EL PASO — In this city, where heartache and grief run deep, there’s no time to mourn.
A ceremony in August to honor 23 victims massacred at a Walmart went virtual, putting a pause on grieving as one of the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country ravages entire families. Funerals are discouraged for fear of becoming superspreader events.
Even military funeral services, including the folding and presenting of the U.S. burial flag along with the playing of taps, have been put on hold.
“We’re emotionally exhausted — just no other way to describe this. Emotionally drained, as though life is on hold,” said Angelica Martinez, a longtime medical administrator whose trauma, like that of her community, has been prolonged.
She remembers the last vestiges of normalcy. That was the morning of Aug. 3, 2019, as she set up a health fair on a bright morning with a summer glow — just before news broke that a gunman had come to town to kill people who looked like her.
She remembers the mad dash of doctors and nurses scrambling away from the fair to head to hospitals to care for gunshot victims of the biggest massacre against Mexican Americans and Mexicans in modern history.
It happened at a place “where my family shops, where my husband and daughter were headed to shop for chlorine tabs for the pool that Saturday morning. That’s our Walmart. Thank God they were running late,” she said.
Forty-six people were shot, and 23 died.
Today, with the massacre still weighing on her, Martinez and her husband, John, are also coping with a virus that’s infected more than 50 friends and family members, many of whom have succumbed to the stubborn disease, including the caretaker to her stepdad. Both tested positive. He’s 93. She was 67. He survived; she didn’t.
Today, Martinez misses her daily calls with the woman who was family to her. Her kindness, big heart and unselfishness — “It’s just brutal, horrible. Every day you wake up and listen to the latest horrible numbers, or you hear of someone you know who died,” she said. “It just feels like a wildfire burning.”
The heartache in El Paso and across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is not just an inescapable grief, but a shared and, some say, a shattered portrait of resiliency tested under the most trying of circumstances. These days, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by loss — deaths that hang like a dark cloud on both sides of the border where, combined, more than 2,600 people have died.
“Our community hasn’t had time to process grief, of either the Aug. 3 massacre, and now COVID-19, and that’s worrisome because we’re seeing worsening symptoms of PTSD that will be with us for a long time,” said Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, a psychiatrist at the University Medical Center of El Paso and an assistant professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
“Things are probably going to get worse before they get better as deaths spike. And so when they get better, that’s when you’re going to start seeing the emotional scarring around us.”
This binational border community of 2.2 million people stretched along a mountainous desert region shares more than family ties. It shares chronic illnesses and high poverty rates that make people that much more vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus, which preys precisely on those underlying conditions.
In El Paso, a city of blue-collar essential workers, about a quarter live in poverty. About one-third of residents have no health insurance, relying instead on under-resourced community clinics or emergency rooms for care.
Their situation is made more disheartening when grieving is done without the pillar of people’s lives in this largely Mexican American community: the family. Distance from loved ones is a pain especially excruciating as the holidays approach. This is a time when extended, multigenerational families normally gather to lift one another’s spirits, celebrate and spread cheer, a tradition now strongly discouraged by local political leaders and health providers.
“El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are really one community,” said County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, whose order to temporarily shut down nonessential businesses for two weeks was struck down by a state appeals court Nov. 13 after a lawsuit by local businesses with support from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott.
“I understand unity, as we tend to be united. We’re very family oriented. And this has been to some extent, a disadvantage for our community.”
El Paso is getting hit unbelievably hard by covid-19. The numbers change daily, with deaths rising at a terrifying rate. Here are some of the faces behind those numbers & links to help, as posted by their loved ones.— Trisha (@trishaanicole) November 16, 2020
Warning: some of the photos used are graphic.
For now, the latest peak in daily new cases of COVID-19 shows signs of slowing, but the surge in deaths is soaring as fatalities from days or weeks earlier are recorded.
A key figure is the so-called deaths under investigation. That trajectory looks bleak. As of Friday, the number was about 430, and many of them, Samaniego believes, are likely coronavirus-related. That means El Paso County, with 840,000 people, is well on its way to recording an expected 1,000 deaths by the end of November.
The county has more than 35,000 active coronavirus cases, more than double that of Dallas and Harris counties, with combined populations of 7.3 million.
