A white supremacist domestic terrorist targeted Mexicans in El Paso, Texas.
The community was devastated. 22 lay dead. 26 wounded. The words of the psalmists, of Job, of Jeremiah all fell short. The words they needed, the verses they sought were those of JuanGa. The community sang: Como quisiera / que tú vivieras / que tus ojitos jamás se hubieran / cerrado nunca y estar mirándolos. / Amor eterno. (How I wish / that you were still alive / that your eyes had never / ever closed and I was looking at them. / Eternal love).
“Amor Eterno,”or Eternal Love, was written in 1984 by the famed Mexican singer and song writer Juan Gabriel, or JuanGa, after his mother passed away. It has become a standard that is played at funerals, wakes, get-togethers, and even restaurants across the U.S., Mexico, and the world to remember family and loved ones who have passed away.
The song has become an expression of popular faith. Individuals sing the song together, remembering the people they have lost. It is a shared ritual in public spaces where mourning binds them together.
Singing “Amor Eterno” is in the tradition of lamenting throughout the Hebrew Bible. In Lamentations, the author cries: “I am the one who has seen affliction … my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” (Lamentations 3:1,17,18.)
In “Amor Eterno,” they sing: Yo he sufrido mucho por tu ausencia / desde ese día hasta hoy, no soy feliz / y aunque tengo tranquila mi conciencia / yo sé que pude haber yo hecho más por ti (I have suffered so much because of your absence / since that day to today, I am not happy / and even though my conscience is clear / I know I could have done more for you).
The psalmist moans, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol … I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow … my companions are in darkness” (Psalm 88:3,9,18).
In “Amor Eterno,” they weep together: Ojos que hayan derramado tantas lágrimas por penas / de dolor / … soledad, eso es todo lo que tengo ahora y tus recuerdos / que hace más triste la angustia de vivir pensando como siempre en ti / ojos que te vieron tanto y que no han vuelto a verte (eyes that have spilled so many tears of sorrow / of pain / … solitude, is all that I am left with now and your memories / that make the grief of living always thinking of you even sadder / eyes, that saw you so much and will not see you again).
When the verses and chorus are sung for individuals lost to old age, or cancer, or to the daily ways that we may all leave our loved ones, it is a faithful, hopeful, act of consolation. Releasing the sorrow into the air was central in the healing. The sorrow needed to be let out and breathed in by those around us, stranger and friend alike, so that it does not stagnate within. The song was an essential rite for many. And that was why it was played over and over in so many different places and situations. In the midst of these laments, pleadings, prayers there was a reluctant hope in the eternal love in the chorus. The bereaved wanted to believe that one day they would be together and that there is a type of love that lives past the grave.
But singing the song now, in the context of a hate crime targeting Latinos that took the lives of 22 people, of yet another mass shooting, it becomes something else. The lyrics change. Sang collectively, it moves beyond lamentation. It rings of desperation and resignation. The verses haunt. Oscura soledad estoy viviendo yo / La misma soledad de tu sepulcro . (This dark solitude that I am living / the same solitude of your tomb.)
The imperfect subjunctive is transformed in the chorus — como quisiera. The unlikely or impossible event the conjugation is typically used for changes from the loved one not dying, to society doing something to prevent future deaths. Family and community members sang together “como quisiera que tú vivieras,” but the words had changed. To an extent it was an admission that we wished they were alive, but there is nothing we will do to keep people from dying in mass shootings in this country. This is the state of things. Nothing will change. Nothing happens.
It is right and holy and wholly necessary to mourn. In this case, it should have been wholly unnecessary for the community of El Paso to mourn. Just like thoughts and prayers have been perverted by lip service to a supposed faith, so too has an important rite that has been so significant to this community been twisted.
I wish, I pray that this is the last time we have to sing this song at a memorial for a Latino community attacked by hate, but I don’t know. Como quisiera …