I’m from El Paso. Here’s what it’s like to go home after a mass shooting
EL PASO — Here is what I remember from the place in my hometown where 22 people were massacred: high school dates, taking shopping carts for a ride through empty parking lots, making videos of our pranks on an old camcorder, watching the city lights and cars passing by as we waited for our parents or debated what to do next — with the night and our lives.
We were bored kids back then, in the early 2000s. Good students with a mischievous streak. Underestimated Latinos even as we dreamed of going away to college and living in bigger cities and a life that our parents — some immigrants, some here for generations — had wanted for us.
Not old enough to drink, and even after we were, we would wander through the collection of parking lots, stores, and chain restaurants off of Interstate 10 that served as a bustling commercial center of our border city. The Cinemark theater, Cielo Vista Mall, and Walmart, not quite suburbia, no skyscraper-lined metropolis either. This before the city built a swankier shopping district next door, renovated its downtown, and attracted a music festival.
Across this area last Saturday, the soundtrack was horror. People scrambled to their cars, ducked under tables, and fled into movie theaters and storage rooms, after a man with an assault rifle drove in from the Dallas area on a mission, investigators say, to kill Mexicans. He came after posting a screed warning of a Latino “invasion” of Texas on a now shuttered website that attracted white supremacists and extremists.
With the hours of terror, El Paso became the latest city thrust into the fray of a national gun debate and the bloodiest battleground over the nation’s changing demographics — a city, much like the rest of America, in a fight over its story. The latest chapter, written last week, is about unity and resilience in the face of hatred.
For many of us who grew up here, the images beamed on national television and cellphone screens over the past two years have been jarring: migrant families waiting to plead asylum on the international bridge to neighboring Mexico, children marching out of nearby tent camps. Now we have one more: a sprawling retail harbor, one that captures so much of the dynamics of our border region, shaken.
Years ago, it seemed the rest of Texas would forget El Paso existed because it sits at its most western tip, a place as much American as it is Mexican and New Mexican and Tejano and so fiercely its own. It is a place of rugged beauty, where from up above, as you fly in, the sun reflects off glistening pools and rivulets, where after the blistering heat breaks, before the city lights glimmer, the brownness of the desert and its mountains is cloaked in gold.
As I arrived back home on Monday, word was still spreading among my friends and family of lost loved ones and close calls. On the airplane, passengers scrolled through news stories of people all over the city, in shock and grief, recounting what they knew. Our shared sorrow was palpable at a memorial where white crosses, handwritten notes, and bouquets of flowers lined a barricade overlooking the Walmart that the shooter stormed. Volunteers passed out water bottles and powdered sugar candy sticks. Incense and candles burned next to stuffed animals and red heart-shaped balloons.
Prayers and snippets of television interviews filled the air.
I do blame our president. He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t know our culture.
I don’t know anyone who was killed or injured personally, but I feel the pain for our city.
El Paso es una ciudad que tiene mucho amor para su gente.
My mother is Mexican-American, my father is from Mexico. When they split, my mother, sister, and I moved a lot between Texas and Southern California. But El Paso drew us back because it was home to our Mexican grandmother and our aunts, and all of the women in our family raised us with a strong sense that we were from not one but both sides of the border.
When I returned to the city after the shooting, one thing remained familiar and comforting to me: the faraway drone of the freeway.
I used to listen to that sound out of my bedroom window when all I wished was to get out of El Paso. And once I did, I realized it wasn’t just Texas that forgot or misunderstood us, it was the rest of the country, too. Where I am from needs to be explained to America every decade, and in recent years has tended to enter the nation’s collective consciousness through the lens of national security. Yet to me, it has always been more, as Gloria Anzaldúa once wrote, “una herida abierta.” An open wound where two countries grate against each other and bleed “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.”
El Paso is about 80 percent Latino, and life here for many is fluid between the United States and Mexico. People from Ciudad Juárez cross into El Paso daily to shop, work, and go to school. We often traveled south to see doctors and dentists, to attend birthday parties and quinceañeras.
The relationship between the sister cities can be captured in statistics: More than 12 million cars and more than 7 million pedestrians crossed into El Paso from Juárez last year. Or in music. We know as much about David Bowie as Juan Gabriel. Every midnight, the Mexican national anthem plays on Spanish-language radio stations streamed across the borderland.
The drug war in Mexico, fueled by US demand, was the first threat to our way of life. The shootouts and kidnappings crept into Juárez from the outskirts as my friends and I moved on from quinceañeras to hanging out at nightclubs and bars along busy strips cutting into the Mexican city.
