Embracing her true identity gave 22-year-old Marilyn Cazares the confidence she'd been lacking.
"But we've always known," Mindy Garcia says of her transgender niece, who began her transformation about five years ago. "We've always known she was a woman, or felt she was a woman, since she was little. Before, she was very timid. When she transitioned, it was Marilyn who came out."
Another aunt, Lorissa Espinosa, tells PEOPLE: "Marilyn was a beautiful, intelligent, outspoken, courageous lady. She was kind, considerate. She was caring, lovable. She was just the light of our life."
That light went out July 13, when firefighters responding to a report of a burning couch outside an abandoned house in Brawley, California, found the body of Cazares inside the building. Family members say they were told she'd been stabbed to death.
The killing added Cazares to the roster of at least 28 transgender homicides so far in 2020, according to data from the National Center for Transgender Equality — up from a previous peak of 26 in 2019.
For more on the surge of violence impacting the transgender community, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.
“The current rates of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people are unlike any the Human Rights Campaign has tracked in the past seven years," Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for HRC's Transgender Justice Initiative, told PEOPLE in a statement. "This violence cannot continue and we must all ask ourselves why our nation is allowing this epidemic of violence to continue, and how we can come together to ensure trans people, especially Black transgender women, can live their lives without fear of joining this long list of lives stolen.”
For the family of Cazares, the tragedy was compounded by Marilyn's fears as she transitioned.
"I felt it was a hate crime," Garcia says about her niece's killing. "When I would be with her, she always experienced transphobia. She went through a lot of bullying. All through Facebook they humiliated her."
"Sometimes she felt so vulnerable as Marilyn," she says.
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When she died, Cazares was working to overcome prior substance abuse issues and was focused on earning her GED, "a steppingstone toward her bigger goal, which was to become a nurse and help others," says Espinoza.
"She was a very proud member of the LGBTQ community," says Espinoza. "She was also very accepting of others. And I think that for her, she struggled with wondering why others were not accepting of her."
With the loss," "I feel devastated," she says. "We are absolutely heartbroken for the other families (of transgender victims), including Marilyn. We pray that this moment will create change, that this movement will help educate others and bring awareness to the transgender community."
"My beautiful niece is gone," she says. "She's never going to experience the rest of her life because somebody had enough hate in their heart and soul and felt that they had the right to kill her, and our family will not stop until we get justice."
Police still working to solve her murder ask anyone with information to call 760-344-2111.
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