“A year of extremes” — El Pasoans share the lessons of 2020
The events of 2020 have undeniably reshaped our world.
Through the tumult of a global pandemic, a historic grassroots movement for racial justice, and a volatile election season, we have changed. Our families, our communities, our innermost selves have found ways to adapt to the new and, at times, perilous terrain of this year.
“Looking back on it, I’ll remember this as a year of extremes. And it wasn’t all bad extremes — the social justice movement, that was an amazing thing,” said Dale Ann Fernandez, a science teacher at Sun Ridge Middle School and mother of two.
El Paso Matters asked our readers to share their reflections of 2020: how it changed them, what they learned, and of those lessons, what they hope to retain in 2021. Although responses were varied, common themes emerged. Some of this year’s lessons were resounding, regardless of age or station in life.
The following is gleaned from both interviews and an open survey to readers.
The importance of caring for each other
The most frequent change El Pasoans described was in the value they placed on their connections with others: their family, their friends, and their community.
Abraham Monteros, founder and president of the Chivas Town Neighborhood Association, said the biggest transformation he witnessed this year was a growing sense of unity.
“We really do care for each other. I saw a lot of people saying, ‘If you need to go to the grocery store, I’ll go. I’ll go for you.’ People helping each other out. With my family, I know personally, I started texting my mom a lot more, calling her weekly,” Monteros said.
Some El Paso families had no choice but to get closer. Fernandez said the family dynamic between herself, her husband, and her two kids has shifted dramatically as a result of the pandemic.
“Whereas before, something would happen and we could kinda get away from each other, (now) we have to deal with it — we’re stuck in the house!” she said.
During the summer, Fernandez said she and her kids started bickering a lot, much more than usual. Fernandez, like many people, had also begun to suffer from depression and anxiety as a result of the pandemic. She and her family sought out therapy, and Fernandez said it’s been transformative.
“I mean wow. Family counseling is the best,” she said. “It’s been very helpful because we’ve been able to listen to each other with somebody else playing referee.”
Fernandez’s family is so close now that she said they have given each other the nickname “the Four-nandezes.”
From the survey:
“I learned that we are much more connected and our lives much more intertwined than I could have imagined. What I do affects my neighbor and vice versa.” – Marco Covarrubias, 36
“Family is all that matters.” – Natalia (No last name provided), 34
“The importance of caring for one another” – John (No last name provided), 61
“I feel that relationships have gotten stronger.” – Marie (No last name provided), 36
“My close family is now closer and we are more reliant on each other than before.” – Mark Lusk, 71
Growing awareness of the failings of our community
Alongside the deepening connections among families, friends, and neighborhoods, the converse also has also been true at times. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-political strife of this year laid bare fundamental inequities that shape the nation, exposing some communities to far greater harm than others, largely along lines of race and class.
For Abeni Merriweather, a 19-year-old UTEP student and a Black woman, the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer underscored what she already knew about the potent force of racism in the United States, and in El Paso.
“When it came to speaking about racial issues that the Black community faces, especially here in El Paso, the only thing (political leaders) had to say was about police brutality, and we face a lot more than that. Police brutality is a very top issue, but so is job discrimination, so is colorism, so is the anti-blackness that is rooted within the city’s culture and history and community,” she said.
Merriweather expressed a mixture of hope and frustration when it came to the widespread protests of the summer: hope that they would lead to real and lasting change, but frustration that for many people involved, their activism was performative and fleeting.
While Merriweather was quick to clarify that she sees herself as an advocate, rather than an activist, she did take action to participate in the dialogue around racial injustice this year, using her greatest skill: song.
A commercial music major, Abeni is a skilled vocalist and composer. She was inspired to finish writing a choral arrangement of the spiritual “Hold On Just a Little While Longer” after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
“It was something where I was like, this spiritual text of it is the one thing that is truly resonating with me right now, because again, another black person is killed unjustly at the hands of racism, and it feels like there’s nothing else I can do but scream and yell and be angry and do music,” Merriweather said.
In terms of the pandemic, El Pasoans expressed frustration and anger with fellow community members who either didn’t take COVID-19 risks seriously enough, or rejected the research of scientific experts.
“It’s really scary because people are straight up laughing at scientists, people are laughing at people that are just wearing masks,” said Monteros, who described seeing a growing number of conspiracy theories among his social media contacts this year.
The health risks and fatality rate of COVID-19 has played out along racial and economic lines. In El Paso, nine of every 10 COVID-19 deaths have been among Hispanic community members, a disproportionately high rate compared to the overall population. Nationally, Black Americans are 2.8 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white, non-Hispanic Americans are.
From the survey:
“We have deeply divided experiences in equity in the country and I think the pandemic, as all natural disasters do, further exacerbated inequalities and everyone not directly impacted by poverty really showed their disconnect to POC working class struggles.” – Adri (No last name provided), 27
“Honestly, I feel disappointed in my community. I expected us (most) to be on the same page and be rational. The amount of ignorance and irresponsibility I witnessed is kind of unforgettable.” – Daniela Chavez, 34
“Conspiracy theories have derailed our society. We, the most scientifically advanced country in the world have succumbed to unfounded lies.” – Mario (No last name provided), 48
“I’ve seen different sides of people that I never knew I’d see. Either showing me how responsible or irresponsible they are. It’s incredible to think about how many of the people you thought were good friends and were smart truly only care about themselves; that’s the big takeaway.” – Joshua Gandarilla, 24
Seize the day
This year, El Pasoans learned to not take today for granted, because tomorrow is not guaranteed. Carpe diem (seize the day) was the motto for some El Pasoans this year, who responded to the existential threat of COVID-19 by reevaluating their place in the world, and adjusting their behavior to reflect that.
“I just feel like every moment that I have is precious, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, and I don’t wanna waste it on anything other than something that I feel like is productive. I really feel that I need to make some sort of positive impact,” Monteros said.
In that spirit, Monteros organized a ham drive in his neighborhood this holiday season, to make sure that as many community members as possible wouldn’t go hungry this Christmas.
“I normally wouldn’t have just gone out and put out a video on Facebook and asked people on the Chivas Town page to do this, but all of this happening, I said, ‘Why not? Just do it,’” he said.
Through Monteros’ effort, 75 El Paso families were able to have a ham on Christmas.
From the survey:
“Feel more inclined to ‘just do it’ instead of waiting for the ‘right moment’. We take time for granted and if we wait to do something the opportunity to do it just might escape us.” – Marie (No last name provided), 36
“(2020 has) changed us by appreciating every single day a little bit more. Not taking our time together for granted.” – Joshua Gandarilla, 24
“I’ve realized how vulnerable we really are (as a society/community) so I’m going to try to be more present and appreciative of my time and the people I love.” – Daniela Chavez, 34
Cover photo: DaleAnn Fernandez, right, hugs her daughter, Sarah, at their home in El Paso. DaleAnn suffered from anxiety and depression during the pandemic, but said her family is stronger after going through therapy. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)