EL PASO, Tex. — Along a trail of flowers, comes a history exhibit still very close to the present.
"We are following the trail of Mexican golden poppies, and these kind of take you through the direction of what you should take,” said Stephanie Gardea, as she pointed to flowers embedded in the floor of the El Paso Museum of History. "This is our ‘El Paso Strong’ galleries, as we like to call it."
In there, visitors come across an in-depth acknowledgment of the terrible event that shook El Paso to its core in 2019.
"We were asked to catalog and curate all of the items from the Walmart memorial site," said Gardea, who is the museum’s registrar and works on managing its collections, including this sobering one. "It's definitely very tough. When we were actually doing this work, you know, it's incredibly surreal."
The work Gardea and her colleagues undertook is part of a relatively new practice for museums called "emergency collecting."
"This practice in museums is 'How do you archive and catalog post such a traumatic event that is directly affecting people?'" she said.
Taking a cue from the 9/11 Museum in New York City, museum staff in El Paso curated the response to a mass shooting. Many of the artifacts displayed there are labeled "Artist Unknown."
It is an unusual subject matter for any museum, but especially for the people working on it.
"I never thought I would be working on archiving the artifacts from a mass shooting site in my city," Gardea said.
However, in doing their work, those at the museum created a place for healing.
“It's just kind of really beautiful to see the things that our people made in response to this," Gardea said.
A few miles away, there is more healing underway, which had initially been put on hold during the pandemic.
"We're a big city but a small community," said Idalhi Huizar-Mendoza, director of the El Paso United Family Resiliency Center. "Believe it or not, August 3rd was kind of put on the back-burner. When COVID hit, the priority was dealing with the pandemic."
The center was set up to help those impacted by the mass shooting—a shooting that law enforcement officials say targeted Hispanics.
"It was a hate crime and we're fully aware of that,” Huizar-Mendoza said, “but believe it or not, I think it's made the community come closer, come together, definitely provide a sense of like we're here doing this together."
Still, challenges remain, especially when overcoming the stigma of mental health needs within the Hispanic community.
"The Hispanic culture is a very tight-knit community, but a lot of the times they close themselves," Huizar-Mendoza said. "[It’s] that stigma of, 'I don't go to a shrink. I don't go to a therapist unless I'm crazy.' So, a lot of the times, it's creating and providing education."
It is also about coming to terms with what happened in the city — a part of history that is now part of the larger story of Hispanics in America.
"I will never forget reading the headline that this event, in particular, is the largest hate crime against the Hispanic community,” Gardea said, “and that just really made me stop and sit with my thoughts."
Yet, it's a narrative that they are working to take back.
"This is why we save the things," Gardea said, as she looked around the museum’s exhibit.
Huizar-Mendoza said the community’s recovery is something they will continue to face together.
"This will not break us. This will not weaken us,” she said. “Instead, it will just make us stronger."
To view a digital form of the museum's exhibition, or if you have information on who may have created some of the anonymous artifacts and artworks on display in the "Resilience: Remembering August 3rd" exhibit, click here.