Iris Santos loved the theater. When she was in middle school, she appeared in numerous productions and won festival competitions. At Alief ISD’s Elsik High School, she helped out backstage and with makeup for the theater productions. “She wanted to go to Hollywood,” Santos’ mother, Maria Carreon, says. “She kept dreaming all the time, and [believed] that no one can take away your dreams.”
Instead, the 22-year-old transgender Houstonian became the latest statistic in the relentless wave of violence against trans women of color.
On Friday, April 23, Santos was sitting at a picnic table outside of the Chick-fil-A restaurant at 8609 Westheimer Road when she was shot and killed. Houston Police Department (HPD) investigators are still searching for her murderer.
Santos is one of at least 25 trans or gender-nonconfomring people murdered in the United States this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. A majority of the victims, including Santos, were trans women of color under the age of 30.
A Kind Soul
Santos was born and raised in Southwest Houston, the youngest child in her family with two older sisters and an older brother.
She was a determined student who loved her classes, and especially the science courses. Carreon remembers Santos often coming home and telling her how her day went and which teachers she liked the best. She once entered a spelling bee contest and won first place.
Santos had her mother’s full support when she transitioned as a teenager in high school. “She wore a dress to the ninth grade, and was so happy,” Cameron recalls.
Tamika Caston-Miller, an out teacher at Elsik High School, was a sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club when she met Santos. “She became part of the GSA, and it was very important to her,” Caston-Miller says. She later became one of Santos’ mentors, and kept in touch with her until her death.
After the ninth grade, Santos attended her first LGBTQ Pride parade. “She decided to stand in front of a group of protestors, speaking her truth. She was very brave,” Caston-Miller says. The next year, Santos joined a coalition of other schools and marched in Houston’s Pride parade.
Following graduation, Santos agreed to participate in a panel of Episcopal Church leaders who were advocating for trans acceptance in the church. “She fought for her identity,” Caston-Miller says. “She was a really kind soul, and a fighter for justice and truth.”
“She was very spiritual,” Carreon adds. “She was so happy and full of dreams about what she wanted to do in life. She loved Mexican traditions, and wanted to travel and do so many things. There was no evil in her. She was always reaching out to help someone.”
After her high-school graduation, Santos built up an online business selling candles and soaps. She also did makeup consultations and even provided tarot card readings for her clients.
Carreon last saw her daughter on the Sunday before the murder. “She was excited, and was planning to attend a big convention for people who do tarot readings. Before we parted, she hugged me extremely hard and kissed me and said goodbye, and that she loved me. Then she came back and hugged me a second time.”
A Call to Action
Jovan Tyler, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, remembers Santos as a beautiful young woman who had her whole life in front of her. “As human-rights activists, we owe her our all in helping to elect politicians who will create laws that will protect those future Iris Santos’s yet to come. The act of violence was an outrage, but it’s our duty to turn that outrage into positive actions.”
Anandrea Molina, a trans activist and the director of Organización Latina de Trans in Texas and Casa Anandrea, organized a rally at City Hall on May 6 to protest Santos’ murder and the lack of civil-rights protections for trans people of color.
“The murder of Iris Santos is the tip of the iceberg,” Molina tells OutSmart. “Trans women have been murdered in Houston, and no one does anything. [It seems] their efforts are limited, because [other trans murders] still follow. The trans community in Houston, Texas, holds the local authorities accountable; the City of Houston owes a historic debt to our trans population.
“We must demand that the police department continues [to work toward finding justice for trans murder victims] and that the mayor takes responsibility and creates inclusivity, rights, and protections for trans women in employment, housing, health services, and people with experiences in using the sex trade for survival. [We also call on] the Harris County Commissioners Court, including Judge Lina Hidalgo, to seek to improve the quality of life for criminalized and vulnerable trans women.
“We need to fight together,” Molina concluded. “If we don’t fight together, they kill us separately.”
“Iris Santos was a young 22-year-old woman who had her life ahead of her,” says Alexis Melvin, president of the Transgender Foundation of America. “We will never know what that life may have brought to the world, because a currently unknown assailant violently ended it. That is the tragedy.
“We are on track for 2021 to produce more violent deaths of transgender people than any other year on record,” Melvin emphasizes. “This escalating violence is unacceptable, and we call on our law-enforcement agencies to vigorously investigate and prosecute these crimes, and on our elected officials to pass legislation to protect everyone, not just a select few.”
The Ongoing Investigation
Officer Jo Jones, HPD’s LGBTQ Liaison, says that Santos’ murder is still an active, open case. Jones has been working with the detectives and members of the community to find more information, and she wants to assure the community that HPD is determined to bring the case to a successful close.
Jones reports that HPD detectives suspect there are people who have vital information about the case, but they might be reluctant to come forward. She stands willing and able to guide anyone with information through the entire process of working with HPD’s homicide division.
Anyone who has information about Santos’ murder should contact Officer Jones at 713-308-3257.
This article appears in the June 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.