Anyone who had worked with Zelene Blancas in El Paso knew her as a teacher whose goal was to spread compassion above all else.
Ms. Blancas, who was born in Texas and lived in Mexico for much of her childhood, was a bilingual Spanish teacher at Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary School, and she hoped to become a bilingual special education teacher.
She gained popularity online after posting a video in 2018 of her students who quickly went viral, with over 23 million views. It showed classmates kissing before a weekend away, smiles spreading across their faces as they said goodbye – a reminder of the human ability to love and connect.
Ms Blancas tested positive for the virus on October 20 and was hospitalized days later, her brother, Mario Blancas said. After spending nearly two months in the intensive care unit and exhausting all his available sick days and paid time off, Mr Blancas set up a Page GoFundMe Dec. 14 to help pay for her sister’s health care as she would soon be “without income and will have to pay the full cost of her health insurance out of pocket,” according to the page.
But this week, at just 35, Ms Blancas died of complications from Covid-19. His death devastated the city.
During her teaching career, Ms. Blancas often stayed up late to talk on the phone with her students’ parents. She ran an evening literacy program for parents, and when classes switched to distance learning during the pandemic, she delivered care kits, along with handwritten notes, to her students. Even from her hospital bed, Ms Blancas was asking questions about her work at school, her principal Cristina Sanchez-Chavira said.
“His call was simply to spread kindness,” Ms. Sanchez-Chavira said. “I think education was the vehicle she found, but it was her. She embodied kindness and made others feel special. And she did it in and out of the classroom.
Ms Blancas was shocked to see the 2018 music video of her students shared so widely, Ms Sanchez-Chavira said, adding that for Ms Blancas, fostering empathy among her students has always been a priority.
“She was so humble about it,” Ms. Sanchez-Chavira said of the video. “She did everything for the kids, and I think that’s what made her such a phenomenal teacher – because she did everything with her heart.
Ms Blancas spent her 35th birthday in her hospital room, with no family by her side, Mr Blancas said. The nurses all signed a birthday card for her, and her father sent her a picture of a cake and balloons.
The day before his death, Mr Blancas said, he was able to visit his sister. It was painful, he says, to see his only sister in a hospital bed, breathing through a tube, her face swollen from the treatments. He brought a gift he knew would make her happy: a blanket adorned with photos of his two beloved dogs, Chico and Rocky.