera says she knew other people like her -- transgender women of color -- had been attacked, but she never thought she would be next.

And she knows her risk is higher because she is a sex worker, but she says it's her only way to make a living as a transgender undocumented immigrant.

Calderon Rivera says her mother died when she was 10 in her native Honduras. Her father abandoned the family. When she was old enough, she tried to hold on to a job but she was fired. She says they simply didn't want a transgender person. She left Honduras with next to nothing but hope that the US would have better opportunities and fewer dangers.

Without documents and transgender, however, she soon found herself walking the streets, offering her body for money.

That's what took her to a road in a business area district next to a working-class neighborhood in northwest Dallas last month.

The attack

A man pulled up in a red pickup and asked her for sex. She agreed -- $80 for an hour. She got in the truck.

Then came the question that ended up triggering the worst night of her life.

"Why is your voice deep?" Calderon Rivera said the man asked her. "I am transgender," she says she replied in her native Spanish. And everything changed.

"He started saying, 'oh so you're a guy not a girl?'" she told CNN. "He said, 'I hate people like you'."

She got out of the pickup as fast as she could. She says he started to follow her spewing homophobic and transphobic slurs.

She hurried to a nearby store. He followed. She went in to hide. She waited a while. Then, when she thought the coast was clear, she walked to a bus stop to call it a night.

She had no idea he was hunting her.

Soon that same red pickup was driving towards her on the wrong side of the road.

"He stopped and he started shooting. Una. Dos..." She tries to count out all of the six shots but is overcome by tears. "This is the worst memory I will have for all of my life."

After the sound of the shots, she remembers the blood. It seemed to be coming from everywhere.

She asked God for help. And to forgive her sins. She prayed for her brothers.

One stranger hurt her, another helps her heal

As Calderon Rivera lay patched together in a hospital bed, Stacey Monroe received an email from a liaison to the Dallas Police Department advisory board about what happened.

Monroe, a transgender activist in the city with Organización Latina de Trans en Texas, is now by that bed every day. Calderon Rivera has no family in the country so Monroe tends to her.

"I can relate to her because I once felt like I was alone and I didn't want anyone else to feel that way," she says.

Monroe knows the statistics of crimes against transgender people, especially women of color. She also knows the numbers may well be higher because transgender people can be misidentified by police or crimes may not be reported.

The Human Rights Campaign says so many attacks on a relatively small population over the past five years are alarming. The American Medical Association has referred to violence against transgender people as an epidemic that needed to be addressed.

Monroe says one of the things that may contribute to the violent deaths of transgender women like Calderon Rivera is the dangerous work they do because they have no other choice. They have no protection from being fired for who they are in many states.

Even those in regular work face problems. Monroe says she was fired from a temporary job when her office figured out she was transgender.

"It's legal here in Texas," She said. "Without legal protections. It's just that easy."

That could change with the US Supreme Court now considering whether federal law that bars employment discrimination on the basis of sex applies to transgender people.

"We can't change who we are," Monroe emphasizes.

An arrest, but no peace

In Calderon Rivera's case Dallas police made an arrest. Domingo Ramirez-Cavente, was charged with aggravated assault.

In court documents, police say he confessed to the shooting, blaming it, just like Calderon Rivera said, on his disgust for people like her. It was investigated as a hate crime and that police say he hurled anti-LGBTQ slurs at her.

Ramirez-Cavente has been let out of jail on bond. A trial date has not been set.

We attempted to speak with him. We went to his last known address listed on his bond paperwork but no one answered the door. CNN has reached out to his attorney for comment but has not immediately heard back yet.

"I'd call him a monster because that's what he is," Monroe says. "This person, who is out on bond, now is 7 minutes away from where I live. I think it's ridiculous -- he literally attempted to kill her."

Monroe holds Calderon Rivera's hand. They have become like sisters.

Calderon Rivera had hoped to be out of the hospital after her many surgeries but now she is terrified of leaving.

"My biggest fear is that soon I will be out of this hospital, but this person is also out. I am afraid that he is going to finish what he started," she says, her eyes wide and filled with worry.

But even after nearly being shot to death she does not regret coming to the US. She still believes it is safer and offers a better chance for her to make it than Honduras. And she keeps the dream she arrived with.

"My greatest hope was to work in a restaurant," she says. "One day become a chef."

Stacey has set up a GoFundMe account for Daniela's recovery and expenses.

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