It's Pronounced Chookshaw

The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

My thoughts on El Paso

Like many, I watched in horror as another mass shooting impacted the lives of random innocents. To see it happen minutes from my childhood home in El Paso, the city that raised me, has left me feeling sad, angry, and hopeless. I haven’t yet found the right way to help. Perhaps telling my story about my hometown will show others a place that seems almost destined to be misunderstood.

In 2011, my father and mother passed away in the house where I was raised, in January and April respectively, both less than a week before their 60th birthdays. Both deaths were a surprise and came at a time when money was tight. My father had been unemployed for the prior year-plus, and my mom struggled with enough ailments, known and unknown, to prevent her from working.

As an only child, packing up the home in which I grew up was daunting, even more so while grieving the loss of my parents. Having returned to the city only for Christmases over the years, and no family within 1,000 miles, you might assume that there would be limited support. You would be wrong. You don’t know El Paso.

The back story

Six years before their passing, my parents had been estranged from the Catholic parish they helped to build in both physical structure and community. The classically El Paso conflict began when my gringo-as-they-come father wrote an email to the parish priest complaining of Spanish music at English masses. Strongly-worded, tone-deaf, and racist, the email sparked a message back from the pastor not an hour later: you’re not welcome in the community any longer. My mom, who was a candidate for a paid position at the church, removed herself from consideration and stood by my father. He never set foot in the church again.

When my father died, the community came together. My mom and I planned a funeral, but we could not afford “extras” as we were unsure of what resources we would need to keep her afloat. It was no matter. The Knights of Columbus, where my dad was a charter member and former Grand Knight, held a wake. Many volunteered in time, talent, and treasure. Even the parish priest, the one who had kicked my dad out in the first place, hired my dad’s favorite musician to play at the funeral. In total, it was an incredible act of love that continued as other members of the community helped my mom to grieve, to reconnect, and to live once I had to resume my life in Pittsburgh.

The most incredible week

About three months later, I arrived in El Paso on a flight I had previously booked to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday. Instead of bringing Pittsburgh food favorites, I brought with me my now-wife to mourn my mom’s death. Countless acts of kindness began from the moment we landed: a pickup from the airport, a loaner car for our stay, and some food and beer in the fridge. Once we got to my house, we were given one assignment: to bring two 8×10 pictures of my parents to the funeral the next day.

We arrived at the parish and were overwhelmed. The community, in a few short days, had planned a funeral without my involvement. So many friends were there in support and to express their condolences. Flowers, prayer cards, and a celebration of her life and love followed. I don’t remember all of the details — grief and time will take some of that away. I do remember how completely loved I felt at a time where much of what I knew of my life had fallen apart.

The compassion and support didn’t stop there. A couple of dozen folks showed up to help pack up the house and load it into the moving truck I rented. Others held a yard sale to clear out what I wasn’t able to bring back to Pittsburgh. From helping to navigate the business issues of the estate, to assisting in selling the house, to taking care of my dad’s beloved backyard fish pond, there was a constant message: I am family.

What I know about El Paso

My parents, decidedly of European descent in a city that is more than 80% Latinx, were embraced by a community who could have allowed racial divisions, assumptions, and injuries to separate. It is counterintuitive to our current moment, just like the city itself. El Paso is amongst the safest in the world despite being bordered by one of the deadliest. It is a place of beauty and bounty in spite, and because, of its arid landscape. The city is one of many languages, not just English and Spanish, but its melding of the two and others as those of diverse backgrounds consider El Paso home.

Every place that has experienced the senseless violence of domestic terrorism has come together in crisis. The hashtags, like #ElPasoStrong, don’t tell the full story. El Paso is not strong because of its reaction in crisis. It is strong because of the people of El Paso, who will do the hard work to support those who have been impacted, not just in the short-term, but for years to come. El Paso knows, more than most cities, hardship, suffering, and tragedy. More importantly, it knows how to find joy in those times, prioritizing love and support over sadness and wallowing. In a time that is socially and politically fraught with “us and them,” El Paso can and will light the way to show us all how quickly “them” can become “us.”

I am extremely fortunate to have been raised by the city that is El Paso. It taught me what community should look like, how to live out my faith, and what it means to understand people and a culture that is so different from my background. It taught me how to work hard and find happiness in challenging times. Thank you, once again, for what you have taught me and how you have supported me, even from thousands of miles away.

I love you all, and am mourning for those hurt in a city I love. I am here for you. God bless you all.

Postscript: I hope, if you made it this far, that you might be willing to take the #elpasoCHALLENGE by doing 22 good deeds. The idea, conceived by an 11-year-old El Pasoan who wants to honor those killed in the terrorist shootings by spreading the love for which the city is known, couldn’t be more appropriate for our time. For those who have the means, please consider one of your first acts to be a contribution to the El Paso Victims Relief Fund at the Paso del Norte Foundation.

11 Comments

  1. A great read Albert, thanks for the perspective and details on such a great city. Your parents are proud of the story you tell here.

  2. Very well put. I will be in EP visiting my mom Thursday. I’m only 160 miles away in Silver City, NM. I was going on Wednesday but she lives less then a mile from Cielo Vista Mall and the visit from our current tyrant would make it less the a welcome place for me and mom on our 1st of the month errands that we go on. People do not realize what type of transient place EP is. The population does not swell in proportion to the number of people who pass thru. It is a way station that welcomes people from everywhere and sends them on their way to the rest of our country. El Paso Del Norte. Pass of the north. Thank You for becoming who you are. B. Porter

  3. Your dad, as I remember, also had a great relationship with the folks in Juarez.
    As for his letter writing to that church, your father was a Ciuksza, thru and thru.
    Shyness is not in our DNA (my mom was your dad’s Aunt).

    Sometimes family and being related have nothing to do with each other.

    Paul O

  4. Heidi Karalagas

    August 6, 2019 at 7:03 pm

    Beautifully written story thank you for sharing. God bless El Paso.

  5. Albert, or Chick as some of us fondly know you… you absolutely nailed it! What a beautiful writing. When I first heard of the senseless and horrific event that took place…. my mind immediately took me back to a home on Russ Randall street in El Paso. There, my best friends in the entire world lived. I have so many happy memories there…
    I too, am saddened by the tragedy that took place. My heart goes out to all those families and friends whose lives have been forever changed.

  6. Albert,

    Thanks for sharing this amazing and heartfelt story. It’s something only those of us who grew up in El Paso will really understand.

  7. I am so impressed thank you for sharing, I am going to try and copy if I may. God bless you and your wife.

  8. Very well written! I can’t imagine your heartache and so happy that the community wrapped you in their wings.

  9. Deborah Strickland

    August 7, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    Our hearts go out to all those in El Paso and to your family and friends there. Thank you for taking us to the place where so much of your life was lived. So tragic.

  10. A very nice article Albert. Thanks for sharing this story about your parents and your perspective on El Paso.

  11. Thanks for the read Albert – good to know and reflect on your roots – where you come from, who you are, why you are… I will keep all those in El Paso in my prayers. Bringing good will through deeds and prayer is the most effective response against pain and suffering, but this effort shouldn’t come as a reaction. Rather, it should be something we do each day with the resources we have for those who do not.

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