As I lay dying




A child's drawing at the memorial to the 22 people who were murdered in August 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Photo by James E. Garcia | Arizona Mirror

“There have been more mass shootings than days this year.”

That was the headline on a story reported by CBS News on Sept. 1.

Think about that. Today, somewhere in America, applying the commonly accepted definition of a mass shooting, at least 4 people (not counting the killer) will likely die in a single shooting incident.

Put another way, the question isn’t if or even so much as when another mass murder will be committed with a gun, but where.

I’ve thought about that a lot since the early August shooting at an El Paso Walmart that left 22 people dead and another two dozen wounded.

As we now know, the man charged with carrying out that massacre was determined to stem what he and our president have deemed a “Hispanic invasion”. After his arrest, he told police he had driven more than 600 miles from his Dallas suburb intent on killing “Mexicans,” a term he more or less used to identify anyone brown-skinned.

That same weekend, I happened to be at a convention in San Diego for an organization called UnidosUS, one of the largest Latino advocacy groups in the country. Based on interviews I did at the time, I can tell you that it wasn’t lost on many of those attending that the convention would have been a prime target for a copycat shooter.

As disturbed as I was that the shooting in El Paso was an apparent hate crime aimed at people who just happened to look like me – I’m of Mexican descent – I was struck more by the random nature of the incident, especially where it happened. Walmarts, after all, are commonplace. The company owns more than 5,300 stores nationwide.

I don’t think the shooter had anything against Walmart. He was just looking for a place where he could shoot a lot of brown people. 

The massacre could have happened at any big-box store, or concert (Las Vegas: 58 killed in 2017), or high school (Parkland, Fla.: 17 killed in 2017), or church (Sutherland Springs, Tex.: 26 killed in 2017), or nightclub (Orlando, Fla.: 49 killed in 2016), or elementary school (Newtown, Conn.: 27 killed in 2012) or university (Blacksburg, Va.: 33 killed in 2007).

Even though people often say, “I never thought it would happen here,” mass shootings can happen anywhere, and they’re happening almost every day.

It’s something of a morbid thought, but one that I’m guessing has crossed most of our minds these days: Who’s to say that the next mass shooter won’t shoot me?

el paso shooting memorial
A woman and child walk past the memorial to the 22 people who were murdered in August 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Photo by James E. Garcia | Arizona Mirror

I visited the site of the El Paso shooting a week after it happened. The store had been completely fenced-off and blocked from view, but a nearly half-block-long makeshift memorial to the victims in an adjacent parking lot was still drawing hundreds of mourners each day. 

Eight days after the shooting, at least one of the victims, an elderly woman whose only surviving family member was her husband, had not yet been buried. 

I didn’t drive to specifically visit the memorial. It just happened that my wife’s family was holding its annual reunion that weekend in Clint, Texas, a farm community on El Paso’s outskirts.

But it was during that trip that I thought to myself, “If the killer had waited just a few days to kill a bunch Hispanics, we could have been in Walmart that day when he opened fire.” It takes my breath away to think about it.

Who’s to say my wife, Julie, my mother-in-law, Yolanda, and I might not have stopped at that store to buy a case of water or bag of ice on our way to the reunion?

Who’s to say the killer, armed to the teeth and carrying today’s weapon of choice, a high-powered military-style assault rifle, might not have strolled in unimpeded by the state’s open-carry law and started spraying the store with bullets.

Who’s to say my family and I might not have been in line waiting to pay at a cash register, standing just a few yards from the killer.

So close that I could see the color of his eyes and the beads of sweat on his forehead.

So close that I could hear him muttering something unintelligible about why everyone in sight deserved to die. 

So close that I could see the suddenly contorted, horrified expressions on the faces of the people walking past the shooter at the very moment they realized what he was about to do. 

So close that I might have asked myself, “If I had a gun, could I kill him before he kills us?” (That, even though I’ve never owned a gun and wouldn’t have one in my house.)

So close that I could consider grabbing my mother-in-law’s wheelchair and pushing her out of harm’s way, even as I turn to my wife, calmly I hope, and tell her in a desperate whisper to “Run!” 

So close that I could have second thoughts about us running because it might draw attention to us and turn us into prime targets. 

So close that, for a fleeting moment, the thought runs through my head that I should ask the would-be killer: “Why do you want to kill us? Why here? Why now?”

So close that I can’t hear the sharp pop of the bullets exiting his gun until after they pierce my flesh.

So close that I can hear the killer above the din of the other victims’ screams barking some confused but wholly illogical rationalization for why he’s decided to murder us.

So close that, as I lay dying on the floor, I can’t help but wonder if my wife and mother-in-law are still alive, or if my children will be alright once I’m gone, or if anything I ever did mattered in life, or if the killer even knew or cared that the bullets from his rifle had torn through my body as easily as a knife slices through a stick of soft butter, or if someone else on that day in another mass shooting somewhere in America lay dying on the floor of a church or a nightclub or a school or a concert asking themselves some of the very same questions I was asking myself in the moments before I took my last breath.

As I lay dying, I wonder if I would live just long enough to hear my killer finally stop shooting.

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James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.

2 COMMENTS

  1. You have described well terrorism: living in fear.

    No one needs the number or power of guns currently in circulation.

    We the voters must force our representatives to act in our best interests, or we must get new representatives.

  2. Born and raised in El Paso, I would never have imagined that this could happen there. . My Mother shopped at that Wal-Mart when she was still alive. We shopped there when visiting family still living there. Now I wonder when it will happen here. Thanks for an insightful look into what thoughts could be running in the victims minds at the time of their deaths by a domestic terrorist.

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