On June 8, 2014, the tightly knit community of Española, New Mexico, was severely traumatized by the sudden death of Victor Villalpando, a creative genius barely 16 years of age. After calling the police and informing them of his location and that “a person needed help,” a brief scuffle between Victor and the police ensued and, seconds later, Victor was shot. Was this Victor’s way of asking for help for himself?
In the following weeks, Victor’s family and the community participated in several solemn services in his honor until his body was laid to rest on a knoll above the village of El Rito, where he had lived most of his brief life. Victor’s death precipitated an intense process of soul-searching in the community, not only over the hows and whys of his untimely departure but also regarding the mental and emotional well-being of our citizenry, the general lack of mental health services, and the all-too-common use of deadly force around the country. These same concerns would soon echo across our nation’s newspapers and find continual coverage on the evening television news, as people took to the streets nationwide to protest what was happening to young men of color.
On June 7, 2015, after months of planning by a core group of individuals who knew Victor, at least 80 people gathered at the base of an enormous mural on the outside wall of the former Hunter Ford building in the heart of Española, the old part of the city along Oñate Street that recently has begun to show signs of life. There, in a space consecrated by fresh boughs strewn in a semicircle on the ground, with prayer flags flying overhead, the mural was officially bequeathed to the community.
In the mural, Victor is depicted as a colossal young man dropping corn seeds into the expectant earth as he straddles rows of planted crops while listening to music on his headset, as he often did. The image was meant to symbolize the good that may yet come of this tragedy and to remind us of things that Victor was known for: warmth, humor, spontaneity and his love of performance, music and dance.
Although the mural’s dedication contrasted greatly with last year’s intensely somber mood during the ceremonies held for Victor, some of the parents and children who spoke still cried or did their best to contain tears. Others expressed anger over what had happened, not just in Española, but also in many other places.
As the wind began to blow and dark clouds gathered, the instructors and students of Moving Arts Española, where Victor trained as a dancer and gymnast for 10 years, performed a tribute to him as a means of transmuting the pain of such a tragedy into personal and collective power for manifesting peace and positive social change.
While the audience sat comfortably inside the large building looking out onto a parking lot through an open garage door, three female dancers, including Corina, Victor’s sister, performed a series of inspired movements in the driving rain. It was dramatic and poignant. Then, in response to pulsating music, a group of breakdancers that Victor had been part of—four young men and one young woman—became veritable dust devils and other irrepressible forces of nature. Dancing for Victor, they seemed to push the limits of their energized bodies.
The day of tribute culminated with a meditation exercise of grounding in place, time and within. This was followed by a cathartic dialogue, which lasted hours. Young people spoke convincingly about their general disillusionment with existing power, leadership and educational structures. In response, some of the adults gently pointed out that we must be the change we want to see happen, and that if the day’s outpouring of concern for the fate of our community, the welfare of its youth, and the memory of a beloved individual was any indication, the change we are seeking was already beginning to take place.
Alejandro López, northern Nuevo Mexicano writer, photographer and educator, was the lone witness to a gymnastic dance performance Victor Villalpando gave on deserted Main Street in Española, three months before his demise.