Visual markers are a powerful tool for framing our city’s response to the mass shooting on Aug. 3, a way to express shared outrage, pain, and hope for a better future.
Standing in front of a mural he created in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at Walmart, Gilberto Ruvalcaba cleared his throat and wiped tears away as he described his motivation for painting the El Paso Fuerte mural at All Pro Granite on Gateway West.
“We made it ‘El Paso Strong’ because we lost a lot of people from out of town and also from El Paso. Somebody came and disrespected El Paso, so we made it El Paso Strong for that reason. This was made with a lot of love,” Ruvalcaba said.
Geographers, cultural anthropologists, and city planners often talk about a “sense of place” when describing the shared cultural understandings that frame a particular point in space. Tragedies, especially, have a way of changing space.
Battlefields such as Gettysburg became national parks, the place where the Twin Towers stood became a 9/11 memorial and museum, and Sandy Hook Elementary School was demolished, a new building erected in its place. Something significant happened in those places and the meaning of the landscape changed as a result.
This human urge to associate a space with shared memories of tragedy is so strong that we may even feel betrayed or indignant when such meaning is ignored. It is right, we feel, that sites bear the imprint of their history. For El Paso, our collective sense of place has been deeply impacted by the tragedy that took place at a Walmart near Cielo Vista, one year ago.
“When the tragedy happened, (artist Christian Gonzalez) approached us because we had a big space on the wall, and he said, ‘Can I use your space for a mural to honor the people who died?’” said Juan Carlos Diaz, co-owner of a body shop on Copia Street that is now graced by a memorial mural.
Although Diaz initially had concerns about letting a graffiti artist paint his place of business, he quickly approved the sketches that Gonzalez showed him. “(The mural) was to honor the people. So we went ahead, I offered him, does he need anything for materials or anything? He said, ‘All I need is your blank space and your permission.’”
Javier Rodriguez, the youngest fatality of the mass shooting, had attended elementary school at Frank Macias in Horizon City. The school created a memorial to Javier in its library, rearranging the space and adding photos, a soccer goal net, comfortable chairs and pillows, and a collection of books on social and emotional issues for children as a permanent place for current and future students to remember Javi.
“We discovered from the writing activities that although the students may not have had a direct connection with Javier Rodriguez, they were significantly impacted by the shooting. Many students expressed their fears and anxiety in their writing. Others reflected on their sadness,” said James Ryan, library media specialist at the school. “After our dedication in November, students would go to that corner of the library to read and reflect.”
In the 1970s, philosopher Henri Lefebvre developed a theory that investigated the relationship between our social and spatial lives. While we often think of spaces we inhabit as just there, empty containers for human activity, Lefebvre argued that space is a result of our social interactions.
In turn, the spaces that we live in and move through are fundamental to shaping our social existence. There are three ways of understanding a space: the way a space is planned, the way a space is used, and the way a space is thought about or understood.
Although we can take the spaces around us as a given, how we embody and understand them is in a constant state of flux, deeply connected to our identity and culture. How we understand a place can rapidly shift based on the practices that we carry out.
Like muralists such as Christian Gonzalez and others, we take spaces that are blank — literally or figuratively — and fill them with our history and our memories.
Geographer Yi Fu Tuan said “a great city may be seen as the construction of words as well as stone.” The love of a place, or the personal value attributed to that place, is often a direct result of the cultural and human framing of it.
The mass shooting in Walmart one year ago was a moment that irrevocably altered our understanding of place in El Paso and the border region, leaving behind both physical and emotional traces.
Although the Aug. 3 tragedy was an unspeakably horrible event, in some ways it instilled deeper love for El Paso among many residents. It demanded collective unity through shared grief, and bonded fronterizos in our shared experience of coping with tragedy.
For many El Pasoans, part of that coping came in the form of visual signifiers of memory, created to evoke a changed understanding of our city.
Memorials are both personal and embodied (tattoos, t-shirts), and public and large-scale (murals, events, and other public art). Using symbol and coded language (#elpasostrong), these visual signifiers of Aug. 3 memorialization have changed our city and our local identity. One year later, these markers remain as permanent alterations in our geography that speak to a collective memory of tragedy and resilience.
René Kladzyk contributed to this essay.