Mario De Alba was wounded in the massacre at an El Paso Walmart. He remains hospitalised, and his relatives have uprooted their lives in Mexico to be with him.
They stand beside him, smoothing his black hair, holding his hands, massaging his feet and making him laugh. Mario de Alba's loved ones have kept this bedside vigil inside an El Paso hospital room, 28 days and counting, for the washer-and-dryer repairman now called the Hero of Chihuahua.
De Alba was shot in the back nearly four weeks ago in the massacre inside an El Paso Walmart. While a gunman stalked the aisles, de Alba shielded his wife and 9-year-old daughter in a bank at the front of the store. Other shoppers crowded into the same corner. A man near de Alba softly prayed aloud, trembling with fear.
The gunman saw them — between eight and 10 men, women and children — and opened fire. De Alba, 48, drew his wife and daughter close to protect them, but they were also shot. One bullet struck his wife's thumb and breast. Another hit his daughter's leg.
Several of those around them, including the man de Alba saw praying, were killed that morning. His wife and daughter have since been released from the hospital. But he remains at the University Medical Center of El Paso, undergoing operations — three so far — and fighting to regain his strength.
On that August morning, de Alba's life — like the lives of other survivors and the relatives of the 22 people who were killed — quietly and painfully paused. Most of the dozens who were wounded were treated at area hospitals and released, but a handful remain hospitalised, including two at University Medical Center, de Alba and Luis Calvillo, 35, a military veteran and youth soccer coach who was shot five times.
For the de Alba family, the slow recovery has been marked by dislocation. De Alba lives in Chihuahua City, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, with his wife and daughter. But since August 3, the family has effectively lived in El Paso: De Alba in his hospital room, and his wife and daughter at a nearby hotel, where his mother and his sister have also relocated from Mexico.
Erika, his 9-year-old daughter, should be in school. Oliva, his wife, is the principal at the school Erika attends, but she, too, has not wanted to leave. In Chihuahua City, Mario de Alba runs a shop that repairs and sells washing machines and dryers, but now the business is closed.
This is what the recovery from a mass shooting looks like: Not only are there physical, emotional, financial and logistical tolls, but in a border city like El Paso, binational ones, too.
"I can't move forward," de Alba said. "I can't take my daughter to school. I'm not able to work. I have bills to pay. But my world has now stopped."
Federal immigration officials have assisted the de Alba family — Mexican citizens who are among the thousands who legally cross the border daily to work, shop or study in El Paso, using tourist and other visas that allow them to be in the United States temporarily — and given them permission to stay in El Paso during de Alba's recovery.
Still, de Alba worries about the future. He will most likely remain hospitalised for several weeks, and so he worries that his family will run out of money and will have to return to Mexico. He worries about his daughter not being in school and his wife not working.
"If they're not here," he said of his family as he lay on his hospital bed, "who's going to take care of me?"
His sister Cristina heard him, and she leaned over and touched his head. "No, you won't be alone," she whispered.
On Thursday morning, de Alba steeled himself for another operation, scheduled for that afternoon. His cousin, Lucero de Alba, was visiting from Ciudad Juárez, El Paso's next-door sister city in Mexico. She had waited three hours in a long line to cross the border at one of the international bridges.
But now, with her there, as well as his sister and his 79-year-old mother, Maria Montes, the mood shifted. It quickly became the de Alba Show. Soon, laughter filled his room, a sterile space with few touches of home.
Smiling, de Alba said he had something on his mind. When the gunman stormed into the Walmart and opened fire, de Alba had just paid a lot of money for a cart full of groceries, clothes, a pair of shoes for himself and back-to-school supplies for his daughter. He had tucked the receipt into his shirt pocket. Maybe Walmart would give him a refund, he joked.
"How much was it?" his cousin asked.
"How much?" she asked him again.
"$850," de Alba repeated.
"$850," she exclaimed, as laughter and whistles filled the room. "$850? Are you serious? You're a big spender, my friend."
Confined to a hospital room and tethered to intravenous tubes and beeping machines, de Alba has had several weeks to think about the massacre and the man charged with orchestrating it. The suspect, Patrick Crusius, 21, lived with his grandparents in the Dallas suburb of Allen, and law enforcement authorities said he had posted an anti-Latino manifesto minutes before the attack, writing that he was acting "in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."
De Alba says that he does not understand the gunman but that he does not hate him. "He's a person who doesn't even love himself," he said. "A life with no purpose."
Later, he cracked a smile. "The only people I hate in my life," he said, "are the customers who don't pay when I fix their washer or dryer."
Lucero laughed. "He's a de Alba," she said. "He's in a good mood every day. It runs in the family."
The day before the shooting, de Alba drove four hours from Chihuahua City to El Paso to pick up his wife and daughter, who had arrived at the city's airport from a trip to Denver. They booked a hotel room in El Paso for the night and planned to shop at Walmart the next morning before making the long drive back home.
It was not yet 11am when de Alba, his wife and his daughter finished paying for their items. They were preparing to walk out when the gunman, wearing earmuffs and carrying an AK-47-style rifle, walked in. De Alba said he did not hear the gunman say anything.
"Serio," de Alba said in Spanish of the gunman's expression. "Serious."
De Alba said he rushed Oliva and Erika into First Convenience Bank, across from the registers. They were the first to hide in a corner. Other shoppers soon followed as gunshots echoed across the store. He covered his wife and daughter, and soon there was blood. He remembered seeing a nose and an ear on the floor.
A few moments later, de Alba and his family rushed outside. In his panic, he tried to drive them to a hospital. They got to their car, and his wife handed him the keys. But he had no strength to put it into gear, he said. Ambulances and paramedics arrived as his pain increased. He told a paramedic to take his wife and daughter but to leave him there to die.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. The paramedic refused his request and helped him into an ambulance.
"When he arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious," Lucero said. "His father died two years ago. He said that he saw him in the emergency room waiting for him. For seven seconds, he was diagnosed dead."
De Alba had serious internal injuries, and his recuperation has been slow. Doctors recently found pus inside of him from intestinal leakage. With tubes in his nostrils, and unable to eat or drink, he and his relatives have more questions than answers about how long his recovery will take. He was not paralysed and is able to walk, but they wonder how independently mobile he will be when he is released.
A few days ago, he saw therapy dogs in the hospital. On Thursday he asked a hospital executive whether he could spend time with one. The St. Bernard or the Great Dane, he was asked. He thought for a moment. The Great Dane.
On Thursday, his daughter and wife stopped by his room before his surgery. Later, everyone gathered in the lobby to say goodbye to Lucero. Four weeks after the massacre, Erika walks with a slight limp and Oliva still has a cast on her wrist and thumb. Erika smiled and giggled outside the gift shop. Lucero bought her a candy bar.
De Alba said he believed that their fate could have been different. They could have been killed as they hid, just like the man who had been praying beside them. Erika, he said, is his inspiration to recover.
"I've been focusing on being grateful," he said. "My daughter visits almost every day. What else can I ask of life?"
Stacey Hunt 9:49 AM
Written by: Manny Fernandez
Photographs by: Tamir Kalifa
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES