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'What He Did Doesn't Change Who We Are': Family Reflects One Year After Surviving El Paso Shooting

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Mallory Falk
/
KERA News
Visitors continue to leave items at a memorial in Ponder Park, honoring the victims of the August 3rd, 2019 mass shooting at a nearby Walmart.

One Saturday morning last August, Erika Contreras decided she wanted to make a big, special breakfast for her two children.

She and her 7-year-old daughter Genesis headed out to their go-to Walmart. They learned that Erika’s mother and sister were also on their way to the store to pay some bills, so it turned into a family trip.

An estimated 3,000 people were in the store that day: Aug. 3, 2019. Shoppers came from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Many were drawn there for back-to-school deals.

Erika, then 29, was in the frozen food section with mother and daughter when a gunman opened fire. She grabbed them and raced out the nearest exit, then tried desperately to reach her sister, who was in another part of the store and had silenced her cell phone while hiding from the gunman. They eventually reunited, but the waiting was excruciating.

When KERA first spoke with Erika last year, she was dealing with an unexpected consequence of the shooting: trying to get the smell of rotten food out of her car. In the chaos after the attack, she threw her groceries in the trunk. Then her car sat out in the sun for several days, in the cordoned-off parking lot.

“Butter was, like, literally liquefied,” she said then.

Erika was also helping Genesis prepare for the first day of second grade, while working through the trauma they had just experienced.

A year later, the family is getting ready for a very different kind of school year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Genesis will start third grade with virtual classes.

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Credit Courtesy of Erika Contreras
Since the mass shooting, eight-year-old Genesis Contreras has found comfort in crafting and her family's new puppy, Cupid.

“What I like about virtual school is that I don’t have to wear shoes,” Genesis, now 8, said. “I get to be all comfortable in my comfortable clothes,” instead of a uniform. “And I get to wear Chapstick. But what I am going to miss about school is my science class, my dance class, the computer lab and the library.”

Genesis is a bubbly kid. Erika is grateful that what she went through last August did not fundamentally change her personality.

But a year after the mass shooting, the largest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history, the trauma still lingers.

During the day, Genesis is her “bouncy little self,” Erika said, a girly girl who loves crafting and glittery lip gloss.

“But there’s days when she says she doesn’t know why she feels sad and she wants to start crying and she gets really emotional. So we’re still working on all that,” Erika said.

Nighttime is a challenge. Genesis has slept in her mom’s bed ever since the shooting.

“She always dreads the time we’re gonna go to sleep,” Erika said. “She’d be like, 'I don’t wanna go to sleep, I don’t wanna go to sleep.' And she gets really moody and starts talking about ‘Hug me ‘cause I’m scared.’”

And in her mind, she has transformed the gunman into a supernatural threat.

“Genesis has turned it into where he’s no longer a person but now the actual boogeyman,” Erika said.

Genesis is in therapy and trying different techniques to help her sleep, like listening to calming music before bed.

Erika says the Family Resiliency Center that was set up after the attack has been especially helpful. She has a case manager, known as a “resiliency navigator,” who regularly checks in and drops off care packages, including senior kits for her mother.

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Credit Courtesy of Erika Contreras
Erika Contreras and her daughter Genesis, several years before the attack.

For her part, Erika is trying to model resiliency for her family. The day the Cielo Vista Walmart reopened, just months after the massacre, she was one of the first ones through the door.

“I wanted to face it because I said I’m not gonna live in fear,” Erika said.

She has pushed her mother to do the same. For awhile, the 71-year-old stayed shut inside, afraid to leave the house.

“She had her moments when she was breaking down and didn’t want to go nowhere but I told her, ‘Mom, that’s not a way to live,’” Erika said.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, leading to a contradictory shift. For months, Erika and her sister had been practically dragging their mom out of the house. Suddenly, they had to reverse course.

“Now that it’s the COVID, now she wants to be going out,” Erika laughed. “And she’s like, ‘First you get mad at me because I don’t go out and now because I want to go out!’”

Despite the pandemic, the family had been making steady progress. Erika said most days, she was doing pretty well. But as the one year mark approached, that started to change.

“We’re having to relive it again,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety and not being able to sleep properly again, and it’s just something you just don’t want to remember anymore.”

Lately, she has been avoiding the Walmart she was so determined to revisit after the attack.

Erika will be relieved when the one year mark has passed. She wants to focus on moving forward, and not letting this event define her family.

“What he did doesn’t change who we are,” she said. “We’re still gonna continue fighting, we’re still gonna continue living our lives. We’re still gonna be happy.”

She won’t let Aug. 3 become a reason for her family to close themselves off from the world.

Got a tip? Mallory Falk is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email her at mfalk@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @malloryfalk.

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