LGBT Activist Christina Santiago, 29, Was Here

christina santiago

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

-Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Christina Santiago was one of us. By that I mean she was a lesbian, and a feminist, and she had a girl in her life who she loved and wanted to marry, and she cared about the same things you care about and wanted the same things you want. Not specifically, necessarily. But in general, Christina Santiago wanted the same things you want.

When Christina was a kid growing up in the Bronx, she wanted to be Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez from TLC and later she and her friends wanted to be like the girls in Mi Vida Loca. And when she grew up she wanted to save the world and unlike most of us who dream of saving the world or haven’t yet considered saving the world, Christina Santiago was already doing it. She was 29 and she had already begun saving the world! We need Christina Santiago. I was going to type “we need people like Christina Santiago” but that’s not true, we need Christina Santiago herself. We need her and on Saturday night, Christina Santiago was one of five people killed at the Indiana State Fair when the stage collapsed. Santiago’s fiancée, Alisha Brennon, remains in critical condition at the hospital.

Santiago managed The Lesbian Community Care Project at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ healthcare organizations. The president of HBHC described Santiago as “one of our very brightest stars” and “a community champion.”

Santiago was also the director of programming for Amigas Latinas, a support, education and advocacy organization for Latina LGBTQ women. Amigas Latinas describe Christina as “one of our fiercest and brightest warriors.”

Also, Christina Santiago was Autostraddle writer Gabrielle Rivera‘s best friend of 20 years. Gabrielle describes Santiago as a friend who “never turned her back on anybody.”

christina santiago and gabrielle rivera

Gaby’s heart is crushed/broken/underwater (her words) and while her insides are still screaming she’s trusting me to write this post about her best friend. This is one of those things you can’t wrap your head around. It’s a “what the fuck, world?” moment. Christina Santiago liked Sugarland’s music and went with her girlfriend to a Sugarland show at the Indiana State Fair, and then there was all this wind and then suddenly, before you knew it, Christina was gone. Just leaving this giant hole in the world. People don’t go to concerts thinking they might die. Life changes in the instant, the ordinary instant.

Like, did God (or your version of it) mess up, maybe? So many people were really looking forward to the rest of her life — were counting on it. I think there’s been some kind of mistake. This is the world? This doesn’t make sense. I don’t think this is the world.

Oh, I want to tell you that they’re doing a thing — Christina’s friends from Cardinal Spellman High School — they want the NOH8 campaign to come to The Bronx to do a photoshoot in Christina’s memory, like the one Christina and Alisha did. So we need you to check out the facebook campaign and raise your voices.

Some things about Christina Santiago:

Christina Santiago listened to Tegan and Sara and other “lesbionic music.” You know — Alanis Morissette, Antigone Rising, Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, Alix Olson “etc etc.” She played softball and was a serial monogamist who always went for “Caucasian soft butches.” Back when she was in school at Albany she and Gaby would get wasted trying to pick up girls there. They came out to each other at the same time.

After Christina’s Mom died of breast cancer, Christina kinda kicked off a lifelong dedication to activism, starting with Breast Cancer Walks. She grew into a passionate and dedicated advocate for LGBTQ and Latina women and dedicated her life and career to it.

She’d been shining really bright since moving to Chicago in 2004, where she’s been manager of HBHC’s Lesbian Community Care Project for nearly six years and spearheaded their expansion of services to women. She recently earned HBHC’s highest staff honor, The 2010 Spirit Award.  

She is described as “the greatest advocate for equal health care for all, (and) the greatest advocate for equality for all.”

In an interview on NY1, her friend Erica Rico described her like this: “You never could be sad around her. She just brightened up a room, just her presence, her smile alone.”

She is described by her colleagues as “working tirelessly to improve the lives of women, particularly LGBTQ women.”

She is described by the president of The Howard Brown Health Center as “as brilliant as she was beautiful… as smart and talented as she was funny. She was all of the things that you could hope for in a friend and a family member.”

She is described by her colleagues as “irreplacable.”

She is described by her best friend as “my sister.”

