In the drug war in the Philippines, it’s tempting to just focus on the innocent victims--little children and upstanding citizens labelled as ‘collateral damage’ or the unfortunate recipients of ‘shit [that] happens’. But where does that put the drug dependents, the petty thieves, the small-time drug dealers? Do we just shrug off their deaths? Do their lives not matter? Is the loss experienced by their loved ones less profound?
Heart de Chavez knew from a young age that she was a girl, but it took her father Teodoro a few years to accept that his only son was not a boy. Her mother Elena and her two older sisters were more tolerant. ‘She was the prettiest among us,’ her sister Arriane says.
By the time she was 14, Heart had ditched her birth name and started taking hormone pills. She also worked two jobs. Her father died when she was in her early 20s, so Heart had to take over as the family’s breadwinner and support her mother, sisters, and four nephews and nieces.
If you knew anything about being poor in the Philippines, you’d understand why Heart became a drug dealer. You’d know that there are no safety nets for people like Heart and her family, just the constant anxiety of figuring out how to make it through another day of living in abject conditions. If you’re poor in the Philippines, you learn to swallow your pride so you can approach your neighbours and borrow a little money with which to feed your kids for a day. And when there’s no one left to turn to and your cramped home fills up with the whimpers of starving children, you get desperate.
Heart started selling drugs in July 2016, earning a measly 500 pesos per transaction. She would be dead in just a few months.
Heart reluctantly went to the Navotas city hall to register as a drug user towards the end of the year. She was confident that she wouldn’t be targetted by the police because she was just a small-time pusher. She had no idea how obscenely obsessed the president and his hounds are with inflicting violence on people like her.
In January 2017, Heart was hauled off by the police and jailed. The cops demanded 50,000 pesos from Elena, who could only come up with 7,000. They took her money and released Heart. Sometime in the four days after the police snatched then released her, Heart went out and sold drugs once, so she could buy Jollibee chicken for her family.
On 11 January, a group of armed men barged into their shanty, grabbed Heart and pounded her head against the table. Arriane and Elena begged the men to release her, but they dragged her outside as she screamed for her mother to help her. One of the men stayed behind and kept a gun pointed at Heart’s family to stop them from following her.
She screamed for help all the way down the street and the empty house into which the men kicked her. Her neighbours couldn’t do anything as the men ordered them to stay inside their homes. Several gunshots rang out, then Heart’s screaming stopped. People streamed out onto the street as soon as the men left, and one of them ran to get Elena.
Elena found Heart on the floor of the house, a bullet through her cheek and another in the back of her head. Her youngest child, who had to fight for her existence most of her life, was gone.
The sorrow, of course, didn’t end there. The funeral director, a man making a lot of money from the brutal death of a trans woman, refused to bury Heart as a woman. He demanded that her dead name be used and that she be dressed as a man, against her family’s wishes. To get around this, Elena and her daughters used women’s trousers and a long-sleeved white blouse for Heart’s burial clothes. They also put false eyelashes on her. The banner draped on her coffin bore her dead name, but the large photo on it was of a glammed-up Heart, staring seductively into the camera.
She was 26 years old.