Ever since the death of their son Joaquin in the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida last year, artist Manuel Oliver and his wife Patricia have been touring cities across the United States to advocate for gun safety and to keep the memory of their son alive. This past weekend, the couple was in El Paso, Texas visiting immigrant shelters in the area when another tragic mass shooting in a Walmart nearby took the lives of 20 people. A mural that Oliver had planned to paint in honor of his late son’s advocacy for immigrants’ rights has come to signify a shared tragedy.
“It is a terrible coincidence,” Oliver said in an interview on Sunday while completing his 14.5 by 42-foot mural on the facade of Las Americas, a Texan legal aid group that helps asylum-seekers crossing the US-Mexico border. The mural features images of his son Joaquin (who would have turned 19 on Sunday, August 4) and his wife alongside depictions of immigrant children crying behind bars and other critical statements directed at the Trump administration. After learning about the shooting, Oliver added the writing “El Paso is not alone” in Spanish (“El Paso no está solo“) to honor the victims. “I needed to add something for the shooting,” he said, “you have to support each other.”
Oliver, himself an immigrant from Venezuela, has painted 30 murals in honor of his son since the Parkland shooting in February 2018. In his last visit to Texas last year, he painted one of his murals in front of a National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Dallas. Others appeared in Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston, and a host of other cities. Each of the murals link between the loss of Oliver’s son to gun violence and the treatment of immigrants at the border. “My family was separated in a permanent way,” he said in another interview, referencing the separation of children from their families at border detention facilities. “This is how we see these things. We have a perspective that the family is so vulnerable.”
As part of their activism, the Olivers founded the nonprofit Change the Ref, which advocates for gun safety and campaigns against the immense influence the NRA has on the federal level.
Hours after the tragedy in Texas, a masked gunman shot and killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio in another mass shooting. “This shouldn’t be a surprise for this nation,” Oliver told a reporter in front of his mural. “Unless we do something, unless we’re louder with our message, things will stay the same. Let’s not take this as a tradition and let’s fight for our loved ones.”