EL PASO — The El Paso Del Norte International Bridge, known as the Santa Fe, winds from downtown over the mural-splashed concrete edges of a parched Rio Grande, the liveliest of five arteries connecting this city at the western edge of Texas with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Thousands come across the bridge each way, for school or work, to shop, dine, and visit family in a region where the United States and Mexico have historically been as close as relatives. That intimacy was shattered one year ago Monday, when a white supremacist unleashed a terror attack against Latinos in a Walmart in El Paso, killing 23 people in one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent US history.
Many drew a direct line from the violence to the rhetoric of President Trump. During his campaign and presidency, he has vilified Mexicans and rallied supporters with his signature promise of a wall along the US-Mexico border.
But this isn’t a story about a wall. It centers on a bridge — one that is a focal point in a city at the intersection of major crises facing the United States.
El Paso has been used by Trump as a testing ground for anti-immigrant policies that have left desperate migrants stranded in inhumane conditions, unable to seek asylum in the United States after fleeing political and drug violence. The mass shooting underscored the devastating effects of racism and proliferation of guns. And the hospitals swelling with coronavirus patients in a state that has emerged as one of the nation’s hot spots capture the ongoing havoc of the pandemic and the inability of the US political system to tame it.
El Paso, like the nation, is caught between two vastly different visions of borders and demographic change: one rooted in connection, another in division.
On the Mexican side of the Santa Fe, bars and restaurants, pharmacies and leather boot shops dot historic Avenida Juarez, which gives onto a plaza and the lolling tarps and trinkets of an open-air market. On the American end, vendors hawk makeup, clothes, and formal dresses along South El Paso Street.
Native son Beto O’Rourke used El Paso as the backdrop for the “unifying vision for bridging divides” of his short-lived presidential campaign last year. Not far from his announcement rally downtown, migrants slept in cots and tinfoil blankets, corralled in pens under the gray slabs of the Santa Fe.
The shooting reverberated on both sides of the bridge.
The accused shooter, Patrick Crusius, 22, told police he drove to El Paso from the Dallas area to “kill Mexicans.” As news of the shooting spread, some businesses closed in fear, people on the streets embraced and wept.
He is awaiting trial on state capital murder and federal hate crime charges. On Sunday, El Paso County will light luminarias on the future grounds of a “healing garden” near a shuttered amusement park.
But in a city marked by “El Paso Strong” murals and billboards, many Latinos, particularly an older generation, just want to move on. Some are in denial about the hate behind the crime, and others don’t seem to see their own struggle against racism in the Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped the nation.
The Walmart where so much blood was spilled now bustles. The company erected a 30-foot golden obelisk at the edge of the parking lot. It doesn’t have the names of the victims, and for many, it feels impersonal. A makeshift memorial of colorful flowers, statues, and white crosses that sprung up in the days after the shooting has been moved to a nearby park. The few mementos left — banners, rosaries, wooden stars — bake in the sun.
Younger Latinos are often more outraged that there isn’t more outrage.
“We have to confront the racism,” said Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who was lauded and criticized for calling out Trump and Republicans in the days after the mass shooting in her district. “If we don’t call it out, we give it cover.”
Stephanie Melendez, whose father, David Johnson, died in the Walmart trying to protect her daughter and mother, wants to someday talk to her own daughter about the shooter’s racist intentions and to become a vocal activist for gun safety laws. Johnson would have wanted that for his family, Melendez said.
But she has been wandering through a fog. Her daughter, now 10, won’t talk about what happened at the Walmart. She won’t go into stores or crowded places.
Isolated at home, away from work, school, and friends in a pandemic, has made it harder for them to cope. “As the time went on, it’s like reality set in — the grief got worse,” she said.
For about a year, Mark Lambie, a photographer for the El Paso Times, had been documenting immigrant families in makeshift camps near the Santa Fe and shelters tucked in the Juarez mountains, attempting to capture their children’s joy amid the trauma. He was still working on the project last summer, when he rushed to the scene at the Walmart.
