All photos (except for the last) by Dinah Vargas
"We knew we had a hurting kid," said Patty Shure adoptive mother of 16-year-old Victor Villalpando, the youngest victim of New Mexico police violence in the very bloody year of 2014. "We were on it!" added Mary Shoemaker, Victor's other adoptive mother, explaining that they were attentive to their son's tendency to depression, his confusion about his personal edges, and uncertainty about who he was in a general sense. In fact the very day before Victor was shot in the street by Española cop Jeremy Apodaca, the moms had been assured by a psychologist with whom they had consulted that things weren't so bad, that Victor did not need to be placed in the intensive out-patient program they'd been actively considering for him.
Our topic was self-recrimination, and there was plenty to go around.
Victor had wanted to go visit his birth grandparents that week, but his mothers wanted him to finish his online classes for the 9th grade. "We put roadblocks in his way; as his mothers we set boundaries for him," Mary explained. "He hated that." As a compromise he was allowed to study by day and spend Saturday night at his friend's house in Española. The following morning, Sunday, June 8th, he told his friend he was going out for a walk, a walk from which he never returned.
Shure and Shoemaker reject the narrative as it's told by the police and repeated uncritically in the media: the facile, and in this case particularly baseless, "suicide by cop" theory one hears so often. Their lawyers, who have filed a tort claim on their behalf (no lawsuit is currently planned), have examined the surveillance video that captured Apodaca's 15-second encounter with their boy, other specialists too. "It gets grainy, there's no audio, there were no lapel cameras. Inconclusive, " Mary says. But something wells up in Patty. "I was trained to be a nice girl. For a year I've been saying Victor's death, when Victor was killed. But now I say our boy was murdered," Patty says. "Murdered by someone who thought he was a threat."
Though Victor was shot down in Española, the family resides in El Rito, a rural village located 18 miles to the north. "I wish we had had a chance to teach him not to mess with the cops," Patty said. "My immediate regret was that. He was raised by us inside our sense of white privilege, with no street smarts, out in the country where there are no police. In those ways he wasn't savvy, and I...I didn't know to teach him that.
"It's part of this journey," Patty explains. "The relentless 'What else could I have done?' And then you turn your attention somewhere else. Because you have to."
The couple, who were married in California, have three other children, one by birth and two other adoptees. They received Vic, as they sometimes call him, from the New Mexico Children Youth & Family Department just after he was born. "He was always of two worlds," Mary said, and Patty elaborated. "His birth mother, who died two years ago from a heroin overdose, went into early labor as a result of a drunk driving accident. She was airlifted to UNM hospital, and told me that she was paddled back to life three times en route. As a newborn Victor had cocaine and THC in his bloodstream; the nurses said he was going through withdrawal. That was the soup in which he was formed."
The narcotics and alcohol affected him in various ways. On one hand he was something of a motor skills prodigy. "When he was still two," Mary remembered, "he was already riding a two-wheeler. He convinced an adult to take off his training wheels and he was cycling around the churchyard. But he was slower to talk than our other children, and definitely slower to potty-train."
"Socially, he was younger than his age," Patty added. "And he was remarkably empathic and kind. His pre-natal life showed up in unexpected ways. He was concerned for the panhandlers we'd see in Española, who are often addicts. He'd say, Mom, that guy is still there, what can we do? We had endless conversations about how to support a person's humanity without supporting his illnesses. Finally I got him to accept, to agree, that he would not give them his lunch money every single day. But I always had to have some Taco Bell gift cards on hand, and we'd give those out. I have them still, a few, in my wallet. That's Victor."
"He took everybody's pain," Mary said. Once a family friend perished at their dinner table, shockingly dying during the meal from a massive heart attack. While the arrangements were being made Victor, though just a boy, stayed with the body the entire time. "He wouldn't leave his side," Patty recalled. "Another time, I'd hurt my foot and was bedridden for a while. Victor nursed me. Before he'd go to elementary school he'd look in on me. What can I get for you, mom? Do you need anything?"
—how could we have helped him more? That's a part of losing someone in this way, violently in the streets."
For months Mary and Patty went to the grave site every single day. They'd find toys or other tokens there, left by the children to whom their son had taught dance and gymnastics at Moving Arts Española. One child left a rosary from his first holy communion. Seed balls and heart-shaped rocks are not uncommon; colorful flowers crafted from duct tape grace his resting place, and homemade carved crosses have appeared from strangers who are simply moved by the family's unbearable loss. One day they plan to cover the mound where he rests in a mosaic of heart-shaped rocks. For now they re-mound the dirt when it loses shape from erosion, or tidy up the various memorial tributes when they're knocked over by the wind and rain.
"When they told us in the hospital they wouldn't be able to save him, I started to keen," Mary said."I didn't know the word keening before I did it. For the longest time, I had to make myself get up in the morning. I wanted to hide. People stayed with us after the funeral. It was a good thing they did: they reminded us to breathe, they made us eat. I've lost ten pounds this year, which I find astounding. I cry many times a day. I notice how it makes my body feel, I acknowledge the sorrow. But lately that's side-by-side with joy, seeing the sunset again."
