Mario De Alba Montes fought through multiple surgeries and endured feeding tubes for months after shielding his family in the Walmart store massacre in El Paso, Texas.
His slow recovery was marked by frustration and dreams of returning to his home in Chihuahua City, Mexico ever since being struck by a bullet from an assault rifle, damaging his stomach, intestines and a renal artery. By late February, doctors gave the laundry appliances repairman the go ahead to make the four hour return trip he and his family prayed for during those long months in a Texas hospital.
But within days of his return, he relapsed and has been confined to a hospital room ever since as the coronavirus pandemic threatens his recovery.
“It’s devastating. We came home hoping to reclaim our life,” said De Alba Montes’ wife, Oliva Rodriguez Mariscal, who spends hours at her husband’s bedside wearing a face mask. Their daughter, she says, is not allowed in the hospital and only sees her father on video calls.
As Monday marks the one-year anniversary since a gunman opened fire at a busy Walmart store, ultimately killing 23 people and leaving another 23 wounded, there will be no crowds gathering for memorials or strangers linking arms to honor those who died.
The pandemic has reshaped just about every aspect of everyday life and the grim anniversary of the one of the nation’s deadliest shootings and the deadliest attack on Latinos in modern US history isn’t the exception.
When EP Fusion soccer coach Guillermo “Memo” Garcia – the last victim killed in the mass shooting – died after months fighting for his life in a hospital, only 10 people were allowed inside the funeral home at a time and a drive-thru prayer vigil was held.
Tito Anchondo, whose brother and sister-in-law died protecting their baby, said he paused the production of a documentary honoring the victims due to the pandemic. A public opening for an exhibit displaying objects from the lengthy makeshift memorial that formed behind Walmart has been put on hold.
The family of Arturo Benavides, an Army veteran and retired bus driver who was killed in the shooting, were asked to only invite 10 people to a dedication ceremony for a bus transfer center renamed to honor him. His niece, Melissa Tinajero, said relatives considered visiting the site in shifts for the August 1 event.
On the eve of the first anniversary, victims’ families, survivors and officials attended a memorial ceremony at Ascarate Park, where a permanent healing garden memorial is set to be built. They kept socially distanced and wore masks as a group crime victims’ advocates wearing purple T-shirts held photos of the 23 people who were killed in the shooting.
El Pasoans are set to drive through or walk a path of luminarias – small paper lanterns – on Monday at Ascarate Park or light their own luminarias on their front porch. Others will watch virtual memorial services.
Texas has been battling major Covid-19 outbreaks in the past months. Many hospitals in South Texas are overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has risen to more than 418,000, putting the state at a higher count than New York – once the US epicenter of the pandemic.
In El Paso, more than 14,200 people tested positive for the virus and 266 deaths have been linked to Covid-19, local health officials say.
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said the pandemic is the third major crisis the city has faced in recent years but he believes it will eventually pass. Last year, shelters were scrambling to house thousands of migrants released by federal officials during a surge of asylum seekers and within months, the shooting jolted the city.
The pandemic, the mayor says, has limited the city’s ability to honor the victims and made it difficult for this binational community to heal together. It’s stopping many survivors and victims’ families who live across the US-Mexico border from entering the country due to coronavirus travel restrictions and forced many others to hold back one of the fundamental ways they interact with each other.
“Our standard greeting is an abrazo (hug). We’re hugging and kissing and that’s who we are,” Margo told CNN. “This pandemic says you can’t do that and it’s complicating who we are, our normal nature and culture.”
Nearly a year had passed since Adria Gonzalez, 38, yelled and used her pink hat to signal a way out for those inside the Walmart store when she met a man that she helped get out safely.
‘He looked at me and there was peace in his eyes. He told me ‘I was one of God’s angels,” Gonzalez recalls.
The reunion took place at a park in El Paso with Gonzalez, her mom who had been with her during the shooting, and the man wearing face masks. They stood at a distance, following social distancing guidelines, as they remembered the minutes of terror that marked their lives.
But Gonzalez says she’s couldn’t stop herself from leaning over and hugging the man, even as her mother jumped to warn them about Covid-19.
“A sacred emotion overcame us and we hugged each other hard, hard but wearing our masks,” Gonzalez told CNN. “It was something that I had to do.”
Pandemic has disrupted healing process, expert says
For many people, healing from the long-lasting trauma of the mass shooting may become even more difficult due to the pandemic, experts say.
It has disrupted the normal healing process because it involves social support, engaging with others and returning to a routine – all which have become virtually impossible while social distancing and isolating, said Farris Tuma, chief of the traumatic stress research program at the National Institute of Mental Health.
“The pandemic itself includes a lot of the same kind of experiences and risk factors… as any other trauma or disaster emergency in terms of how it can affect people’s lives,” Tuma said.
Some of those factors are death, economic hardship and just the concern and fear of becoming sick with the virus, he said.
In the two weeks after the Walmart shooting, a crisis hotline run by Emergence Health Network – the city’s largest mental health provider — doubled the daily number of calls they received.
Kristen Daugherty, EHN’s CEO, says some callers initially questioned why El Paso and specifically the Hispanic community were targeted while others felt guilty because they changed their plans to go to Walmart that morning and changed their plans at the last minute.
Later, call takers found themselves trying to ease people’s fear.
“People were calling and saying you know ‘I’m a Hispanic person, I’m scared to go to the store and kids were afraid to go back to school,” she said.
Currently, the “overall crisis hotline and crisis services are almost to the same level of services” provided following the shooting, the agency says.
“I think it changed the way people viewed the need to, to take care of yourself from a mental health perspective, even if it’s just talking to someone checking in on someone,” Daugherty said.
About 120 people who were impacted by the Walmart shooting are still accessing counseling services, she says, and many others have sought help since the pandemic began.
‘It hurts all of us,’ mayor says
A year has passed since the massacre and the accused shooter awaits trial in the local and federal cases.
Patrick Crusius, a 22-year-old from Allen, Texas, faces 90 federal crimes, including hate crimes, and nearly a dozen counts of capital murder at the state level, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty.
Authorities said he drove to El Paso with the sole intent of killing immigrants and Mexicans in the West Texas border city.
“It hurts all of us. We were attacked as to who we are by a white supremacist… an evil white supremacist from 700 miles away,” Margo, the city’s mayor said, adding that the gunman “would have never come from our region. It’s not who we are. It’s not what we’re about.”
Last month, Crusius’ attorneys said he was in a psychotic state when he was taken into custody minutes after the shooting and suffers from mental disabilities. They disclosed the mental health conditions in a motion asking for more time to investigate the “red flag mitigation themes” as prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty.
A status conference in the federal case has been scheduled for October.
A year after De Alba Montes, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter stopped at Walmart to buy back-to-school supplies before getting breakfast and were injured in the massacre, there’s no clear end in sight to his hospital stay.
Some days he’s overwhelmed by sadness and desperate to go home, other days he welcomes his wife in good spirits and tells her in Spanish “al rato salimos de esta, vas a ver que todo va a pasar.”
Their nightmare shall pass, he tells his wife, because their faith is stronger despite the setbacks.
“God is the only one can help us overcome this, God will provide the miracle of letting us leave the hospital healthy,” said his wife Rodriguez Mariscal.