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 was hoping to become a bilingual special education teacher.
She gained popularity online after posting a video in 2018 of her students that gained more than 23 million views. It showed classmates hugging one another before a weekend break, smiles spread across their faces as they said goodbye — a reminder of the human capacity for love and connection.
Ms. Blancas tested positive for the virus on Oct. 20 and was hospitalized a few days later, her brother, Mario Blancas, said. After she had spent nearly two months in the I.C.U. and had exhausted all of her available sick days and paid time off, Mr. Blancas set up a GoFundMe page on Dec. 14 to help pay for his sister’s health care since she would soon be “without an 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 years old, Ms. Blancas died of complications from Covid-19. Her death has devastated the city.
During her teaching career, Ms. Blancas would often stay up late to speak on the phone with her students’ parents. She ran a literacy program for parents in the evenings, and when classes shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, she delivered care packages, complete with handwritten notes, to her students. Even from her hospital bed, Ms. Blancas was asking about her work at school, said her principal, Cristina Sanchez-Chavira.
“Her calling was just to spread kindness,” Ms. Sanchez-Chavira said. “I think education was the vehicle that she found, but that was her. She embodied kindness, and making others feel special. And she did that in and outside of the classroom.”
Ms. Blancas had been shocked to see the 2018 video clip of her students being shared so widely, Ms. Sanchez-Chavira said, adding that for Ms. Blancas, encouraging empathy among her students had always been a priority.
“She was so humble about it,” Ms. Sanchez-Chavira said of the video. “She was just doing everything for the kids, and I think that’s what made her such a phenomenal teacher — because she just did everything from her heart.”
Ms. Blancas spent her 35th birthday in her hospital room, without 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 her death, Mr. Blancas said, he was able to visit his sister. It was painful, he said, 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 emblazoned with pictures of her two beloved dogs, Chico and Rocky.