The crosses we grew up with were white and pink and lined the Chihuahuan desert. They were in memory of women and girls who looked like me, born on the other side of the border, snatched and killed by cartels and copy cats.
Now the massacre on Saturday has put into sharp relief the position El Paso has occupied at the epicenter of a national debate over immigration policy. The city, as others along the border and across the West, has seen anti-Mexican and anti-Mexican-American rhetoric, lynchings, and other targeted violence against Latinos through the centuries. It has seen immigration enforcement operations criticized for spurring racial profiling under previous presidents. It has seen the construction of a border wall under President Barack Obama.
El Paso has always had its conservative strains. It is religious and home to a sprawling military base. US Border Patrol and US Customs and Immigration Enforcement are major employers. With a national immigration system that both Democrats and Republicans agree is broken, the tensions among older, conservative Latinos and white progressives and younger Latino generations have tended to reflect divides on the issue similar to the rest of the country.
But for many mourning this week, this latest tragedy fell squarely on President Trump, who launched his presidential campaign equating Mexicans to criminals, instituted a travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries shortly after his election, and has since curbed the path to asylum for refugees and immigrants, all the while fomenting the kind of racial and ethnic anxieties that have given rise to white supremacist views that police believe fueled the shooter in El Paso.
For others here, the tragedy was an awakening, or a reawakening, to the hate and discrimination that Latinos face outside of a community where we are not in the majority.
Throughout the week, El Pasoans and Juarenses debated the arrival of the president and fought to reclaim the identity of El Paso among the safest US cities with a population of more than 500,000, one welcoming to immigrants and those seeking asylum. It is a battle underway in real life as much as online, where images of migrant caravans and weary migrants in pens have ricocheted across the Internet over the past two years, stoking racial anxieties. Misinformation and conspiracy theories proliferated the day of the mass shooting.
In congressional committees, Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who went to my high school only a five-minute walk from where the shooter was arrested, has advocated for migrant children torn from their parents at the border, while also speaking up for Border Patrol agents under orders to separate families.
But this past week, she had little patience for minced words. “You are not welcome here,” she said of Trump before she and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke opted to attend a counter rally at a central park on the day of the president’s visit.
For some, the pain was too raw, too heavy to weigh in. On the day Trump landed, Stephanie Melendez said she only wanted her dad back.
Her father, David Johnson, shielded his wife and 9-year-old granddaughter when the shooter took his life. Melendez’s parents had gone into Walmart that day to buy their granddaughter a Disney Descendants outfit. Melendez phoned her mom as they evacuated the store.
All she could hear was her daughter crying through the din of the chaos. “My mom just kept repeating, ‘Kaitlyn was not shot. Dad was shot,’ ” Melendez said, later recalling the kind strangers of all nationalities who stayed by her side as she waited for answers at the family reunification center.
El Paso has long been a big city with a small town vibe, and the grief reverberated among those of us from there now spread across the country. Old friends flew in to be with their families. Chantell Thompson, a friend who now lives in Houston and who was trying to raise funds for a schoolmate who lost her uncle in the shooting, remembered how much the drug violence had changed Juárez. “Will El Paso ever be the same?” she asked me.
Ruby Luna, 23, a Dillard’s employee who fled into a storage room during the shooting, was back at work on Tuesday, feeling tense. She asked me if anything like this had ever happened in Boston, and I told her the Marathon bombings had also been an act of domestic terrorism. And did the city recover? she wanted to know.
El Paso is so close-knit that I’ve lived in other places for 10 years but still consider El Paso home. A friend who is a police officer said his station and others were flooded with food and water donations. Mexican and US charities and funeral homes are helping survivors with medical bills and covering the costs to bury the victims.
Just a few blocks from my aunt’s house, near Copia and Cotton streets outside central El Paso, Gabriel Vasquez, 28, had been up all night working on a mural with the words now marked on billboards and storefronts across the city, “El Paso Strong.” The city’s glittering lights and its iconic mountain with a brightly lit star painted inside the curvy letters.
Giving a shoutout to the girl from his city who made it to The Boston Globe, he beamed me into his Instagram Live video.
People say that what you do in El Paso is get a dead-end job and have a bunch of kids, but that’s wrong, he said. El Paso Strong is “a mindset that involves focus on what you really love and the life that you want. And solid people behind you,” he said. “This city is the way it is because we made it that way.”