The suffering that followed the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was too familiar to Monsignor Arturo J. Bañuelas, the pastor of St. Mark Catholic Church in El Paso, Texas.
The community on the Mexico/U.S. border has endured the intimidation of border militias along with a surge in migrants, the 2019 murder of an El Paso County Sherriff Deputy, the deadly Coronavirus pandemic, and on August 3, 2019, a mass shooting—the worst attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history—that left 23 dead.
“For the longest time, what happened in Washington, D.C., has been brewing on the border,” said Bañuelas. “What happened in D.C. has been lived here on the border for many years.”
To better understand the suffering and struggles, the events that occurred in the border community cannot be separated out, but have to be understood as a confluence of events.
“It’s all one dynamic that has happened to this community,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo A. Samaniego, the county’s executive. “It’s not fragmented.”
The tragedies have left leaders in El Paso, including Bañuelas, Samaniego, and others, wrestling with the question of how to heal a community that has been through so much.
Just before Christmas in 2020, an artist more than 1,600 miles away in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains sent a gift with the hope of helping members of the El Paso community heal.
Artist Ellen Elmes didn’t know Arturo Benavides, Marisa Flores, Gloria Irma Márquez, or the other 20 victims of the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, but after she read Harvard Divinity School Professor Davíd Carrasco’s “Saying the Mexican Names” tribute to the victims on the first anniversary of the tragedy, she felt moved to learn more about the people from both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border—from Ciudad Juarez and El Paso—who were killed. They were mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, sisters, brothers, friends, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, humans. She set out to express her sorrow about the tragedy the best way she knew how—by painting.
Elmes, an artist who paints murals and watercolors, spent weeks last fall in her home creating portraits of the El Paso victims.
“Painting the portraits was kind of a daily mantra for me, choosing the colors and photograph to work from for each person, recreating as much as possible a kind of visual vitality in paint to honor their life on Earth,” said Elmes. “Initially, I looked up online pictures and info, whatever I could find, about each person and that is what hooked me into doing the paintings. They became real people. And spinning off of the importance of knowing and remembering their names, as Davíd Carrasco wrote about, I decided to look up a legendary or mythological or cultural meaning of each name and incorporate that into each painting.”
Beyond doing this project as a way to make real these lives lost, Elmes also wanted to create the portraits as gifts to the families. However, she didn’t have a way to connect with them, so she reached out to Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America at HDS, for help. Carrasco, whose family is from El Paso, was moved by Elmes’s project.
“While my essay has its force for good, the paintings turned my words into images that came alive in my eyes and created a profound example of memory, caretaking, and initial healing,” said Carrasco. “I recall now that this message arrived while I was preparing several ‘Mexican Day of the Dead’ talks and here was the best example of what I emphasize which is ‘convivencia’. For me the term means living together in perilous times and giving the life force the upper hand over our human capacity for aggression and cruelty.
“Elmes’ paintings convey this sense of convivencia in a powerful symbolic way. In her note, Elmes, who lives on a mountain top in Appalachia, said that in doing the paintings of the 23, ‘they became real people to me.’ I was moved immediately to reach out to my contacts in El Paso. Once they read my eulogy and saw the paintings, we experienced convivencia together.”
Leaders in El Paso helped ensure that the family members of the victims would receive the portraits.
“A year and a half later, to find out that Ellen is thinking of us, and to look at what she produced, it’s almost beyond words,” said Jaime Esparza, the former El Paso District Attorney who worked with many of the victims’ families in the aftermath of the shooting. “It was a nice message of comfort and compassion, to know that they were still thinking of us—someone from outside of El Paso—because we still carry that burden.”
For those in El Paso, Carrasco’s tribute along with Elmes’s portraits, help because they give names and faces to the victims.
“The combination of the article and the portraits humanizes the victims and documents in a respectful and gracious fashion this shocking event for all of us that were left traumatized,” said Arturo Moreno, a businessman and social actor on behalf of Mexican Americans in El Paso who helped Carrasco convene a group of community leaders. “It confirms the importance of our community to this country and the world at large. In the larger picture, it conveys that all life is sacred regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or any other social construct.”
Each of the individual 9-inch by 12-inch canvas portraits was mailed to family members with a note from Carrasco explaining how this special act of kindness came to be and relaying sorrow for the loss of their loved ones.
Planning is underway for a public healing garden for people to gather and to be educated and inspired to prevent further tragedies directed against Mexican Americans, Mexicans, and all people who may suffer gun violence.
For Monsignor Bañuelas, the borderland is not just a victim, but a community that wants to heal and that has lessons to offer the nation as it, too, begins to heal and move forward.
“We have something to contribute to what this country can become because we’ve been dealing with this,” he said. “You have got to listen to the victims, listen to the poor, and listen to the immigrants so that this country can figure out what it wants to be.”
—by Michael Naughton