+

Here’s the story of Gaby’s first car accident: Christina borrowed her Mom’s white Saturn and used it to pick up Gaby and Gaby’s girlfriend at the time from Hartsdale. Then Christina found out that her girlfriend, who was coming in from upstate, was lost in the Bronx.

“All Nena needed to know was that her white boo was lost in the South Bronx and she kicked that Saturn up to 110 mph,” Gaby remembers. They did three 360 degree turns on The Bronx River Parkway before slamming into the divider but getting saved by seat belts. So Gaby’s Dad came and took them to rescue the hapless white girl in the Bronx. “My ex always had a dislike of Christina after that but I thought it was kinda awesome,” Gaby says. “She just wanted to save her chick, you know?”

+

Christina and her fiancee Alisha

What happens next? There must be some mistake. She was on the motherfucking GROUND making shit happen. She believed in you, all of you tigers. She was loved and she was loved by someone we love an awful lot. So I think that Christina’s body may be gone, but she still believes in you.

Gaby told NY1:

“I know a lot of people who are waiting for their dreams to come true, and Christina was living her dreams.”

Gaby told us:

“I always told Christina that she was the one. The leader, the grown-up. The one making the difference, and that I was just a bum slacker/stoner/poet. And she would always tell me that I was important and my writing and poetry and short films were just as important as what she did. She would build me up all the time and talk about how art was as powerful as politics and its own form of activism.

She’d say: I need you to make what I do beautiful.”

Amigas Latinas Gala 2011

+

Support the effort to get a NO H8 shoot in The Bronx to do a photoshoot in Christina’s memory.

Support Amigas Latinas.

Support The Howard Brown Health Center.

+

The HBHC has set up a page to accept donations for Christina’s family and her partner.

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1731 articles for us.

51 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    “So many people were really looking forward to the rest of her life — were counting on it. I think there’s been some kind of mistake.”

    Exactly. And I only had the pleasure of meeting her/being around her a handful of times. Christina was like no other person.

    My condolences to all who love Christina and I hope Alisha heals well.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    My heart goes out to Gaby, Christina’s fiance Alisha and to all her friends and family. I can’t imagine the heartbreak. But she left a wonderful legacy that they and we can all work to carry on.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I don’t know if this is appropriate to mention, but I live in Chicago and all the local tv news here mentions her as only a “community leader” or mentions the spirit award but only for “community activism.” It’s one of many things about this that is fucked up.

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is a really beautifully written tribute to a beautiful (in all senses) woman. Thank you for writing this Riese, and my heart goes out to Gaby and to Christina’s fiance Alisha and to her family (biological and chosen) and to all who knew and loved her.

    I heard a brief report about her death on New York 1 yesterday and my heart hurt a little. I didn’t know her, but from their brief description even I thought that I did and the pictures of her that they showed looked just like someone I might know here in NYC. And now, having read your tribute, I feel as if I know her a little better, but much much too late.

    I also appreciated the (justified) anger at life’s unfairness in your piece. So often obits are filled with bla bla bla candy coated homages to god almighty. Fuck god almighty; it’s occasions like this that make me doubt his existence, or his sense of fairness anyway. How on earth does her death make any kind of sense in a just world?

    Thanks again for letting us all know a little more about her, and best to Gaby and to Christina’s fiance and to all those others in her life.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    “So many people were really looking forward to the rest of her life — were counting on it. I think there’s been some kind of mistake. This is the world? This doesn’t make sense.”

    That perfectly sums up this kind of grief. It’s almost a year exactly since my uncle died unexpectedly, and all I felt was a sort of shocked betrayal–that the world or God or whatever could take such a wonderful person away.

    My heart goes out to Christina’s family, Alisha, Gaby, and everyone else who is missing someone right now.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      yes, what you said. things just don’t make sense. this world doesn’t make sense. i guess we’ve just got to do what we can while we’re here and learn from those who aren’t. take their message and spread it loud and proud since our moment, too, is fleeting.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Hi guys — thanks for all your kind words. Christina was one of my dear friends… and I just wanted to clarify the rumor about Alisha not having rights to her body. Here is a statement from the coroners office:
      UPDATE: Alfarena Ballew from the Marion County Coroner’s office called to offer this statement, “Her friend and her aunt are working together with the life partner to take care of the remains. We have nothing in writing from the partner asking to claim the body. Our records show that the next of kin is her aunt. Our understanding now is that they’re all working together to release the body and take care of the services.” Ms. Ballew described the incident as a “misunderstanding” and says the office is on track to release the body shortly.
      This was taken from the website The Bilerico Project regarding the rumors about Alisha not being able to claim her partners Christina Santiago’s body.

