August 7, 2019 851 PM
I’ve been driving between Marfa and El Paso for the last two years working on a documentary about a group of mostly first generation Mexican-American high school students. I’ve followed their journey as they navigate the ups and downs of adolescence in a region that’s become a focal point in our country’s immigration debate. I never could have imagined that I’d be driving to El Paso Saturday afternoon to film these same students as they dealt with a tragedy that would become a stain on the summer following their senior year of high school.
Saturday morning at 10:39am MST a gunman opened fire in one of the country’s busiest Walmarts, ultimately killing 22 people and injuring many more. Mayhem transpired as El Pasoans were told to take cover and the El Paso Police Department’s Twitter handle informed followers that there were reports of multiple shooters.
At 10:48 am MST, I received a text asking if I was in El Paso. When I answered no, the response was, ‘Good, you’re safe.’ A screenshot of an emergency alert followed, “Active shooter in Cielo Vista area. All El Paso City/County residents are asked to shelter.”
I arrived in El Paso in the early evening hours to an eerie emptiness—a stillness I’ve never felt in this normally vibrant city. Police cars surrounded Walmart, and journalists were trickling into El Paso International Airport on the final arrivals of the day.
That night I sat in the media staging area across the street from a Hooter’s restaurant. I learned that the deceased would not be removed for the time being—investigators wanted to ensure an accurate crime scene for the prosecution. My stomach turned as frantic children and parents, aunts and uncles arrived at the scene looking for loved ones. Were they simply unable to get in touch with them, or were they one of the 20 still inside?
The following day, I met up with Marisela and her family as they were delivering water to local hospital waiting rooms, a small act of kindness in a dark period of hopelessness. This past year, I had filmed Marisela and her father going to immigration court, and I had answered her late night phone calls as she worked through the heartbreak of a high school romance. I never could have imagined that I would have to film her family deal with the aftermath of an explicit attack on the Latino community.
As they made their final water delivery, Marisela’s mother received news that one of the shooting victims was her son’s classmate, Javier Amir Rodriguez. He was a student at Horizon High School. She broke down sobbing. She knew that this was another hurdle for all of her children, another obstacle they would all have to overcome.
The group of teenagers I’ve been filming were all students at Horizon High School. Shortly after learning that Javier was one of the deceased, my social media feed went from news stories about another mass shooting to personal posts grieving the loss of a community member.
That night, I listened as another mother answered the phone—a pre-recorded message from the superintendent assured parents that their children would be safe if they attended school on Monday. I watched as students arrived at Horizon High School the following morning. They were greeted outside by stoic administrators, but that didn’t seem to quell the trepidation in their eyes.
On Monday afternoon, I went with another student I’ve filmed with, Cristina, to pick up her sister from school. Her sister had been scared to go that morning, and when she got in the car, relief washed over her face—she was still alive.
Later on, I accompanied Cristina’s family to a vigil for Javier on the Horizon High School football field. It was bizarre to watch the same field where I had filmed football games last year be filled by media to cover the most recent mass shooting. We sat with Cristina’s favorite teacher, Mr. Jimenez. Many months ago, I’d learned that he suffers from PTSD from his days as a police officer. His brother worked the Walmart scene the days prior, and now his mind was replaying past interactions with his former student—had he properly prepared Javier for an encounter with an active shooter? His answer, probably not.
I got back to my hotel that night and cried. It was the first time I had cried since the shooting took place. It was the first time I had the space to process what I had experienced. Beyond knowing that we live in a divided country where racism exists and hate spurs violence, I’m still not sure my take-away is anything larger than that this could happen to any single one of us, and that is terrifying.
I ate lunch with another student, Kassy, yesterday as she worried that her hometown, the city she loves so much, will no longer be remembered for its attributes, but instead for a mass shooting targeting immigrants at a Walmart. She told me about receiving a message from her ‘tia’ on Saturday morning, who had been hiding in the Walmart bakery during the shooting. Kassy’s response was to text everyone she thought might be anywhere near Walmart, including me. She wanted them to know there was an active shooter and to take cover. It gave her a sense of control in a time of chaos.