Between the Lines: Homecoming
Esteban BustillosMercury Staff
POSTEDAugust 17, 2016
Note: Sorry if I haven’t posted over the past two months, I’ve been kind of busy.
There may not be a stronger word in the English language than home. The word stirs up youthful memories, from Thanksgivings surrounded by obnoxious families to warm embraces from mothers that can heal any wound.
Going home is the theme of countless songs, movies and other works of art. Whether it’s Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas or E.T. yearning to return to his planet, the desire to be home is universal.
At home, people feel safe and secure knowing they are in the place they know best. Sometimes, however, being away from home is the only way to really appreciate how important it is.
This summer, I had to travel nearly 550 miles just to find my home. Little did I know just how hard that journey would be.
I don’t normally cry. I’m not trying to be all machismo or whatever, it’s just not much moves me emotionally. But on July 7, I cried like a baby.
The shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police officers had flooded the news cycle. Once again, the deaths of black men killed for no apparent reason stained the innocence of summer.
I had pitched a story for the San Antonio Express-News, where I interned the past two months, about the reactions of parents in San Antonio to everything going on around the nation and was having trouble finding sources. I had a long day and put in overtime and really needed to sleep.
That’s when my dad called and told me shots had been fired at a protest in downtown Dallas. Officers had been hit. By the end of the night, five of them would be pronounced dead.
I picked up the phone and called The Mercury’s Editor-in-Chief, Nidhi Gotgi, praying she would tell me nobody from the paper went to Dallas to cover the protests. Thankfully, she and the rest of the staff were safe. Then I called my older sister, whose husband is a Dallas Area Rapid Transit police officer.
She didn’t pick up. For about five seconds, my heart sunk in my chest and every fearful thought I had in my mind burst out like a flood.
Then my phone vibrated with a text. It turned out they were just in a movie. My sister asked what was up and I told her they needed to check the news as soon as possible. They had no idea what happened.
On a whim, I called my best friend, Angel, next. She’s not a reporter or cop, but she’s the type of person who, if there’s something important going on in Dallas, is in tune with it.
She didn’t pick up when I called, so I texted her and, sure enough, she told me she went to the protest. She had been right at the front of the march when she heard the shots and had to run for safety.
The rest of the night is still a blur. I spent most of my time calling and texting Angel, Nidhi and my sister. I sent out a couple of furious tweets and texts about how upset it made me to see this happen in Dallas, but for the most part I kept my composure.
Then I watched a video on CNN from one of the marchers. The video never showed who captured the images, but the voice of the camera person belonged to a woman. At the moment shots rang out, she screamed in terror as she realized bullets were flying at her.
I didn’t know who this person was, but when I heard the screams, I didn’t hear the woman on TV. I heard Angel. I heard Nidhi. I heard my brother-in-law. I heard the voices of the people I care about who could have been that person.
The thought of anyone I know going through that feeling proved to be too much. Alone, laying on the floor of my aunt and uncle’s house and watching CNN at 1 a.m., I started crying. Crying because, in 2016, people still had to march for their basic rights. Crying because an individual with a gun took the lives of five police officers trying to do their jobs. Crying because someone I knew they had to run for their lives that night.
The next day, for the first time in my life, I had to convince myself to go to work. I had been up till about 3 a.m. just trying to make sense of everything that had happened and I had no desire to go to the newsroom.
I wondered if writing a story about the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers was still the right thing to do. The story seemed so much more complex than it would have been. I didn’t even know if I could keep myself together at the office.
As sunlight crept through the blinds of my windows, I rolled out of bed and got ready, unsure of what exactly would happen at work.
The newsroom at the Express-News is usually lively, but that day you could hear a pin drop. Nobody was smiling.
My editor came by and talked to me about my story and I let her know about my connections to the shooting. I said I planned to head to Dallas to see my family and I would be available to help with the paper’s coverage of the shooting if the editors needed me. To my surprise, the editorial board for the paper let me go.
I finished my story on the parents’ reactions to the shootings after hours of trying to find the right sources. I filed my final copy, hopped in my Ford Fiesta and started the four and a half hour drive back to Dallas.
That weekend still replays in my head like a video on a loop. The tearful embraces, the swarms of media members from across the globe and the nauseating feeling of grief that filled the air at the Dallas police headquarters burned images into my brain that will stay with me until my dying breath.
I got sent to Corsicana to cover the return of the body of DART police officer Brent Thompson’s body back to his hometown. There, I saw hundreds of strangers of all races come out to show support for the fallen officer, although no one acted like a stranger. That day, everyone felt like a part of one large family.
As ominous clouds painted the sky grey and humidity made the tiny town feel like a sauna, I talked to whoever I could to get a sense of who Thompson was. Out of all the words I exchanged, however, two stood out the most: thank you. People actually expressed gratitude to me, a twenty-something journalist with no idea what he was doing, for coming out and covering the event.
I left the procession and found the nearest McDonald’s so I could use the Wi-Fi to send my story to the editors back in San Antonio. I turned it in and got back in my car after about eight hours in the field.
As I drove back to Dallas, my home, I thought about what had just happened. An officer killed in the line of duty had his final homecoming. Even in death, Brent Thompson longed to be in the place he knew best.
I made my way back to Dallas County and drove through downtown Dallas right as the sun set. Beams of light sparkled like gold off of the towers of glass and steel that make up the downtown area. The Bank of America Plaza, known worldwide for it’s iconic green neon trimming, opted for a blue hue to honor the fallen.
Although a cloud of silence and grief hung over the usually vibrant downtown, I felt a sense of comfort driving in the shadows of the skyscraper’s canyons. My hometown had taken a hit, but refused to give up.
Life moves on, even in the midst of tragedy. It’s been over a month since that fateful weekend and a lot has changed. I completed my internship with the Express-News and came back with more knowledge than I could ever hope for. I worked with a great group of editors, staffers and interns who truly changed my life for the better.
Now that I’m gearing up for what is (hopefully) my last semester at UTD, I look back and think about what I learned the most over the summer. And the truth is it’s not that I learned how to improve my reporting or writing.
Instead, I learned something more important. I learned what it means to care about home.
It’s weird I had to go to San Antonio to learn this, but I really love everything about Dallas: the people, the food, the insatiable appetite to be better than Houston.
As everyone gears up for the school year, I look back and think about everything we’ve been through. Now, more than ever, it’s important to say we represent our city at UT Dallas. It means something to say you represent UTD. It means something to say you represent Dallas.
My tears from that night have dried, but I won’t forget why they dropped. People are still fighting for a better democracy where individuals don’t have to die in the streets for no reason. The fight is far from over and it starts right here in the 214.
I had to leave to learn this, but Dallas is my home. Someday soon, I’ll probably leave again and will have to represent it elsewhere.
But for now, I’m at UTD, working for The Mercury. After a long journey, I’ve finally returned to my home.