Every year on November 2nd, el Dia de Finados (Roman Catholic All Souls Day), our family would make a pilgrimage to Collins Cemetery, the segregated cemetery in the outskirts of Alice, Texas, our hometown. My mother and other relatives would likely have gone days earlier to spruce up: do some weeding and wash the gravestones. On that day more popularly known as Dia de Los Muertos, we would bring flowers to honor my mother’s parents, Refugia Solis and Enemencio Martinez, and other family members who were buried there. We did not grow up with the colorful Day of the Dead celebrations we now see everywhere. Our remembrances were simple: we brought flowers to our loved ones, yes, marigolds and chrysanthemums. Our visit would include prayers as well as touching and saying the engraved names on their tombstones. As she has done since childhood, my only remaining sister Ida who still lives in Alice continues el Dia de Finados tradition. Collins Cemetery, now a designated historical site by the Texas Historical Society, is the resting place for my parents, Esperanza and Claudio, and our siblings, Raquel Rosario and Claudio, Jr.
White people, Anglos as we called them, are buried in a different cemetery several miles down the road. A few Black families that lived in Alice also buried their loved ones at Collins in their own section, separate from us. Thankfully, the fence dividing our two groups was taken down many years ago. Throughout South Texas, we lived with cradle to grave segregation.
On my father’s side of the family, the Herreras and Morenos were buried in the border town of Escobares, Texas where his family was from. We visited their gravesites less often as Escobares was 135 miles south of Alice. The current population in Starr County, where Escobares is located, is 96% Hispanic according to Census data, and it was likely that way for several hundred years. There were few, if any, opportunities for integration.
How we remember the dead varies among cultures. The Black Lives Matter movement made the words Say Their Names part of our present vocabulary. I am glad for that as it is important that we remember those who have died, that we say their names. And it is equally important to remember how they died.
Earlier this year on August 2, 2021, the Second Anniversary of the racially motivated mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, this image above caught my eye. I set out to learn about it and to identify its creator.
Two years ago, the nation was shocked when a 21-year-old white supremacist shot 46 people on a quiet Saturday morning as they shopped for groceries and back-to-school specials at Walmart. He aimed his assault rifle at anyone who “looked Mexican.” According to the online manifesto he posted, he was stopping the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The 23 people that were killed are remembered in this image.
My internet research led me to Appalachian painter and activist, Ellen Elmes. I found her contact information and wrote her, asking permission to weave this image into my one-woman show. We arranged a phone conversation, and she wanted to know more about my intentions. I described my play and how I use theater to raise awareness about the impact of prejudice and how stoking hatred towards groups inevitably leads to violence. She kindly granted me permission but wanted me to know the back story of how and why she came to paint these individual portraits.
She had read an essay written by David Carrasco Saying The Mexican Names: Reflections on Another Pandemic published on the First Anniversary of the El Paso shooting. “This past Christmas,” Carrasco wrote, “I visited the Cielo Vista Walmart to see the “Grand Candela”, the 30-foot tall golden obelisk monument which honors the people killed in this attack . . . I was disappointed that there was no plaque that listed the names of those killed . . . I stood in silence for a few moments. I pulled out the list of names from my pocket and whispered them to myself.”
Click here to read the essay.
Her reading David Carrasco’s essay wasn’t totally random, Ellen and her husband Don, are longtime friends with him, having attended college together in Western Maryland. Carrasco is the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America in the Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Carrasco’s family is from El Paso.
“I was deeply moved by David’s remembering of the victims and compassionate perspective,” Ellen wrote. “His words brought me to the point of realizing my desire to paint portraits of each of the 23 people murdered. Not knowing when I began painting if I could make such a project a reality, I started painting one portrait a day, each on a 9” x 12” canvas, throughout the month of October 2020. Painting the portraits became kind of a daily mantra for me, choosing the colors and photographs to work from for each person, recreating as much as possible a kind of visual vitality in paint to honor their life on earth. Initially, I looked up online pictures and info, whatever I could find, about each person and that is what hooked me into doing the paintings. They became real people. And spinning off of the importance of knowing and remembering their names, I decided to look up a legendary or mythological or cultural meaning of each name and incorporate that into each painting.”
Read Ellen Elmes’ statement about this work on her website. Click here.
With the help of the Harvard Divinity School staff and community leaders in El Paso, Ellen and Don were able to get addresses for all the families and mailed them the individual portraits she had painted of their loved ones. The families received them on Christmas Eve 2020. The story of the portraits became known to others and her images made their way to social media on the Second Anniversary of the Walmart shootings.
Thank you, Ellen, for this series of portraits titled A Tribute to Beloved Lives. And thanks also to David Carrasco for sharing his experiences about growing up in a world of prejudice and segregation, something familiar to me and many of us. I have woven Ellen Elmes’ images into my one-woman show, Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? which is part of Re-Encuentro 2021, a National Latina/o/x Theater Festival taking place later this month.
You can learn more about the El Paso Massacre and the events that gave rise to this deadly assault in this illuminating Truthout article by colleague Camilo Pérez-Bustillo. Click here for article.
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Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?
written and performed by Irma Herrera
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