El Paso County’s medical examiner’s office, which is already paying inmates $2 an hour to move bodies because of the overwhelming number of fatalities, is now posting jobs for additional temporary attendants to help “lift between 100 pounds to 400 lbs., with assistance,” according to the job posting. The job pays $27 an hour and is “physically and emotionally taxing.”
With the upcoming holidays and flu season, Samaniego said, he fears “drastically horrible days ahead,” and is urging the communities of El Paso and Juárez to physically stay away from each other and rally around exhausted health care workers. And he stressed his community’s ability to find inspiration and strength from having withstood a humanitarian migration crisis on the border, including family separations and the memory of Aug. 3, saying “we have proven that we’re strong. Let’s be stronger and confront the virus by thinking of one another.”
The shooting massacre helped many prepare for the ongoing drama, said Dr. Edward Michelson, chief of emergency medicine at the University Medical Center and a professor at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. He flew from vacation in Ohio the day of the shooting to assist his team.
“I think living through both events has kind of brought us all together a little bit more,” he said, although he cautioned that his team is exhausted. “I think it made us appreciate the fragility of life. And I think we probably have worked better as a team since then.”
On Monday, health care workers held a honk-a-thon caravan to urge the community to stay home, their cars circling San Jacinto Plaza, where a sprawling Christmas tree celebrates what is usually a happy season. The cars were driven by nurses, frontline workers and some of the many doctors who’ve been here through the drama of both tragedies — Aug. 3 and now, COVID-19.
That Saturday in August was Cristian Castro’s day off. A third-year medical student at Texas Tech Health University Center, he’d planned to chill all day, and was channel surfing the TV when suddenly the images on cable news were of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains, and scenes from the Walmart by Cielo Vista, the familiar freeway that roars past his university.
Castro’s hometown was in the national news. He jumped into his vehicle, and along with two other students, rushed back to the hospital and volunteered, wheeling victims around.
“On Aug. 3, everything happened very quickly, things kind of unfolded in a matter of a couple of hours in the morning, and into the afternoon,” said Castro, 25, who a year later is on the verge of becoming a doctor.
He’s now working with COVID-19 patients inside the hospitals and in outside tents with makeshift hospital beds. Castro is somewhat flummoxed by the ordered chaos, watching “patients, who are passing at a faster rate than we hoped. This feels more like a slow burn.”
A graduate of Cathedral High School, Castro won’t be spending time with his extended family for Thanksgiving. Four family members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Yet, he has no doubt his hometown will rise again because there’s strength in this largely immigrant community, and that’s “because of the values we grow up with, handed down from our parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents,” he said.
Adria González, 38, was shopping inside Walmart with her mother that August day when the shots rang out. She rescued dozens of shoppers by luring them outside a side exit. She watched the shooter point his gun, saw bodies on the floor, blood spilling. One, an older woman, could have been her mother, she said. She lost a cousin, Andre Anchondo, and his wife, Jordan. Both were shot protecting their baby.
After the shooting, seeing herself fighting depression and anxiety, uncontrollably crying, sitting and watching Harry Potter movies, she went into therapy. Then the sessions were canceled because of the coronavirus. Since then, she’s lost to COVID-19 an aunt, Blanca Rosa, in Juárez. They were close. Her aunt helped raise her, played with her hair and pampered her. An entire family — aunt, uncle, cousin, his wife and two children — tested positive. Some were hospitalized. All survived.
A childhood friend lost her uncle and aunt.
“We’re all grieving,” she said. “We’re wounded, suffering.”
But she’s trying to bounce back. González has since opened an Airbnb and in June began promoting her business on social media for traveling nurses. She named it, “El Paso Strong, Adria González Airbnb.”
Cleaning with a rag the tiny Airbnb in El Paso’s old barrio, with legendary singer Juan Gabriel belting out “Hasta Que Te Conoci” from a speaker, she said recently, “With Walmart and now COVID-19, it’s crazy, crazy and sometimes I wake up and ask God, ‘Can’t we just catch a break?’”
“But you know, you have to be strong,” she added. “You have to be, if you live on the border. See the thing with us, who live in the desert, is that we have resilience built in, inside our blood. That’s the only way we can endure.”
Martinez, meanwhile, won’t celebrate Thanksgiving with the usual 20 to 30 friends and family. She’s limited herself to dinner with her husband and daughter, all with underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk if they catch the virus. The three of them have been hunkered down since March.
“Our faith and family. That’s the core of who we are,” she said.