The femicide of Julieta Hernández, a Venezuelan migrant in Brazil, sparks outrage across South America

Protest in São Paolo in honor of Julieta Hernández on January 12 2024. Photo by Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil. Used with permission.

Notice: This post contains mentions of murder, sexual assault, and violence against women, which may be disturbing to some readers.

In the wake of the femicide of 38-year-old Venezuelan artist and cyclist Julieta Inés Hernández Martínez, activists, feminist movements, and cycling advocacy groups from across South America have highlighted the cruelty of the crime through tributes, street protests, and cyclists’ urban rides in more than 150 cities, especially in Brazil and Venezuela.

Hernández Martinez’s body was found buried in a wooded area on January 5 in Presidente Figueiredo, a municipality in the state of Amazonas, northern Brazil. She had previously been reported missing on December 23, by family and friends who contacted police authorities in Brazil and launched a campaign on social media to find her.

She was crossing Brazil, where she had lived for the past eight years, by bicycle on her way to Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, to celebrate the holidays with her family.

Hernández Martínez identified herself as a migrant, nomad, clown, puppeteer, and cycle tourist, and was also a beloved street artist and cycling advocate. She was the founder of the Venezuelan Female Clown Network, part of the Circo di SóLadies collective, a theater group in which she performed as the clown Jujuba, and a member of Pé Vermêi, a collective that brings together artists and cyclists who travel around Brazil by bicycle. She was always close to a culture that promoted a connection with social movements. both in Brazil and Venezuela. 

According to the Amazonas’ Civil Police, a local couple confessed to the crime of murdering the artist. The 32 year-old man and a 29 year-old woman are suspects of robbing, raping, killing Hernández Martínez and hiding her corpse afterwards. She was also stabbed, strangled, and lit on fire before being buried in the backyard along with her bike. Her body was found after a neighbor saw parts of a broken bicycle and called the police.

According to Sophia La Roja, Hernández Martínez’s sister, in a message sent to a WhatsApp cyclists group chat, Hernández Martínez spent the night at the aggressors’ home because she noticed their five children were underfed:

Screenshot of the message sent by Julieta Hernández's family and friends (her sister Sophia La Roja, and her friends Veronica Seijas, Veronica Gabriela and Cinthia Caracciolo) in a cycling advocacy Whatsapp group on January 2024. Screenshot taken by Gabriela Mesones Rojo.

She used the little money she had to buy them food and spent the night with the poor and miserable family. It wasn’t the first time she was deeply moved by the pain of children, and she always looked forward to sharing her joy and love. (…) The children are now in a refuge, and let us hope that Julieta’s last moments gave them a better future. 

Riding for justice

On January 13, a group of cyclists rode through the city of Caracas while chanting for justice for Julieta and highlighting the violence that women riders experience in Caracas and also as travelers in Latin America: “We’re not all here: Julieta isn’t!,” “We have the right to move, the right to travel alone,” “We want our sisters alive.”

The ride was organized by collectives Ser Urbano (“Urban beings”), which promotes good public life in Caracas, and The Assembly of Urban Cycling, which promotes “bike-activism.”

Ride in honor of Julieta Hernández Martínez in Caracas, Venezuela, one of the many tributes organized by Ser Urbano and Asamblea de Ciclismo Urbano. January 13, 2023. Photo by Gabriela Mesones Rojo. Used with permission.

More than 150 peaceful protests, tributes, and cultural events have taken place in Venezuela, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile since the news of the murder of Hernández Martínez broke. 

In Brazil, a state ride, hundreds of tribute events and bike rides have honored the artist, to celebrate her life, values, and legacy as a woman traveler and cyclist advocate. The movement gained momentum on social media, with the hashtag #JustiçaParaJulieta (Justice for Julieta) going viral.

In an interview posted in the SóLadies Youtube Channel, Hernández Martínez talked about her values as a traveler, cyclist and clown:  

Being a woman, a clown, and a Venezuelan migrant are three intertwined things. At the moment I am an itinerant migrant traveling by bicycle through the interior of the northeastern states of Brazil. Being a woman, a clown, and a migrant is a great responsibility because, whether we want to or not, we become references for women who travel alone, references for women who choose a profession that is generally for men. Because it is difficult for clowns to arrive in many places, and even less so for female clowns.

Femicides in Amazonas: a pressing issue

Statistics from the Justice Ministry in Brazil show that four women are killed in femicides in the country every day — a crime that is considered heinous under the Brazilian law since 2015, and means women or girls being killed for their gender.

Brazil was ranked the fifth leading country in femicide rates in Latin America in a 2021 poll. Hernández Martinez's murder has become a symbol of this violence, but also of the risks that affect women cyclists and those who travel by themselves around the world.

According to the report “Violence against girls and women in the 1st half of 2023,” from the Brazilian Public Security Forum, the number of femicides in the state of Amazonas grew by 87.5 percent compared to the same period of 2022. There were 15 deaths recorded in 2023 compared to eight the previous year year.

The silence from authorities has also been critizised by protestors and cycling advocates in the tributes in honor of Hernández Martínez. Neither the government of Amazonas or its governor, Wilson Lima from the União Brasil party have publicly spoken about the crime, or mentioned the pressing issue of gender violence in the country. Independent Brazilian media outlet Vocativo, has also highlighted that the members of the Amazonas caucus in the state assembly have also remained silent in face of the femicide.

The president of the Brazil's National Arts Foundation (Funarte), Maria Marighella, lamented Hernández Martinez's death and said the foundation follows the investigations alongside Amazonas state government:

Com toda alegria e irreverência, Julieta viajava com sua arte conduzindo crianças e adultos ao mundo circense e por isso, sempre será lembrada. Inquieta em relação à desigualdade de gênero, sua busca por equidade é uma inspiração pra todas nós.

With all joy and irreverence, Julieta travelled with her art driving children and adults to the circus world and, therefore, will always be remembered. Restless regarding gender inequality, her search for equality is an inspiration for all of us.

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