Kids In El Paso Kept Hearing About Mass Shootings. Now They're Trying To Comfort Friends Who Went Through One.
"After we passed by where my uncle works at, I started crying more because he works at the mall and I was scared he was going to die."
EL PASO, Texas — Noe Viellgas mumbles and averts his eyes when he starts talking about "it" — the sickening moment he learned a white man with a gun was in the same Walmart as his mom and little sister, and the texts he got from his friend about having to run and being "really scared."
The 12-year-old doesn't really like to talk about "it": the distinctly American reality of a mass shooting puncturing his sense of safety and normalcy. He doesn't know how to talk about the attack in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were gunned down — the trouble sleeping and the new routine of scrolling past Instagram posts of white crosses, sobbing neighbors, and pictures of victims he knew or might have walked past that day.
Every week or so, children are witnessing or hearing about people dying while going to the movies, walking with friends at a garlic festival, going to work or school, shopping at a Walmart. They get texts from their friends, follow the hashtags (e.g., insert town here + strong), and listen to their parents or siblings recount the harrowing, life-altering experience of running from that "pop, pop, pop."
Over dinner at a Pizza Hut, after baseball practice, at vigils and memorials, El Paso children told BuzzFeed News what it's like to be living the latest "we can't believe it happened here," and how they talk about mass shootings at school, home, and with their friends.
They don't really like talking about "it," because "it" is inevitable.
Noe is still having trouble coping, his mom, Monica Acosta, said Friday morning. He broke down after a spider bit him after school, but "doesn't want to get into it."
He's been thinking a lot more about what would happen to his older brother, Abraham, if there was a shooting. Abraham is 13 and has attention deficit disorder.
“My brother hates loud noises, and if there were gunshots, I am scared about something happening to him," Noe said.
He hasn't really talked to his friends about mass shootings, but nobody at school really was. They normally don't talk about school shootings when they happen elsewhere.
"It was really bad to talk about other shootings because you never know who was in there, what was going through people's minds," Noe said quietly.
He never expected to get a text from his friend, Armando, who was in the Walmart when the gunfire erupted over the weekend.
"I talked to him and he said they were saying that they were really scared," the seventh-grader recalled. He didn't know what to say back.
Noe's not sure how he feels about going to stores now. For now, he'd prefer not to. He also doesn't know how to comfort his mom, who has been "crying a lot."
"Saturday was crazy. It was sad. You never think that our little town, that loves everybody, that it would happen to us," he said. "I didn't want it to happen to anybody, but..."
Lea's head is still a little sore from when her mom pulled her ponytail and told her to run once they realized that the chaos and sharp pops were from a gun. She hasn't liked leaving her house to go to school, and she begs her mom to let her stay with her.
"I was screaming bad," she said, remembering fleeing the Walmart. "After we passed by where my uncle works at, I started crying more because he works at the mall and I was scared he was going to die."
On Monday, the first-grader wore her favorite unicorn headband for extra "power." She didn't talk to her friends about it. Instead, she played with "people she doesn't normally play with."
On campus, Lea said, normal squeals and conversations were replaced with kids were saying "this happened and this happened."
But her teacher told them to "stop talking about it," she added.
That was OK, though. She doesn't want to talk about it.
Joaquin isn't sure about going to the mall anymore, since "it happened there and you saw all these people screaming on the news." He went to a Walmart on Thursday and "felt uncomfortable."
"So now I get really protective of myself and I don't want to...yeah," he said.
He said that in the past, when a mass shooting has taken place, his teachers have told his class that if anyone is having a hard time, they could reach out and talk. Joaquin never did.
But now, after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and his hometown of El Paso, he said, "Sometimes I need to talk about it."
"Because it was here and I was kind of heartbroken," the middle schooler added.
One of his best friends, whom he has known since the first grade, was leaving the Walmart when the gunman started firing. The friend called and told him "how scared he was, what should I do."
"I said, 'Just talk to me how you feel,'" Joaquin recounted. "He started talking ... that he's not proud of his skin color, because he's Mexican. And I'm like, 'You should be proud of who you are.'"
Joaquin, who is about to start eighth grade, understands that the gunman came to his city because "he didn't like Mexicans and he just thought to get rid of them by shooting them."
"He said he didn't want races to mix, my mom told me," he said. "But I don't feel bad about my skin. I feel good about myself."
At school, they've had a lot of drills for lockdowns and evacuations.
"At first it was crazy. Now I am just used to it," he said.
Ayden Martinez, 11
Before the shooting, Ayden liked to draw action figures.
He’s never made art like this before, about death, with scribbles like “Erase all criminals!” and “but the devil is making a new us,” angry suns, angels, and stick figures with guns pointing them at a frowning man in a mariachi hat.
His second sketch begins, “They are in a better uncorrupt place, a place that the world was suppose to be…”
Beneath the words, an angel’s hand reaches out to a line of stick figures walking above a cloud.
The 11-year-old lives close to the Walmart and went shopping there the day before the shooting with his mom and little sister. He remembers hearing the sirens — they seemed to go on forever.
"It's too bad to be true," he remembers saying when he first saw it on the news.
Now, the sixth-grader doesn't really want to go outside or leave his house. He said he feels hurt because "we're not wanted here anymore because of our ethnicity."
Ayden's a very sensitive and loving kid, his mom, Vanessa Martinez, said, and it breaks her heart that her son "now knows the world is scary."
"I was terrified," she said of finding the drawings, adding that she is struggling to find the best way to talk to her three children about the massacre that happened at the Walmart they always go to.
"I am scared myself. I don't know how to deal with it either," she said. "I suffer from anxiety, so it just feels worse."
Aileen Martinez, 15; Elaine Vale, 15; and Roxana Martinez, 14
Aileen, Elaine, and Roxana all go to Jefferson High School, and they believe talking about mass shootings is an "important topic."
"Teachers mention it, but we should talk more about it," Elaine said.
"Because we're Latino students and now we're targets," Aileen added. "We should talk about it because it's happening to us."
Their friends are scared because, like many other Americans, they "didn't think this would happen in our city."
The teens have absorbed details about the tragedy on social media, constantly scrolling past updates from the news media, emotional reposts from friends, and colorful, somber #ElPasoStrong drawings.
"Sometimes with shootings we just ignore it," Elaine said. "But it's important we should know everything in detail now, and what's happening with the president, and what's happening around the United States."
Georgie's mom "doesn't let me have a Nerf gun," but she doesn't really understand why.
She knows that a person did something that was meant to hurt others, and that she was laying 22 flowers, one at a time, across a long, dense stretch of crosses, posters, bouquets, and candles at a memorial "to help people feel better."
Her mom, Charly Vasquez, said she and her husband grappled with how to talk to their daughter about a hate-inspired shooting that has caused so much pain and grief around her. They recently moved back to El Paso from Los Angeles so Georgie could grow up in a smaller, safer city.
"We decided to start the conversation so she wasn't thrown into school and there's talking of an event she didn't know about," Vasquez said. "We told her somebody did something that was not very kind, but we wanted her to understand that she was safe and there were people there who kept others safe."
At the memorial, Georgie didn't know why some people around her were crying, but a man was handing out free ice cream and that made people happy, including her. She got a popsicle.
Helping people feel better "is nice," she said.
Then she put a yellow flower from what was left of her bouquet on my leg.