“It was just like, ‘It can’t be, it can’t be — this has to be wrong,’ " he said.
The packed commercial area, popular among shoppers from both sides of the border, descended into chaos. Another news photographer, Armando Vela of El Diario de El Paso, happened to be walking up to the Walmart to pick up some items when he saw people running across the parking lot in terror. Some pushed bloody victims in loading carts.
“I saw people hugging their mothers, their sons ... and they were dying,” he said, catching his breath and fighting back tears.
Adria Gonzalez, 38, and her mother were arguing about the price of meat when they heard what sounded like firecrackers rip through the store. She ran to the front as the killer blasted the gun.
“All I could see was he was like, ‘Boom, boom, boom,’” she said, imitating his motions. She snapped into action, ushering people out — some 50 survivors, an FBI agent would later tell her — to a hidden exit in the meat department. She carried two children under her arms.
The shooting has become a focus for Irma Montelongo, whose great-grandmother lived in a humble brick complex in downtown El Paso near the Santa Fe and would often tell her of her life during the Mexican Revolution. It’s why she chose to become a historian.
Now a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, Montelongo tells students about how impoverished Mexicans who crossed that bridge were once scrubbed down with chemicals for lice. She wants the city to have a memory. She wants people to see the through-line of discrimination from then to now: The hateful rhetoric from Trump against Latinos and anyone who is not white; the cruel treatment of migrant families. The children locked up at the border; a coronavirus outbreak that is striking Black, Latino, and immigrant homes the hardest.
She and other professors are searching for the lost keepsakes from the pop-up Walmart memorial to preserve in a museum.
“Are we desensitized or what?” Montelongo asked. “I know we’re in a pandemic and so how the anniversary is recognized is going to be limited, but it seems this city is forgetting.”
Some survivors say they feel stuck on a bridge as the world has moved on. Lambie, Vela, and the close-knit group of news photographers hang out and give each other support. Gonzalez, who won a state award for her bravery during the shooting, smashes walls as she renovates houses to flip.
They all wonder: Can El Paso be strong, but still remember?
Gilbert Anchondo doesn’t cross the Santa Fe or any of the border bridges anymore.
Born in El Paso and raised in Juarez, he moved to El Paso when he was 14. He competed in body-building contests, married, and opened an auto body shop 40 years ago. His 23-year-old son, Andre, and Andre’s wife, Jordan, were killed at the Walmart as Andre tried to protect her and their 2-month-old son, Paul.
On a scorching hot day last week, Anchondo showed off photos of his son on a wall full of frames in an office decked with treasured possessions: toy car models, trophies, and Hollywood memorabilia; a bell that he rings before each work day in hopes that Andre and Jordan “get their wings.” His son had overcome some trouble with drugs. He was entrepreneurial like his father, opening his own granite business only blocks away.
Anchondo said life has become like a puzzle tossed into the air, and now, “I’m trying to assemble a new picture.”
He doesn’t want to talk politics. But in El Paso, a Democratic stronghold where a conservative Hispanic culture often encourages people to “work hard, keep your head down,” the attack was for many a political awakening to the rising hate against Mexicans and Mexican Americans across the nation.
The Anchondos caused a national stir when, at a hospital only days after the massacre, they posed with the man who many — including other survivors — believe provided fuel for the attack. In the photo, President Trump smiled, giving a thumbs up, as Melania Trump held the infant Paul.
Anchondo said he doesn’t vote but was trying to show respect for his adopted country. His younger son, Tito, said it was what he thought his brother Andre — “a full-on Trump supporter” — would have done.
Even before the shooting, the bridge was the focus of national attention. By the summer of 2018, Trump’s policy of splitting up migrant families and busing the children to tent camps outside of El Paso had caused an international outcry. Those measures hardly stopped people from coming that fall, caravans of Cubans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans trying to make it across the Santa Fe.
