Sonia Rescalvo Zafra: the brutal murder that galvanized the trans rights movement
Barcelona plaza named after homeless woman killed by far-right group 30 years ago
On any given day in Barcelona’s Ciutadella park, passersby can find children playing excitedly, people walking their dogs, animated Kora-players, and tourists taking in the sights: an old greenhouse, a statue of a mammoth, the Zoo.
Today the bandstand, not far from the grandiose fountain built around the time of the 1888 World’s Fair, is a gathering place for musicians, swing dancers, or even rebellious beer-drinking teens attempting to escape their parents’ gaze. It is also the site of a notorious murder, one that has been dubbed “Catalonia’s first hate crime.”
Who was Sonia?
Sonia Rescalvo Zafra was born in the Castillian town of Cuenca in 1956 as Spain began to leave the worst of the post-Civil War period behind it. But transphobia and homophobia were still widespread — and, in fact, sanctioned by the Franco-era laws. At age 16, Sonia decided to try her luck in the big city.
Sonia found some success as a showgirl on Paral·lel, a Catalan capital boulevard then known for its El Molino and Teatre Arnau cabaret theaters. Years later, however, she fell on hard times and ended up homeless and on drugs, resorting to sex work to get by.
In the early hours of October 6, 1991, Sonia and her friend Doris were sleeping in the bandstand when they were brutally attacked by a group of young Boixos Nois skinheads. On their way out, the six 16- to 17-year-olds beat up a homeless man who lost an eye.
Not only was Sonia’s passing the first murder investigated by Catalonia’s then-newly deployed Mossos d’Esquadra police force, but it was treated as a hate crime even though prejudice as a motivating factor was only introduced into Spain’s Criminal Code in 1995.
The unrepentant teens were sentenced to a total of over 300 years behind bars in 1994, although their sentences were reduced by Spain's Supreme Court a few years later and none of them are currently in prison for this crime.
Galvanizing a movement
Sonia’s murder was a turning point for the LGBT rights movement in Catalonia and beyond. Beatriz Espejo, an activist who founded the now-defunct Col·lectiu de Transexuals de Catalunya (CTC), remembers it well.
“In 1991, trans’ lives were taking off. After Franco’s death [in 1975] there was an explosive sense of freedom,” she told Catalan News. “But it also led to a certain questioning of these freedoms, and the prejudices that existed under Franco resurfaced.”
Eugeni Rodríguez, a member of the Gay Rights Liberation Front of Catalonia (FACG), one of the private prosecutors in Sonia’s murder trial, agrees with Espejo. “We were emerging from the darkness of the dictatorship,” he says. “Back then we had groups of skinheads roaming the streets who acted, as Sonia’s murder demonstrated, with impunity.”
According to him, her murder was a watershed movement. “The LGBTI movement was aware of what was happening, but this opened Catalan society’s eyes.”
Espejo, for one, also says Sonia’s death and the harassment of sex workers in the Camp Nou area later on due to the 1992 Olympics were what inspired her to mobilize and form the CTC. Although progress has been made in the past 30 years, she believes there is much room for improvement, even within the sometimes “paternalistic” social rights movements.
She also sees the rise of far-right Vox, and with it homophobic and transphobic incidents, as worrisome: “The fact that the far-right is visible and has been legalized inevitably allows somewhat repressed prejudices to flourish.”
In 1993, a plaque was placed on the bandstand: “Sonia was murdered here at the hands of fascism on October 6, 1991. We do not forget.”
When it was officially renamed “Transsexual Sonia bandstand” in 2013, Barcelona became the first city in Europe to have a public space named after a trans person, complete with a historical marker explaining her story.
On Wednesday, 30 years to the day of Sonia’s murder, Barcelona honored her memory by renaming the square in Ciutadella Plaça Sonia Rescalvo Zafra and holding a commemorative event with members of the LGBT community, activists, and local and Catalan politicians.
“Thirty years, yet this is strangely familiar, isn't it?” Judith Juanhuix, a member of the Lobby Trans association, asked a crowd of onlookers. “A trans person killed by fascists. This could have happened yesterday.”