      So thanks for your concern and your righteous indignation!! Please keep fighting – Christina would have wanted that :) In the meantime you can do that my donation in her honor.. PLEASE visit http://www.howardbrownhealthcenter.org/christina to help defray the cost of her burial AND Alisha’s medical expenses AND to support the program that she worked tirelessly for.. thank you again.

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Tried to post this a few minutes ago… so if this is a duplicate I apologize:
    UPDATE: Alfarena Ballew from the Marion County Coroner’s office called to offer this statement, “Her friend and her aunt are working together with the life partner to take care of the remains. We have nothing in writing from the partner asking to claim the body. Our records show that the next of kin is her aunt. Our understanding now is that they’re all working together to release the body and take care of the services.” Ms. Ballew described the incident as a “misunderstanding” and says the office is on track to release the body shortly.
    This was taken from the website The Bilerico Project regarding the rumors about Alisha not being able to claim her partners Christina Santiago’s body.

    Alisha is NOT BEING DENIED RIGHTS to Christina’s body – unsure of where this rumor started but as her friend I need to clear this up.. please spread the word. But we still need your help friends.. please visit http://www.howardbrown.org/christina where you can donate to help defray the costs of her funeral AND Alisha’s medical expenses… you can also donate to support the programs that she dedicated herself too. Thanks for all your kind words friends… please donate!!!

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This was a great article – I didn’ know her but she was my cousin’s best friend and I’m so sad for the worlds loss of her – what she did with her life was inspiring and I know she will do the same in heaven – may she RIP.

  8. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    thank you, Riese for writing this and sharing her story with everyone on Autostraddle.

    these news reporters have been so aggressive and unfeeling. they’ve made up stories and quotes with their microphones and cameras right in our faces.

    this is the first piece that has done justice to my friend and her life. it is beautiful. thank you so much.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Le sigh. I haz a sad! It’s an enormous, spirit-crushing sad that can only be ameliorated with cinnamon buns with extra buttercream frosting, French press coffee, and swift vindication upon the structural engineers who built that ill-fated stage. However, I feel that even in spite of my personal sad being spackled over with patisserie treats and hypothetically being offered an opportunity to lambast the stage builders about their negligence in structure installment, it still wouldn’t make me feel any better; only more Rubenesque and exasperated. Our world will still be lacking an indomitable spirit who wanted to improve the lives of marginalized women everywhere. I’m thinking of your work, Christina. Alisha, I hope your pain and grief are quick; may your fond memories of being together bring you serenity and comfort.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This was a wonderfully written article. Chicago and the world has lost a great woman.

    May her friends and family have the strength they need to get through this time.

    As for the media, I believe ABC7 Chicago has done a very respectable job reporting her story, interviewing in front of the Howard Brown Health Center and being open about what she did.

  11. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Wow. Sometimes something just cuts to the core of what it means to lose someone, hat that loss feels like, and how you have to remember everything that you had in order to make sense of that loss. This did that.

    Thank you.

  12. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I want to stet off by saying thank you, Riese, for your courageous and kindhearted words in light of such a horrible tragedy. My hert goes out to Gaby and to all of the family and friends of these two beautiful women.

    Our world couldn’t afford to lose a woman as strong and valuable to our community as Christina was, though this is never our choice. I can only hope she continues to be a shining example for those who wish to fight for our rights and bring happiness into our lives.

    I cant imagine thr pain and suffering of losing a partner, and my heart goes out to everyone touched by this horrible accident. Christina brought a love of good to this place, and I sincerely hope there are others out there who will carry on this mission for equality in her honor.

    Blessed be.

