Holding Grief in 2020: El Paso

By Heide Sobrig

In the early days of August 2019, I was prepping for my next trip to El Paso. It was coming up quickly, in only two weeks. My experience of El Paso is as a friendly, progressive town—everyone I have met on my visits have been supportive and willing to talk to me for my comics immigration project. Despite the national hysteria, I found El Paso as a pretty quiet, mellow place.

Nonetheless, when news of the Walmart shooting spread across my FB feed, I was not surprised. How can so much symbolic rage be directed towards one little city without there being a shooting? Mass shootings are America’s pressure valve, as ugly, and cataclysmic as that seems. What kind of society allows citizens to be shot en masse over and over and over without response? Is there such a thing as grief capitalism?

Naomi Klein talks about crisis capitalism, in which the wealthy take advantage of large social crisis to capitalize and entrench the corporate and industrial hold on our communities. In grief capitalism, our bone-tired sense of defeat at the senseless acts of violence perpetrated against our communities for the sake of symbolic power elsewhere gives way to branding and merchandising, denial and powerlessness.

I’ve written before about the strangeness I find in the ‘Your City Here Strong’ slogan, borrowed from the US Army, re-purposed by students at Emerson College where I was teaching at the time of the Boston Bombing. This slogan has become ubiquitous in every city where political grievance or despair gets made real with an assault rifle and a crowd. Our grief is sold back to us as t-shirts.

How do we honor and hold each other’s lives with care when overwhelmed by loss? Squeezed between the terrible sensationalism and the merchandising table of mass shootings are the families, friends, survivors, neighbors, bus drivers, and witnesses who spend the rest of their lives taking deep breaths to push down the panic embedded by the wounds of violent loss. 23 violent deaths. The ricochet effects are tremendous.

When I was 24, I cried the whole way back home on the BART after randomly picking up a NYT’s from the ground, only to find out that my favorite college professor had been murdered. I wandered home in shock. That was early days for school shootings. His name was Ñacuñán Sáez and he was both goofy and elegant and had a talent for making awkward teenagers feel seen.

He had left Argentina and began teaching at Simon’s Rock college to get away from the violence in his country. I think one reason he noticed me was that my own dad had left Argentina – in the 1950s—at the onset of that country’s war against itself. In 1992, a mentally ill student—who I don’t name publicly—with a pathological aversion to ‘miscegenation’ bought an assault rifle and bullets through the mail. He walked onto campus with the intention of murdering his dormitory house parents, a Black man and a white woman with several small children. Thankfully, they had already fled, but he shot at everyone he encountered, killing a promising young senior named Gavin and Ñacuñán, my Spanish professor.

With Courtesy and Permission by Heide Solbrig.

Everyone, but everyone, who knew these two souls or who was on campus that day has been living with their deaths for the last 28 years. 2 violent deaths. When I heard about the El Paso shooting I was not surprised, nor did I have to ask who had done the shooting or why. I think most people knew by 2019—after 28 years of violent events later.

We knew to expect a sick young man, warped by racism had a gun. He decided to kill people based on his leaders’ awful and self-serving logic about immigrants as outsiders, ‘others’ attacking ‘our’ country. Two weeks later, arriving in El Paso, I could feel that familiar dazed shock in the hot summer air of the city. “No. That’s not it.” I say to my AirBnB host. “I study media. There really is no evidence that video games make people violent.” I try to be nice about this truism of my field—that media doesn’t really ‘make’ anyone do anything.  After all, no one—certainly not an entire city—wants to believe that someone is trying to kill them.

The ‘wartime president’ says, “It is what it is.” This is a terrible slogan for a T-shirt.

Now. How to memorialize one terrible, violent and racist cataclysm while deep in the throes of another? Recently numerous news outlets reported that the current pandemic is being ignored by the federal government because it was initially believed to primarily impact Black, Brown and Democratic regions.

The fallout from policies of this administration which targeted the southern border, mis-characterized El Paso’s welcoming multi-lingual city, scapegoated a multi-national economic zone as an enemy, was to encourage a terrorist to descend upon the city of El Paso. The same callous misdirection of fear also shapes our current pandemic policy.  The mass murder, committed by a lone racist who drove 9 hours to shoot up a Walmart frequented by elderly El Pasoans, Mexican Tourists, High-School sports teams, and regular old families, illustrated for anyone who was paying attention that the war in the United States has been coming from inside the country.

This war seems to be aimed at those qualities that make border communities such as El Paso so dynamic, and unique. The generosity of a whole city which came together to give Antonio Basco’s wife Margie Rekard a royal send-off, celebrates the ability to roll with the punches—and I don’t mean toughness or strength.

Enough with hard boundaries and the tools of war—I mean the flexibility and perspective that comes from a view of the other side from outside your window. Maybe we could re-imagine the particular value of borders not as a wall but as a mask which we wear to protect others and ourselves—porous and worn with love.  With a mask we show each other care and acknowledge great and difficult change—it’s so easy to make a mask out of a t-shirt. 

Heide Solbrig (MFA, PhD.) is a non-fiction cartoonist, writer and media scholar. She is producing a comics series based on interviews from Fabens and Tornillo, TX., and a memoir about the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1970s. As an activist she works on the legal team for BIJAN (Boston Immigration Accompaniment Network) to support individuals in ICE detention obtain legal relief.