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They died shielding their baby in El Paso. Their family’s anguish was only beginning

Gilbert and Brenda Anchondo, the parents of Andre Anchondo, during a memorial at Franklin High School in El Paso, Texas Source: Calla Kessler/The New York Times

Jordan and Andre Anchondo were among the 22 people killed by a gunman at a Walmart store in El Paso on Aug. 3. Their families said the couple died protecting their infant son.

US President Donald Trump delivers a thumbs up while posing with an baby boy orphaned in the El Paso shooting.
US President Donald Trump delivers a thumbs up while posing with an baby boy orphaned in the El Paso shooting.

She was a young mother, busy juggling family dinners, cheerleading practices and trips to the park with her three small children.

He was a self-starter who had opened his own business and spent months painstakingly renovating a house for his family, with three bedrooms and granite countertops in the kitchen.

Before they became the latest faces of the toll of mass shootings in America — before their names were written on crosses at a memorial in El Paso, before their orphaned infant was held up in a photo opportunity with President Donald Trump — Jordan and Andre Anchondo were just a young couple at the start of their lives together. They had recently had a baby boy, moved into their new home and celebrated their first year of marriage.

A gunman with an AK-47-style rifle and a plan to hurt Mexicans changed all that. While the couple was shopping at a Walmart store in El Paso, Andre Anchondo, 23, was killed jumping in front of the gunman; his wife, Jordan, 24, died shielding her infant son, relatives have said. They were among 22 people who were shot to death that day.

The baby survived.

An undated family photo shows Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who were among the 22 people killed by a gunman at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas
An undated family photo shows Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who were among the 22 people killed by a gunman at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas
The New York Times

In the days since then, the Anchondos have been held up as symbols of tragedy, and their families have been thrust into the national spotlight — unsought attention that was made worse after Trump was photographed smiling and giving a thumbs-up alongside their baby.

The president’s visit led to an onslaught of hateful messages and a rift among grieving relatives over the past week — all while the families planned the couple’s funerals and made arrangements to care for the children: Paul, the couple’s 2-month-old son, and Jordan’s daughters from previous relationships, Skylin, 5, and Victoria, 1.

“I haven’t even had time to properly. ...” said Andre’s sister, Deborah Anchondo, 39, her sentence trailing off unfinished, after a memorial at her brother’s high school, where a local school board representative urged the community to put politics aside for the family’s sake.

“I have images in my head of what could have happened,” Anchondo said. “And that haunts me.”

Saturday morning errands

For Jordan and Andre Anchondo, the morning of the shooting was like many others for young families across the country: They dropped off Skylin, the 5-year-old, at cheerleading practice and then ran errands nearby at Walmart with the baby in tow. (Victoria was with her biological father.)

The Anchondos planned to have family and friends over later in the day for a housewarming party, which was to double as an anniversary celebration and a party for Skylin’s birthday, relatives said.

Skylin and her friends were wrapping up practice when the coach, Jeanette Grijalva, learned there was a shooter in the area. She quickly piled the kids in the car and drove them to her house, where she started calling parents, Grijalva recalled.

“I was able to get in contact with everybody’s family member — except for Skylin’s,” she said.

As the day went on, Grijalva started to worry. “She kept asking me, ‘Are my parents almost coming? I have my birthday today,’” she recalled.

Around midday, Grijalva said she went to a local school and learned that Skylin’s mother was on a list of shooting victims.
Her next stop was a dollar store, where she said she bought balloons, streamers and a birthday banner. At the very least, she thought, she could throw Skylin the birthday party she had been waiting for.

‘Pray for Andre. They still haven’t found him.’

Deborah Anchondo was at home cleaning and talking on the phone with her mother, as they do most Saturday mornings, when they began hearing reports of a shooting.

She had no inkling her brother was involved until Jordan’s mother called her in a panic. When she tried calling her brother’s number, there was no answer.

She was still trying to figure out what had happened when she said she got a call from her father, who was at the hospital with Paul, the baby. Her father told her that she needed to get in touch with Jordan’s parents right away.
“She’s gone,” Anchondo told them. “She’s gone.”

She hung up and rushed to a family reunification center, where she said their family waited hours without any news about her brother.

The family feared that Skylin was also missing, but then learned that she had been taken to her cheerleading coach’s house, and was having an impromptu birthday party there. Grijalva said she and her family dressed the little girl in a yellow dress and painted her nails to match. They made spaghetti and bought a chocolate cake. “We yelled ‘surprise,’” her coach recalled. “We threw up the balloons.”

It was the last bit of normalcy, they knew, that the girl would have. Soon, her grandparents — Jordan’s parents — called and came to pick her up. Her grandmother started crying when she saw the girl, according to Grijalva.

“‘My daughter is dead,’” Grijalva recalled her saying as if in a trance. “‘Pray for Andre, they still haven’t found him.’”

The next few days were a blur of phone calls, messages and visits from people who wanted to help. The two families — Jordan’s and Andre’s — collected donations for the three children and tried to make sure they were being cared for.

The toddler, Victoria, had been staying with her biological father in the days since the shooting, according to her aunt, Lucy Coria, who said the family had been trying to keep her distracted with trips to the pool and the park.

She had been asking for her mother, Coria said: “She doesn’t understand.”

Sarah Mervosh © 2019 The New York Times

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