  13. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I heard about this on Monday and teared up, this article only made me tear up more.
    I didn’t know her but to be so affected by this article only goes to show what a spirit and wonderful person Christina was. My heart goes out to Gaby, Alisha, and all of Christina’s friends and family.

  14. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This seems to have been a beautiful women lost at such the prime of her life. So many things happened because of her gift, it’s up to us to keep her dream alive. God Bless

  15. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Losing a friend in this way is so cruel and devastating. I know the only thing that takes the edge off so much excruciating pain is to hold on as tightly as you can to everything that person was to you, and to hear as much as you can bear to learn what they were to others, as well, and hold on to that, too. I’m so, so sorry for your loss.

  16. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    In situations like these I always wish there were new words to talk about the tragedy and unfairness and just plain wrongness of it all. Like, we should have words that are specially reserved for times like these, because all the other words we have are so overused on much, much lesser things that they can’t really convey the depth and seriousness of something like this. They end up sounding trite at best and meaningless at worst.

    Still, I can only work with the words I have, so I’ll just say this: I am so, so sorry this happened. My heart goes out to Christina’s loved ones and I will be praying for Alisha’s speedy recovery. Christina may have been taken from the world too soon, but she sure as hell left her mark on it in the most amazing of ways. I hope when the pain and shock has faded a bit, her loved ones can take some kind of comfort in that.

    Thank you, Riese, for writing this. I love how you didn’t just report the facts of her death and talk about her involvement in activism, but you showed us what she was like as a person, too. This is why Autostraddle rocks. All of us are going to need obituaries at some point, and you couldn’t ask for a better one than this.

  17. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is very touching and puts a human face on this tragedy which I feel is being played for shock value on the news right now, especially here in Indiana. More than that, it seems to do a great service to Christina’s memory, I’m sure, and I just hope that everyone whose life was touched by her, either personally or from a distance, will be able to go on and work towards a world without hatred, even though it might hurt to do so without her.

  18. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is touching. It sounds like Christina was living a life worth living. Fighting for what she believes. Beautiful. In love. This is incredibly sad and my heart goes out to Gaby, and all of Christina’s friends and family. I guess the solace we can find is she lived more in her short time than many will in their lifetimes. My heartfelt sympathy.

  19. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    My heart goes out to her fiance, her family/friends, and Gaby. This is incomprehensible and I can’t even begin to understand how you feel and I’m sorry that someone who sounds so amazing and inspiring and friendly is gone so soon from this world. This is a great tribute, thank you Riese.

  20. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I had seen an article elsewhere about Christina and her fiance and this tragedy, and I had to stop reading and tell my friend because suddenly it felt personal. And reading about it now on AS physically hurts. I’m so sorry. Thanks for writing about her tremendous life.

  21. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    my heart goes out to alisha, gabby, and the thousands of others affected by the love and work that christina dedicated her life to. i did not know about this story until reading it here… thank you riese and AS for sharing and providing the links where we can make a donation while trying to figure out why things like this happen and how to honor christina’s life while we are still blessed with time on this earth.

  22. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    God doesn’t exist, so it was just shitty luck. I’m not sure what makes anyone look at all the bad stuff happening in the world and then ignore it to say… “oh, god definitely exists.”

    I feel sad though, not only for her and what she could of accomplished had she not died, but for all those who she left behind… My condolences to those who knew her.

  23. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Alisha: Hang in there lady. I hope you get better soon. I didn’t know you but I’m sure you’ll keep Christina’s presence alive but take care of you in the process. Live the best you can going forward! This is all hard for you I’m sure you will push through it all.

    As for Christina: Amazing what kind of woman she is just by looking at the media coverage. Didn’t know her either but knew of her. I think there’s a lesson learned by this little lady that we can all learn. You never know the impact that you can have on others and I wonder if she ever really realized hers on the people around her and now the world. Never under estimate your power and effect all of us have on others!! Christina has proven that to all of us. She absolutely served a very important lesson and purpose while she was here. Always remember how inspiring she was for all of us.

    Not only did both of their stories affect their friends and family but it has also affected the people in the world that didn’t know them.

    There’s something for all of us to learn out of this unfortunate event.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.