Little Havana - Flagami

Remembering a girl from Little Havana a year after her death

From left to right, Shelly Munoz, Stephanie Padilla, Kiana Cruz and Emely Martinez during a recent Mass in memory of Martha Guzmán, who died a year ago.
From left to right, Shelly Munoz, Stephanie Padilla, Kiana Cruz and Emely Martinez during a recent Mass in memory of Martha Guzmán, who died a year ago. el Nuevo Herald

A few months before her death, 11-year-old Martha Guzmán was watching a police TV show with her dad, Jorge Guzmán, when she asked him: "Dad, what is DNA?".

"I explained it to her as best as I could," said Guzmán, a Honduran immigrant living in Miami. "I told her that the police use it to find evidence in criminal cases."

The girl was murdered a short time after, on June 22, 2014, at her home in Little Havana. Authorities arrested her mother's ex boyfriend, Miguel Ruiz Lobo, as the suspect of the crime, partly due to a DNA test that revealed the skin found underneath Martha's fingernails matched Ruiz Lobo's.

"I think she fought and scratched him to leave evidence because of what I told her that day when we were watching television," Guzmán whispered while he stared at the floor. "She was so intelligent, so intelligent. My little girl was so intelligent."

A year after his daughter was found in a puddle of blood, with a knife stuck in her throat, Guzmán, family members, friends and neighbors cling on to memories to cope with her absence.

Meanwhile, the criminal case is still pending. However, it could be months or even years until Ruiz Lobo — who claims he is innocent and remains in jail — is taken to trial.

The tragic case profoundly impacted a community that knew the girl since she was born and affectionately called her Martica.

Shortly after the tragedy, her mother Amaurys Alvarenga — who has a 4 year-old son with Ruiz Lobo — moved to another neighborhood, taking nothing but a small plant in a pot. Alvarenga declined to comment for this article.

Family members and friends gathered once again last month at a Mass in honor of Martha's on the anniversary of death. Her friends from school and the neighborhood wore black shirts with pictures of Martha and the words "Rest in Peace" and "Rest in Paradise" printed on them. Almost all of them cried while they listened to the sermon.

"This was not an act of God. This was an expression of the level of violence that exists in the world," said the Rev. Yader Centeno at the San Juan Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana.

According to authorities, Ruiz Lobo waited for Alvarenga to leave her apartment the morning of June 22 and, realizing that Martha was alone, entered and stabbed her.

The suspect cut the girl's forearms in an attempt to make it seem as if she had committed suicide, police said. He was aware that she had cut herself before.

Alvarenga had separated from Ruiz Lobo a few months earlier, after her daughter asked her to kick him out of the house. A security video from a nearby building shows the man entering and leaving the apartment during the hours in which authorities said the crime took place.

When Alvarenga found her daughter thrown on the floor, her screams were heard throughout the building and neighbors ran to the apartment. The scene that day — of a distraught mother hugging her bloodied daughter — remains intact in the memory of children and adults who witnessed it.

"My granddaughter still has her tough nights. She has nightmares and comes to my bed to sleep with me," said Mayra Vilar, a Cuban neighbor whose 13 year-old granddaughter grew up and went to school with Martha. "Her death impacted my granddaughter so much. They were best friends. There's photos of them in their baby walkers right along this hall."

Vilar said last year's Christmas and New Year's parties, as well as any birthday celebrations held, were not the same without Martha.

"I see my granddaughter go to a corner and stay silent and sometimes I ask her what's wrong. She doesn't want to talk but we know she misses Martica."

Guzmán, who after separating from Alvarenga rented an apartment in the same neighborhood so he could remain close to his daughter, says holidays are now painful for him.

"On Father's Day, I was there locked in my room, alone," said Guzmán, who works in the construction industry and has four other children in New York and Honduras. "This is difficult. You just don't know how to continue on with your life."

But Vilar, who said she considered Martha as another granddaughter, is convinced that the beloved mischievous girl figured out how to continue accompanying her parents and her friends even in death.

Some days, Vilar goes out for a smoke close to an improvised playground for the girls living in the building, where Martha's parents had put in a swing with a green tire. She liked sitting on the tire for hours, moving side to side.

Martha's friends don't play there as often and they filled the walls with messages written with markers, wishing her eternal rest and telling her that they won't forget her.

When Vilar sees the tire moving with the breeze, she smiles and repeats the phrase she always told her:

"Martica, is that you? Be a good girl."