Patty began grief counseling about a month ago; it's helping she feels. "It took me so long to get into counseling. I have moments of more acceptance and then there are times when I'm just No, no, no! And I really question why I have to stay here on this earth without him? I don't know the answer, but I feel that I do."
Physically, she has odd aches and pains, bouts of sleeplessness. There are challenges with stress-related activities. She finds herself over-reacting at times to situations that before their terrible loss simply would not have ruffled her. At first working was out of the question, but she's come back in stages. She used up all her leave, co-workers generously donated theirs, and she was away for a full month. Then she returned on a part-time basis, and though she's now back full-time she no longer engages in direct service to kids and their families. Her role now is primarily administrative. She tells herself that someone who cares has to do that job too, even with its bureaucratic frustrations.
And they have fears, terrible, terrible fears. Mary's concerned about what she calls the "out-there kids," all the other kids like Victor, who maybe "take up too much space." She doesn't want a single other one dead, "pain in the butts that they are." About the police, Mary has felt Fuck you, fuck you! "But I change that tape, I've played around with it. Now I say 'peace on your journey.' I say it, but I've lived in terror that I'd be pulled over, and especially by Apodaca. Sometimes I'd see him, or think it was him. If that happened... I don't think I could control it."
In April, she did get pulled over for driving slightly over the speed limit. But it was by a San Juan tribal officer, and luckily he was gentle in his demeanor. "When I went to court I said to the judge, Please thank the officer. I lived in fear that if I was pulled over, I'd end up in jail."
But Mary's worst fear is for her other children. "I worry that something just as bad could happen to them."
One of the ways Mary copes with her anguished anxiety is to do the work to bring the change—"here, or even more far-reaching"—we all so desperately want: an end to police violence against the populace. Last Monday she sent off an information packet to the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, at President Obama's request. It included the autopsy report and other official documents filled with wrenching details: like Eric Garner in New York City, Victor's last words too were: "You're hurting me, I can't breathe."
The reform agenda is mighty: both she and Patty advocate jury trials not grand juries when an officer is involved in a shooting "so that the victim's voice is represented too." Secondly, the officers should be interviewed promptly (not 12 days later when they've all had ample opportunity to sync up their stories) and by a completely independent agency, not the New Mexico State Police who are all bound up together with the local departments. Mary and Patty want the lapel cameras turned on and with audio, so we can hear the conversation. (If only we knew what was said to Victor that made him turn his back on the officers, was it something shaming? Or did one of them say they were going to contact his parents? Did he turn back and offer them his cell phone, and was he shot for being helpful?)
They're also, as we all should be, interested in the conversation about disarming the police altogether. "How else," Mary asks, "are we going to break the cycle of fear?" She'll be discussing these and other ideas on the radio tomorrow at noon (KUNM) along with representatives from New Mexicans for Gun Safety.
Other proposals have to do with increased mental health policing and providing real alternatives to calling 911 in the first place, such as another three-digit hotline number that could bring real help. They want revisions to police training curriculum that would lead to a shift away from the focus on warrior cops shooting to kill. "But," Mary reminds us, "none of that will bring my kid back." And our thoughts return to Victor on that Sunday morning last June: why didn't they knock him down, tase him, shoot him in the leg, talk to him for more than 15 seconds?!
Would you ever call 911 again for any reason I ask Patty and Mary, to which they reply in unison: NEVER!
A powerful statement, especially from Patty who works on behalf of some really distressed families and and is aware of the array of dangerous possibilities. "Safety," she so wisely says, "is in your skills."
Patty Shure and Mary Shoemaker have been united in love and family for three decades, but they are fighting to hold onto their relationship. The truth is that many families don't stay intact after this kind of traumatic loss. Mary says they have to keep their family together for their 13-year-old daughter, and that they're giving each other a lot of space. Apodoca's bullet has ripped them apart, but says Mary, "It's gotta make us stronger. It's gotta."
Patty explains: "We're both in deep grief. It's hard to survive myself, and then to nurture someone else...I have to remind myself when I see Mary weeping, in a matter of seconds my own sorrow can be activated, that it could be me in the next moment feeling destroyed."
And too, Patty explained, for over 25 years they've led a quiet life, working in community, raising their children. But now people—strangers—some less than tactful, feel free to approach them and say things to them, sometimes terrible things. "Oh, that was your son. Well, what did he think would happen?" Mary added too that Victor's slaying has outed them as lesbians in a small rural town. One woman recently told them she'd always thought they were sisters (though they look nothing alike). The whole ordeal has propelled them into the public light, a place they never wanted to be.
Mary confessed: "We had a hard time getting ourselves to the memorial service for the anniversary. We just wanted to be with family. But it was organized by community members who also love our boy. So we go. And then we see him in the mural, twenty feet tall, planting seeds, exuding life. Community—that's what his death has done—it's strengthened our community."
"I wake up in the morning, and I have to remember that he's no longer here," Patty said. "But whatever your beliefs, he's accessible to me: I talk to him. A lot. When Beau Biden died, I said, Hey, Vic, did you welcome him? And then I had to remember that Vic wouldn't have given a crap about a politician... So then I switched it up and asked him: Hey, Vic. Is Tupac dead, or not?
"And I heard his laughter, howling. But he didn't answer."