Christina Santiago, a lauded leader in Chicago’s lesbian community, was one of five people tragically killed last weekend when a stage collapsed at a concert at the Indiana State Fair. She was only 29 years old.
Santiago’s fiancée, Alisha Brennon, was severely injured in the accident (along with over 40 others). The two were among the first couples to get engaged in June when Illinois legalized civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and planned a September 2012 ceremony.
Over the past three years, Santiago served as a board member of Amigas Latinas, a support, education and advocacy organization for lesbian, bisexual and questioning women of Latina heritage in Chicago. In her biography on the organization’s website, she self-identified as a “Puerto Rican lesbian, feminist activist who bears roots from the Bronx, New York...[and whose] passions lie in breast health and cancer advocacy, access to healthcare, and empowering queer women of color.”
By all accounts, she pursued these passions tirelessly, skillfully and joyfully. As Board Programming Chair for Amigas Latinas, Santiago coordinated educational events and fundraisers, including a health and wellness event series. She also followed her passion in her full-time work, managing the Lesbian Community Care Project (LCCP) at Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC), where she worked for nearly six years. In recognition of her dedication and achievement, she received HBHC’s 2010 Spirit Award (the highest staff honor) and was listed as one of the Windy City Times’ 30 Under 30 LGBT leaders in 2007.
News outlets nationwide have noted Santiago’s passing, including the NY Daily News, Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun Times, and CNN. NBC New York compiled a video report on this tragedy, including interviews with a few of Santiago’s friends and community members. Both the Howard Brown Health Center and Amigas Latinas have issued tributes to Santiago on their home pages, as well.
In conversations with the media and with GLAAD, many of Santiago’s friends and colleagues remembered her as a tireless, fearless advocate and irreplaceable community builder as they try to come to terms with her sudden loss.
"They don't make 'em like Christina Santiago," Gabrielle Rivera, Santiago’s childhood best friend in the Bronx, told the NY Daily News. “She always looked out for underdogs. She lived her dream - she was an advocate for people who needed help. Her work proves the goodness of her.”
Rick Garcia, longtime LGBT advocate in Chicago, knew Christina through political and community work. He shared,
My relationship with Christina was professional, meaning we were at meetings together, and I greatly admired her and her work. My heart breaks. She was our future. As one who has been around for awhile, I took great hope and pride in her and great comfort that there are those who continue the work of justice. She touched many, influenced many, and I am confident that those she touched will continue her legacy.
Ann Russo, Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University, knew Santiago through the LGBT community in Chicago. She reflected,
I always enjoyed running into Christina at Amigas Latinas and other LGBT events. I loved and was always inspired by her abundant energy, enthusiasm, and passion for life, for building community, and for social justice. One of the many contributions was her everyday commitment to building relationships and connections between people, issues, and visions within across the many communities in Chicago. I manage a local listserv in Chicago, and she was one of the most active in spreading the word about feminist, queer, and LGBTQ events, protests, and activities in the Chicago area. I cannot express the depth of sadness and loss I feel with her tragic death . . . she will be missed. I also know that her contributions, presence, and energy will continue to shape what we are creating and building here in Chicago.
Kelly Suzanne Saulsberry, Board President-Elect of Affinity Community Services , an advocacy organization for Black LGBT communities in Chicago, was Santiago’s friend and colleague. She stated,
I met Christina when she came to a town hall forum Affinity had for people to find out about our work. I was touched right away by her warmth and friendliness. Eventually, we decided to build partnerships between Affinity and Amigas Latinas. She was very creative, forthcoming, eager and pragmatic, and very humorous. She was the kind of person who, if she could offer words of encouragement or help you in some way, she would. I recently lost my dad in February, and Christina lost her mom several years ago. I posted on Facebook that I was dreading Father’s Day, and Christina reached out - she was very empathetic because she knew what it was like to lose a parent. She had good intentions and was a good, good person. And one of the things I admired about her the most was that she was an accomplished advocate, but she did her work with such purpose without being led by her ego. It wasn’t about getting her name out there or getting credit for everything - she had self-respect and a healthy ego, but she didn’t lead with her ego. She had a true passion for what she did, and was motivated by the work, and wanted to inspire that passion in others. She was very generous in that way. She meant a lot to a lot of people. My heart is completely broken; we’ve lost someone very special and that void will never be filled.
Rosa Yadira Ortiz, Board President of Amigas Latinas, served on the Board with Christina for three years. She shared,
Christina really brought us all together, and that's something very few people can do. In the outpouring of grief that has happened, I have seen that her passing has affected multiple communities who she worked with and belonged to. She wasn’t the type of person who was hanging out at home in the evening, watching TV - she was very involved in everything from softball to organizing meetings. Her passing is especially heartbreaking because she was just starting to find her groove - she was planning to get married next September, she was in the midst of applying to an MPH program, she was doing amazing work at Amigas Latinas, and new opportunities were emerging for her leadership.
On a personal note, I lost a very dear friend and a very important colleague. Christina was one of the few people in my life who I took guidance from. I respected her recommendations because I respected her work and her ethics. At the same time, I could kick back with her, relax at the end of a long day over a drink and a good conversation with her. Christina is a part of my family, she played on the same softball team as my partner, and I’ve shared so much with her. She was my right hand person at Amigas Latinas, and I feel like I am still waiting for a text or an email from her. I am still in shock that she’s gone.
Santiago’s colleagues at HBHC organized a memorial service, which was co-organized by Amigas Latinas, for her at the Center on Sunday, less than 24 hours after she was killed. At the memorial, Jamal Edwards, the Center’s President and CEO, recalled, "She was as brilliant as she was beautiful. She was 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 was the most powerful and strong woman that Howard Brown Health Center has and probably will ever know. That strength, that beauty, that power, that passion, that love doesn't die - it lives on. But it's going to take some time for us to heal from this."
Others remembered the inspiring love that Santiago and Brennon shared. Joe Hollendoner, HBHC’s Vice President of Community Health Programs, told the Chicago Sun Times that most at the Center were in awe of Santiago and Brennon’s relationship. “Every day I would come in at 8:30 a.m. and I would see Christina, and Alisha would be dropping her off and giving her the kiss goodbye. And then every day at 5:30 p.m., I walked up to the door and stood and watched Christina get right back into that car,” Hollendoner said. “They just had a partnership that was inspiring. We all pretty much wish we could have that kind of relationship in our lives, and they had it.”
The Howard Brown Health Center has organized two memorial funds, one to help Santiago’s family defray expenses incurred by Santiago’s death and Brennon’s injury, and one to support the Lesbian Community Care Project (LCCP) that Santiago managed. Donations can be made online at: http://www.howardbrown.org/hb_donate.asp?id=1900
Amigas Latinas has set up a memorial fund to honor and celebrate Santiago’s advocacy in the Latina community. The fund will establish a scholarship in honor of Christina. Donations should be designated for “Christina Santiago Memorial Fund” and made online at: https://www.justgive.org/nonprofits/donate.jsp?ein=33-1045574
Santiago will be laid to rest in New York on Friday, August 19, following a memorial service on August 18 in the Bronx. GLAAD offers deep sympathies to her loved ones and all who loved her.