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Q&A: Artists rise to honor the Mexican Americans killed in El Paso mass shooting

At the one-year anniversary of the El Paso mass shooting, one of the deadliest attacks against Latinos in recent history, Harvard University professor David Carrasco urged the public to say their names — their Mexican names.

“The news reports said that among the dead were 13 Americans, eight Mexicans, and one German,” Carrasco wrote in an essay published August of 2020. “But when we read and say the names, we realize that 12 of the 13 ‘Americans’ were Mexican Americans, and that is why they were killed.”

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The shooting took place Aug. 3, 2019 at a Walmart store. The 21-year-old white suspect shot and killed 23 people and injured 23 more.

Carrasco’s essay moved Don and Ellen Elmes, two artists based in southwest Virginia. Ellen Elmes wanted to connect those number and names to real people with vivid lives, she said.

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It became a daily mantra for the mural painter, looking for photos of those who died and seeking as much information about them as she could find. She painted one victim per day for 23 days.

Don Elmes edits the sketches on Photoshop, preparing them to be sent to Philadelphia as part of the mural process on fabric. Then, the two of them — and for one particular project, about 150 people in their community — will begin to paint.

“There’s four or five coats that go on the wall,” Don Elmes said, laughing. “So I often say, ‘Well, Ellen painted the mural once; I painted the space, four or five times.”

The Elmes and Carrasco will take part in the last keynote address in Common Ground on the Hill’s Traditions weeks on July 12.

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Composite of the portraits Ellen Elmes painted of the El Paso victims.
Composite of the portraits Ellen Elmes painted of the El Paso victims. (Don Elmes)

You said you decided to send the portraits to the families of those who died. How did they react?

Ellen: It was wonderful. Some of them sent notes through the mail and emailed, and their reaction was appreciation for being thought about. And for me, you know, doing whole portraits of their loved ones with us, living so far away. And that seemed to surprise them.

What I really appreciated was several people told me more about the person who they had lost, and it seemed like the painting was kind of a trigger for them to talk about, you know, fun memories and what they held dear in their hearts about the person.

So it was, it was really interesting to receive those. You know, I corresponded back and forth a few times. One of the problems has been that there are various families whose loved ones were shot in the massacre, and they live in Ciudad Juárez, and because of the COVID virus, for most of, if not all of, 2020 they weren’t allowed to cross the border. And so that’s been a separation. I don’t know what the circumstances are now, in terms of what’s going on in El Paso ... whether they’re able to [cross] because there’s just a bridge, you know, that formerly people could just walk over ... from Juárez. I don’t know how that stands now, but we’re looking forward to meeting family members, as many as we can, when we go in August.

Can you paint a picture of just what the process was like for you to research who the person was and how you would use that information in your paintings?

Ellen: Since I was responding to David’s article, I decided I wanted to make my paintings also focus on the names of each person. I decided I wanted something more abstract in terms of imagery. There’s kind of a border with loose colors that look, maybe, wave-like or swirling or more like rocks and boulders, and that border that’s on each painting has written on it what the first name of a person means. So, I also looked up through mythology, through spiritual connections, through folk or cultural connections. Like the name Maria ... that turned out to mean beauty. So, on there to Marias who died, and on each of their paintings, it says at the bottom, “Maria means beauty.” And then there’s imagery behind it. So that became a way of kind of connecting all of them together. And, also, I used a color palette that was somewhat limited in that I repeated background colo

Don and Ellen Elmes at Johnson City mural.
Don and Ellen Elmes at Johnson City mural. (Larry Smith)

rs in different ones.

You said some of the family members told you stories about the loved ones. What stuck out to you?

Ellen: There was a couple in their 80s. There was a story about how they first met all those years ago, and he was a tailor and shopkeeper, and he was out sweeping the sidewalk and she came along, beautiful young woman, and he tipped his hat and said hello and then he picked up his broom and he said, “Would you like me to brush your beautiful hair?”

The youngest person killed was Javier Rodriguez, and he was only 15. He had gone to Walmart because they had an indoor banking setup, and he had gone that day to open up a banking and savings account at 15 years old. The oldest person was 90, and he had spent his lifetime as an ironworker and had done some very beautiful architectural sculptural gates and railings and things like that all over El Paso.

A woman whose daughter was still in Mexico and ... trying for 13 years to get a visa to come over the border and live with her mother. [T]hey were just on the brink of her getting it; the mother had been working hard ... going to places to try to arrange it. And the mother was killed, and the daughter ended up getting her visa, like days later, and came to see her mother at her funeral.

But, you know, there were also lots of stories of good times. ... One woman loving the beach and going there annually and another woman loving flowers and always having flower arrangements in her home. So very human, personal things. In the keynote speech, I’m going to mention each person and their names and a little bit about them. I’m going to speak about it in terms of how I relate to it, like the ones, women who were grandmothers, as I am. People who worked for 20 or 30 years teaching, as I have ... that kind of human things we all hold in common as human beings wanting to have happy full lives.

As artists, what is the next project for you?

Ellen: I’m working as a consultant and also as the designer of a mural for closer to home, Princeton, West Virginia, and it’s a community mural. They commissioned me to do the design about a downtown area and the history and people, events of the times over the years, and now I’m acting as a consultant to a group of community artists who are carrying out the painting of it.

Don: I’ll just say what I usually say — Ellen is the artist and does all the work in that regard and then I do all the rest.

What do you hope that people who are watching the keynote address take away?

Ellen: My hope is that they can get a little piece of what I experienced doing this project, of feeling so connected to the people and their families in El Paso. The only way we’re going to end gun violence, and this terrible continuing out-of-control gun incidents, is if we realize more and more that we’re all in, we share our human loves and sorrows and fears.

View the keynote address on the Common Ground on the Hill YouTube channel.

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