This summer has been busier than usual for Cissy Strong Reyes. She got a new job and has been working extra hours. She is thankful for that, with school back in session and all its related expenses.
But even so, sadness and anger press on her heart and her mind. Cissy, her family and friends mark a somber anniversary today as they remember a sister, a daughter, a mother, a niece and a friend — Rosenda Sophia Strong.
Rosenda was last seen Oct. 2, 2018, when she got a ride to Legends Casino in Toppenish. Her remains were found July 4 in a freezer abandoned in a field off U.S. Highway 97 near Toppenish.
Using dental records, authorities confirmed July 12 that the remains were those of Rosenda, a 31-year-old mother of four. Her death has been classified as a homicide.
“It’s bittersweet — the answer to your prayers and your worst nightmare, both in one blow,” Carolyn DeFord said of news that a missing loved one has been found. DeFord, whose mother has been missing for 20 years, spoke during a vigil for Rosenda on July 14.
The cause of Rosenda’s death remains under investigation and no arrests have been made. The FBI and the Yakama Nation Police Department are handling the case because Rosenda was a Native American — she was a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — and her remains were found within the Yakama Nation.
“You will be home soon, with our mother,” Cissy said in a Facebook post about their mother, who rests at the Umatilla Reservation in eastern Oregon.
Today is a tough day for Rosenda’s family and friends after a year of worrying and wondering with more questions than answers.
“Months going by, I’m hearing gossip; I’m getting messages on Facebook who or where my sister was killed and (thrown) away like yesterday’s trash,” Cissy posted on Facebook in late September. “But little did the killers know she meant the world to us. She was loved every day. We made sure Rosenda knew just how much we cared.”
Early in Rosenda’s disappearance, Cissy and their brother, Christopher Strong, referred to the driver who came to Cissy’s house to pick Rosenda up that day as a friend. No longer.
And Cissy is a different person in many ways. She began speaking out about Rosenda after family filed a missing person report with the Yakama Nation Police Department. She and Chris began posting flyers around the Lower Valley, asking about their sister. They talked to local media.
They participated in the Women’s March on Yakima in January, where Cissy stood and spoke to the crowd of more than 400 before participants walked downtown, many wearing red, carrying signs and shouting the names of missing and murdered indigenous women.
No one knows how many Native women and girls have gone missing, have been murdered and have died under mysterious circumstances on and around the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation. Many cases of missing and murdered Native people remain unsolved, a cruel legacy of decades of sexual and physical violence against indigenous people throughout the United States and the world.
Since the Women’s March, Rosenda’s family and friends of Rosenda have become even more vocal. Cissy and Chris and their cousin, Roxanne White, held marches and vigils of their own, raising funds for a $1,000 reward for information about what happened to Rosenda. Relatives and friends gathered April 16 to mark what would have been Rosenda’s 32nd birthday.
They have participated in documentaries about missing and murdered indigenous women and post regularly on social media about Rosenda.
“All the hurt and pain still upon myself and my family — there were days I felt defeated, but I knew the more I screamed your name, the more prayers I got across Indian Country you would make it home to us somehow,” Cissy said in a Facebook post. “Even if it didn’t go our way, you made sure you were found.”
Though many follow a traditional mourning period by putting away photos and not saying the full name of the person who has passed for a year or until they hold a memorial, Cissy and others choose to keep saying Rosenda’s name, White said during the July 14 vigil.
“Remember them and say their names and keep them close to you. They’re still connected to us,” DeFord said at the vigil. “We need to continue to speak loudly ... don’t let their names be forgotten.”
Along with keeping her name and her story in the public eye, it is especially important for her relatives and friends that Rosenda is remembered as a person, not just a statistic.
Cissy misses her text messages like “nana (sister) call me” and their video chats, Rosenda’s one-of-a-kind laugh, her being a “super auntie” to Cissy’s boys and others. “I miss you so much, sister. I will keep fighting for justice for you sis. I have fought this thinking I would never find you or you wouldn’t be ... discovered,” she posted.
“We miss you every day, every second.”