Updated: Dec 10, 2020
The last time I saw snow was in El Paso, Texas. I only ever remember visiting in the winter, but even after multiple trips, I never felt anything short of wonder seeing snowflakes in the desert. It’s the kind of snow that feels magical, like at the beginning of winter in New York before it turns into dark sludge. Here, it’s light and fleeting, barely sticking and melting quickly. Large, soft flakes float down in the mornings as we walk through the doors of the hotel in the three empty blocks that make up downtown. My sister and I tilt our heads to the sky with our tongues out as if we are five, because when you don’t grow up around snow, you can’t help it.
My mom’s family lives in El Paso. My great-grandma is 100 years old and for the past few years, we’ve spent her December 26th birthday there with all the cousins, thinking it might be her last. We eat Mexican food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Chico’s Tacos is an obligatory stop on the way from the airport. I slip quarters into the restaurant’s jukebox while we wait for the mass order of taquitos dunked in tomato and cheese sauce.
In June 2018, the Department of Homeland Security opened what would be their largest facility in the Office of Refugee Resettlement's Unaccompanied Alien Children Program. Located in the rural El Paso County town of Tornillo, this “tent city” was used to detain undocumented immigrant children – about 6,200 minors cycled through the detention camp in the seven months before it closed in January 2019.
My great-grandma turned 99 years old in 2018. I found myself in El Paso the day after Christmas, wearing tights under my jeans and double-layering my socks. Our whole extended family was set for a dinner reservation at a Mexican restaurant that was somehow big enough to fit all 25 of us. That meant we had most of Saturday open and I knew where I needed to go.
On the plane to Texas that year, I’d been thinking about the consequences of visiting the Tornillo camp. It was not a tourist attraction; my stomach lurched at the thought of seeing kids behind sharp wire fences like they were zoo animals. But there was something else in me that knew that I needed to see the camp for myself before the government shut it down in less than a month. They would do everything to downplay and erase the reality of this facility. After closely following the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for the last half year, I knew that they relied heavily on the secrecy and ambiguity to keep operating family separation at the border. And if I had a chance to see for myself what I had been reading about and unable to fathom, to look behind the veil of covertness, I had to go.
I convinced my immediate family to spend the freezing Saturday afternoon in Tornillo. This town epitomizes “rural,” with its big swaths of flat, empty land. In our rental car, we trailed a large truck with an open, ominous back to the entrance of the camp. My dad broke down in tears as soon as we parked.
I climbed out of the car, yanking my scarf tighter around my neck and mouth. There was a parked trailer next to us, and seeing us newcomers, a woman with a baby wrapped against her chest stepped out. She explained that she was part of an organization protesting the camp, living here in the parking lot and trying to communicate and comfort the kids inside before the guards whisked them away from the slats in the fences.
I saw the kids, through one of those slats. Through many, many layers of chain link fence. They were playing soccer in short sleeves. It was thirty degrees outside and flecks of ice stung my cheeks. It was the first snow day I hated in El Paso.
That night at dinner, I stepped outside of the restaurant into the cold again and watched clouds of my breath linger in front of me. My family was inside drinking and dancing, because Ay dios mío Grandma, one more year until you’re a century old! I knew my little cousins were probably looking for me, crayons stuffed in their pockets. Unlike the children I had seen earlier, they were warm. I knew because their cheeks were rosy and they touted argile sweaters and puffy pink coats.
In December 2019, we returned for her 100th birthday party. My great-grandma kissed me on both cheeks and asked if I still have the rosaries she gave me. Claro que sí, I told her. I bring them to college with me.
This time, before the family dinner, I directed us to the Walmart next to the Cielo Vista Mall. It’s the closest one to downtown Juárez and many Mexicans cross the border to shop here. Just four months earlier, the deadliest attack on Latinos in recent American history took place when a gunman killed 23 people inside this very store. El Paso’s population is 82% Latino.
The “Grand Candela” memorial is 30 feet of perforated, golden aluminum arcs. It is breathtaking and I wish I could see it at night, when it is lit up from the inside. I stared at the Walmart from the south side of the parking lot for a long time. About a month earlier, families of the victims gathered at this very spot for the unveiling of the memorial. And yet, I visit this city once a year to celebrate another year of healthy life with my family. I get to dance in winter dresses and hold my baby cousins who grow up too fast and eat until I am full next to a fireplace. I get to look outside the hotel window at the snow falling so softly and gently onto a city that sees 302 days of sun, at a city whose trauma I do not have to hold when I board the plane back home.
We will not be attending a 101st birthday dinner this year. My great-grandma will be spending her birthday at my great-aunt’s home because El Paso has become one the nation’s coronavirus epicenters and is on track to hit 1,000 deaths from the virus before the year is over. As I write, live, and breathe, the county can no longer rely on the Texan inmates it has hired to move dead bodies from the hospitals and refrigerated trailers, and has sent out a plea to hire more morgue attendants through the holidays. Of all of the COVID patients across the state of Texas, one in six is in this city.
I have spent the final weeks of the past two Decembers meditating on the year ahead, wishing that maybe the coming months can learn a thing or two from the gentle way the snowflakes kiss El Paso’s ground. The social complexities that come with being a border county in this country, we must remember, take physical tolls on its residents. The rampant distrust in the government – fears rooted in questioning of citizenship status, perhaps now resulting in avoiding COVID-19 testing – has dangerous repercussions of anxiety, grief, and now, fatal illness.
Setting El Paso free first means acknowledging that this city’s healing will continue long after this pandemic is over. It requires a collectivist understanding of the ways that trauma harbors individuals and their communities. But also begs recognition of the systems and governments that have failed El Paso and are deeply in debt to this recovery. What does next year hold for this city and for our country? How can we not only be better, but get better?
El Paso’s nickname is “Sun City,” which is hard to remember after it’s faced so much darkness. Yet there’s almost a resilient sound to this name now. I do hope that the sun will shine again in El Paso, illuminating everything we can no longer ignore.