Silent no more.
That is the message from members of Stamford’s Hispanic community who walked from city hall to police headquarters Wednesday evening calling for justice in the hit-and-run deaths of Giovani Vega Benis and Yuliana Arias Lozano.
Both were 25-year-old Stamford residents killed Dec. 3 at Washington Boulevard and Main Street by a Greenwich man who has yet to be charged.
Organizers of the rally said their community is hurting and not feeling heard. There is a disconnect between city leaders and the growing Hispanic community, they said.
No one from Mayor Caroline Simmons’ administration addressed the rally even though police knew about it and “all were welcome to come,” said Ruth Sanchez, Vega Benis’ cousin.
“We want to make sure there is action on this case,” Sanchez said. “We will be patient while the police do their work, but not forever. Our voices will be heard.”
The community is troubled that Simmons did not issue a statement until five days after the crash, which drew wide attention in the region, Sanchez said.
“We don’t understand why it took so long,” she said.
In a Dec. 8 statement posted on the city’s website, Simmons offered her condolences and said she understands the frustration of those who think the driver should have been arrested immediately. But “there is due diligence and a process that must be followed in fatal crash investigations,” Simmons wrote.
About 2 a.m., after their shift at a downtown Stamford restaurant, co-workers Vega Benis and Arias Lozano were crossing the southbound lanes of Washington Boulevard when they were struck by a 2022 Mercedes driven by 24-year-old Michael Talbot of Greenwich, police have said.
Washington Boulevard is a four-lane road divided by a median. The force of the crash threw Vega Benis and Arias Lozano into the northbound lanes.
Police have said Talbot ran from his car. When an officer arrived, witnesses pointed where Talbot went. The officer found him hiding behind a Dumpster. Vega Benis and Arias Lozano were pronounced dead at Stamford Hospital.
Police have said they are taking the time needed to thoroughly investigate the crash.
Sanchez said the concern is that the city does not seem to give enough consideration to the Hispanic lives lost on the streets of Stamford. In April, for example, 52-year-old Ronald Molina, a landscaper and Guatemala native who was supporting two sons in college, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing at Washington and Tresser boulevards.
Washington Boulevard, a state road notable for speeding, has been perilous for pedestrians for more than two decades. It needs to be fixed, said Anabel Figueroa, a member of the Stamford Board of Representatives who joined Wednesday’s rally.
Figueroa carried a sign alluding to the nickname for Washington Boulevard. “Action for the Boulevard of Death,” the sign read.
Wednesday’s Walk for Justice was held to alert city leaders that the Hispanic community is very much paying attention to the investigation, Figueroa said.
“The purpose is to remind the administration and the police department that we are hard-working, respectful people. We don’t make a lot of noise, but we are not sleeping. We are awake,” Figueroa said. “We want to trust the process but at the same time we want to make sure the process is working. We want to be treated the same way as any other group.”
Angelica Gorrio said it’s time for city officials to open lines of communication to Hispanics, who comprise 28 percent of Stamford’s population, according to the U.S. Census. As of this school year, 50.2 percent of the city’s student population is Hispanic, the largest ethnic group in the district.
Many misconceptions must be overcome, Gorrio said, and the Hispanic community wants to begin with the double-fatal crash on Washington Boulevard.
“If it had been a Hispanic driving the car, there would have been a perception that he was undocumented or alcoholic or not following the law,” Gorrio said. “Because it is this man from Greenwich, the investigation is going slowly. We are concerned that it may not be handled as it should be.”
A flood of signatures
Justice for Yuliana and Giovani, a petition on change.org,has nearly 29,500 signatures so far. It asks the state’s attorney’s office to file charges in the hit-and-run deaths, and reveals some of the sentiment among Stamford Hispanics.
“What is the reason for the delay in this investigation?” the petition reads. “One cannot help but question whether race plays a factor in this situation, as the victims, Giovani and Yuliana, were Hispanic workers in the service industry and Talbot, the culprit, is a white business owner from an affluent family.”
Police have released no details about Talbot.
Asked for a comment on the rally, Lauren Meyer, Simmons’ special assistant, issued this statement from the mayor:
“My thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of Giovani Vega Benis and Yuliana Arias Lozano and the City of Stamford is committed to providing support for the families during this challenging time. This investigation is a priority for my office, the Stamford Police Department, and the state’s attorney’s office, and we will continue to do everything we can to provide support and ensure that justice is served. In the New Year, we will continue to keep the community informed of the investigative and judicial processes.”
During Wednesday’s walk, Sanchez described her cousin, Vega Benis, known to the family as Gio. He was born in New York City, the son of Mexican immigrants, and raised in Stamford. He has two young sons.
“Gio was friendly and respectful to everyone,” Sanchez said. “He liked to make random jokes that made no sense – that’s why they were funny.”
Arias Lozano had no family in Stamford, Sanchez said. She was buried in her home country of Colombia on Christmas Eve, when Hispanics celebrate the birth of Christ.
“Instead of exchanging gifts, they were at her grave,” Sanchez said.
More than 100 people walked during the evening rush hour Wednesday as cars streamed bumper to bumper along the north- and southbound lanes of Washington Boulevard.
They held signs and chanted, “We want justice” and “Queremos justicia.” They stopped at the crash site to place flowers and light candles.
“We just want action on this case,” Sanchez said. “We are hoping and trusting that the police department will do its job.”