February 15, 2020 | By Joshua Lester
This story is part of a collaborative project between Project: Cold Case and a University of North Florida Journalism class. The student credited above wrote this story as a class project.
After Sunday dinner at her grandmother’s house each week, Brenda Perez sat and watched her mother, Raquel Ramirez, twirl to the music.
Raquel was the life of the party. She loved to dance – especially salsa. She taught everyone in the family how to salsa dance, with varying levels of success.
Brenda heeded those lessons, practicing in the dark so no one could see her missteps.
Those dinners don’t happen anymore. There hasn’t been a dance lesson in decades.
On June 30, 1985, 29-year-old Raquel Ramirez was found strangled in Hartford, Connecticut, near a bridge crossing the Connecticut River.
Raquel grew up in Puerto Rico. She moved to New Jersey at the age of 15 with aspirations of becoming a teacher. She loved to cook meals from her place of birth, especially rice and beans. Raquel’s height of 4’11″ earned her the nicknames of “Shorty” and “Half-pint.”
Brenda described her mother as attentive, with her most distinct characteristic being empathy.
“If she had the opportunity to feed every homeless person in Hartford, she would,” Brenda said. “She would give her last dollar to a homeless person.”
When Raquel gave birth to her first child Ben in 1973, she paused her teaching ambitions. Brenda was born two years later.
Life wasn’t easy for Raquel and her family. Brenda’s father was abusive. Raquel supported three kids as a single mother and found employment wherever she could. At one point she even worked in tobacco fields.
Even though they didn’t have much money, Raquel pulled out all the stops for her kids’ birthdays, sprawling out neat decorations and throwing a fun, shared party for Brenda and Ben because their birthdays were so close.
“She would make us feel special,” Brenda recalled.
Brenda inherited that affinity for birthday celebrations and now bakes birthday cakes for a living. She thinks about what happened to her mother every day, but baking cakes brings back memories of her own birthday parties and her mother’s positivity, and her mind eases.
Brenda recalled that her mother seemed on edge in the days leading up to her murder, giving off vague impressions that her family was being threatened. Brenda’s grandmother, noticing this behavior, instructed the kids to not let Raquel leave the house. But on that fateful June night, she snuck out.
Brenda woke up the next morning to find her mother gone. Her grandmother arrived at the house, and Brenda sensed some concern, but didn’t think too much of it. She turned on the radio to evade the tension. She heard an announcement that someone with pearl earrings was found near the Connecticut River.
Brenda’s grandmother quickly turned the radio off and instructed Brenda to go to the corner store to get tomato sauce. She strolled to the store, wondering if her mom would be home by the time she got back.
Upon returning, Brenda saw her brother on the porch crying, their neighbor offering him comfort. She knew then that something wasn’t right.
When she walked into the house, she witnessed a residence full of crying and screaming relatives along with a few police detectives.
The detectives told Brenda they had found her mother. She was dead.
“I was in disbelief,” Brenda said.
The detectives showed 10-year-old Brenda a photograph of her mother’s body as confirmation, something Brenda described as traumatizing.
The killer has never been found.
The family shut down after the murder. “When something like this happens, it can bring families together or break them,” Brenda stated. “It broke our family.”
At the funeral, a grieving family member tried to lift Raquel’s body from the coffin. The pain was so overwhelming that Brenda believes she, as a little girl, never had space to properly grieve.
Brenda and Ben went to live with their grandmother. For several months, they all slept in the same bedroom.
Ben doesn’t like to talk about his mother. None of the family does. It’s too painful for them.
Brenda carried this pain, too, and eventually moved out of her East Hartford neighborhood to escape the constant reminders of her mother’s absence.
What Brenda misses most about her mother are her long, embracing hugs and her vibrant smiles. Even after 35 years, those memories have never faded.
To this day, Brenda continues to practice her salsa moves, dancing in the dark like when she was young. She doesn’t do it to hide her mistakes any longer, but rather to imagine her mother dancing alongside her.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Raquel Ramirez, please call the Hartford Police Department at (860) 757-4000.
RESEARCH & IMPACT
In addition to advocating awareness for victims and their families, Project: Cold Case has diligently worked to bring attention to the mental and physical health impact stemming from the trauma of homicide and the weight of continuously advocating for a loved one while moving forward in life.
Most survivors openly share that compartmentalizing the grief and trauma is generally the default coping mechanism allowing for day-to-day functioning. However, for many reasons, that can be detrimental to their overall health. As studies have shown, the impact of post-traumatic stress and trauma can have direct negative implications on a survivor’s overall physical health.
Project: Cold Case has created a peer-to-peer support network with our monthly grief support meetings as a way of contributing to the conversation of mental health. For those that attend, aside from their shared experience of losing a loved one to a violent act, not having a space for open dialogue or a place to share grief is equally common. Our support group facilitates a safe space for sharing emotions while allowing for perspective within the group. Being able to give voice to pain can be therapeutic and vital to healing.
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