Mis Ángeles: Why Those Who Died In El Paso Will Remain With Us Forever

(Photo by Flor Del Desierto via unsplash/Illustration by Chava Sanchez, LAist)

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My first time in El Paso, I was on a cross-country road trip.

I had been indoctrinated by the images I had seen on TV and film about Texas. Big flags. Big steaks. Fried and slathered in white gravy.

I remember ordering a chicken fried steak that was kind of terrible. And I realized, in each terrible bite, that I didn't know El Paso. Luckily for me, just outside the small restaurant, in a strip mall parking lot, there was a taco truck.

It was there, eating tacos as my cell phone carrier switched back and forth from AT&T to Mexico's Telcel, that I realized El Paso was a lot like me: American, made by Mexican ancestors, and really neither of those at the same time.

I remember feeling this kind romantic hopelessness as I drove along El Río Grande.

This Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the last time I was reminded of this fatalistic feeling, the day last August when 23 people were murdered at an El Paso Walmart by a racist who drove all the way down from a Dallas suburb to this beautiful Mexican American passageway to stop "the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

It's a stark reminder that images matter. Words matter.

The El Paso I once had in my head, a Texas from cowboy movies and the Food Network, was both the opposite of what the murderer had in his head — a border town under siege, as the border is often portrayed in President Trump's pontifications — and the ideal imagined image he was trying to save from people like me.

It's a tragedy that will stay with me like visions of flickering lights from Juarez across the pitch black waters of the International Reservoir at night.

Even as I sat in Southeast Los Angeles 12 months ago, trying to somehow will accurate representation of Mexican American existence into mainstream media, film and TV, I could feel the pain and bravery of the Anchondos who died shielding their infant son.

Days later, I cried tears over images of the handmade crosses, each representing someone who was killed. And all last summer, I lay in bed thinking about what it must be like to be Guillermo Garcia laboring over multiple wounds in his hospital bed.

I remember thinking about writing a movie about Guillermo, and that maybe if there were more movies, shows, stories about people like him, there would be fewer people trying to kill us.

Here was a man who, against systemic racism, achieved the idyllic American Dream. He married his high school sweetheart. They had a boy and a girl. Guillermo was big and strong. He earned the nickname Tank as a foreman on construction sites.

On Aug. 3, 2019, an otherwise beautiful Saturday morning, Guillermo was raising money for his daughter's soccer team by selling snacks outside of a Walmart when a man, who drove 10 hours overnight, opened fire from an assault rifle. Guillermo had to use his relatively large body to shield his wife and son from a barrage of bullets.

And somehow, he survived and was in the hospital recovering while the nation dealt with a barrage of many more bullets at mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio; Odessa and Midland, Texas; Santa Clarita; New Orleans; Jersey City. And a few days before El Paso, in Gilroy.

Because long before the coronavirus pandemic, gun violence has been a plague disproportionately killing Black and Latin American people.

Guillermo was in the hospital as COVID-19 raged across the country. Finally, Guillermo died from his wounds, nine months after the massacre, in the middle of the pandemic, having never left the hospital to go home to his wife, son and daughter.

He was my age.

I've been to El Paso many times since that first clueless stop years ago. Some of the best food I have had were tripas tacos from an El Paso taquero and trompo tacos at a rodeo. Some of the best people I have met are from El Paso, like a woman named Arlene who took me to eat pupusas and talk about the failures of the two party-system.

One weekend a few years ago, I sold hats for a narcocorrido banda at a festival held on the racetrack of the Sunland Park Casino, just outside El Paso. All along the track, Latino and Latina street vendors sold toys, popcorn, tamales and more to a packed arena of Mexican American families. It was like a true turn-of-the-century portrait of Southwest Texas.

I'm wondering now, in the midst of a brand new civil rights movement, how many of those people there that weekend might have been at or around the Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019.

If any of them were, I wonder if they ever imagined that they would be with us forever, like all of those who died, as we try and will a true portrait of America into existence.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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