Pastor Miguel Gonzalez, 48, recalls the resentment in the neighborhood as his shelter shifted from solely offering health and computer classes to housing migrants. It took four months of preaching the word of the Lord, but people came around, he said. And newcomers picked up informal work in tortillerias, recycling businesses, and mechanic and carpentry shops.
“There’s been more solidarity,” he said.
Jose Angel Garcia, 31, arrived alone at the Juarez side of the Santa Fe last year with just enough money to bribe Mexican police to leave him alone.
He found a job serving drinks at the Mariachi Bar. Like thousands of Cubans stranded in Juarez amid the immigration crackdown, he is in limbo. The pandemic has only added to the uncertainty, as US officials have put court cases on hold and allow only US citizens to freely cross the border.
“I just wish I could get my papers to start planning my future,” he said.
For decades, the United States welcomed Cubans as political refugees. But after protections ended under measures by Obama, Trump has made it more difficult for migrants from Latin American and African nations to plead asylum, requiring people first to wait in Mexico while they petition US courts.
Stranded Cubans work in restaurants, bars, and markets around the bridge and around Juarez. On a busy street last week, the jokes flew as Garcia hauled melons from the back of a truck alongside Cuban and Mexican friends.
“We are here against our will,” said Manuel Gonzalez, 35, who has two daughters and a wife in Cuba. “Like hostages,” added another.
The border is a sweltering, strange, hard place. In Cuba, guns don’t flow in from the United States, drugs don’t move out. Women don’t disappear in the desert. There is time for dominoes and soccer games. All there is to do in Juarez is work, the men said, and it’s not always a sure thing you’ll get paid. Police harass migrants for bribes; cartel members threaten their lives.
Trained as an agricultural engineer, Garcia blasted Trump for stoking racism against Black people, Latinos, and immigrants.
“What measures did he take when the African American man was killed? It’s racist,” Garcia said, pointing to Trump’s response to the George Floyd protests. “And why did [police] kill the African American man? Because of racism. They killed him in cold blood.”
Even so, Garcia feels the pull north. “From me, no one will take the American dream,” he said.
If there is a singular landmark on the bridge, a central witness to the tussles between Mexico and the United States over immigration, national security, and trade, it is the legendary Kentucky Club, an ancient dive bar in Juarez. Inside, neon lights cast green and red hues over old mahogany chairs and portraits of Mexican celebrities.
Legend has it that one of its bartenders invented the margarita. Elizabeth Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Marilyn Monroe have been among its patrons. Benjamin Alire Sáenz captured its essence in a book of short stories, calling it the place where “everything begins and ends.”
The bar, near the foot of the Santa Fe, is one of the first establishments to greet travelers as they cross into Mexico.
Laura Peña recalls her husband, Sergio, bought the Kentucky Club in 1999, and brought it back to life with a tight fist after it fell on hard times. He liked to keep things clean. He ordered his bartenders not to judge customers no matter how sad or sordid their tales. The business thrived — an oasis in the harsh desert sun — through constant border closures after 9/11, through the violent years of the drug war that swept Ciudad Juarez, through a humanitarian crisis that left thousands of migrants stranded not far from its doors.
But the coronavirus outbreak proved too much.
It forced the Kentucky Club, like most of the bars and restaurants along Avenida Juarez, to close. Then, as cases surged in Texas, the Peñas fell ill, and Sergio died in late July at 71, after a month in the hospital.
“‘I am fine, everything will be fine,‘” Laura Peña recalled her husband saying in video conversations before his death. And so, she is struggling to get through the days without the man she loved since she was 15. They celebrated 51 years of marriage in May.
There will be no funeral as the pandemic continues to rage. But Laura Peña and her daughters plan to carry on Sergio’s legacy: a welcoming place at the border’s edge for people from all over the world.
“When life get backs to normal, we will be there with a margarita in hand,” his wife said — just as Peña would have wanted.