EL PASO — On Sunday night, as the sun dipped behind the blue-hued Franklin Mountains, this grieving border city telegraphed a message.
The community had been violently knocked down by an act of what federal law enforcement has catalogued as domestic terrorism. As El Pasoans gathered by the thousands a day later over the brown dirt of a baseball diamond and out onto the adjoining football field for a community vigil, they were distraught and shaken.
But they also spoke words of hope, of defiance in the face of hate and of a determination to write their own manifesto.
“One of love, of tenderness, of inclusivity, of generosity, of compassion, of hope, of justice – all that makes El Paso and the borderlands truly great,” Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, proclaimed in a combination of Spanish and English to cheers from the crowd at Ponder Park, just a few blocks from the site where 20 people were massacred and more than two dozen others were injured at the hands of a white gunman. Two of them died Monday at local hospitals.
The mostly Hispanic crowd in this mostly Hispanic city was visibly emotional, sharing tissue boxes and prayers as they tried to make sense of why a stranger from outside the community would target members of theirs based on the color of their skin.
By then, law enforcement officials had indicated they were investigating a racist manifesto possibly penned by the gunman that described the attack as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and railed against the growing political clout of Hispanics in Texas who would “take control of the local and state government” and change “policy to better suit their needs.”
To reconcile that white supremacy-fueled motive with everyday life in El Paso proved insurmountable to locals living in a city where the culture is a unique blend of Mexican and American, where the boundary between it and Ciudad Juárez is practically indistinguishable from a distance. It’s a community that has persevered for years – but especially in the last few – to welcome immigrants coming to the country seeking safety, asylum, and opportunity.
“The shooter came into our community because we are a Hispanic community and we have immigrants here,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, said at a Sunday vigil.
After the shooting at the Walmart, fear washed over El Paso. A popular Mexican restaurant stood empty Saturday night, handwritten notes posted on the door in both Spanish and English: “For your security and ours, we are closed. Thank you for understanding.”
The next day, El Pasoans gathered at restaurants with their families and went to church, but the serenity of a Sunday morning had been shattered. At another local restaurant, as a Hispanic family got ready to leave, a waitress called out a “be careful” in Spanish.
At St. Patrick Cathedral, the Rev. Trini Fuentez asked to change the opening hymnal for the midmorning mass in light of the massacre the day before. When the choir sang the words of “Gather Your People” from a balcony over the nave, it was missing the voice of a choir member who had been at Walmart during the shooting. She was unharmed but too shaken to come to church.
“In El Paso, we love more than we hate,” said Ana Elena Allen, a churchgoer who initially waved a reporter off because she was overcome with emotion.
Throughout the weekend, the only way people seemed to make sense of the tragedy was to underscore that this hate was not homegrown. The suspected gunman had come from Allen, a Dallas suburb 10 hours away. And for some in El Paso, the shooter was not the only one to blame.
Locals spoke of an amplification of hate in the era of Trump, and they worried that it could be violently unleashed beyond El Paso. At one Sunday vigil, an El Pasoan held up a sign: “Mr. Trump, your racist words brought your hate to El Paso to kill our family.”
The words in the manifesto were rooted in white supremacy ideology and talked about an “invasion” of Texas. Republican leaders, including President Donald Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have used that same wording to decry an “invasion” across the state’s southern border. The manifesto also borrowed from the racist “go back” sentiment Trump recently used to attack four congresswomen of color.
As El Pasoans gathered Sunday, the conversation was not just focused on gun violence and a need for reform, but also about the rise of white supremacy and the urgency to address it – instead of attributing the attack to video games and mental illness, as some Texas Republican leaders did in front of the TV cameras throughout the weekend.
“Nobody wants to talk about gun violence prevention measures. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that we need to do something about the increasing racism in this country, the danger that that poses to the security of this country – not to mention the danger that it poses to the safety and wellbeing of communities like El Paso,” state Sen. José Rodríguez, a Democrat who represents the area, said while gathered with other local leaders in downtown El Paso.
On Saturday, El Paso was the victim of white supremacy, but it was not the only target. The gunman attacked people based on the color of their skin – and on a false sense of who is American. By terrorizing El Paso Hispanics, he terrorized Hispanics across the state and the country.
“It is this hate that is at the root of much of the suffering in our country, and when we fail to call it out, we give it cover,” Escobar said. “There are deadly consequences to bigotry, racism and hate.”
The two leaders spoke to a growing crowd of El Pasoans and some New Mexican neighbors who came together for a silent march that stretched out the length of several city blocks. Some passed out sunflowers. Others shared their protest signs, spreading messages of hope and border pride and calling on others to help fight racism. A couple – one wrapped in an American flag and the other in a Mexican flag – held hands as they walked.
“To know that white supremacy and hatred infiltrated El Paso – a community of love, a community of kindness – just breaks my heart because I’ve never grown up here afraid of any other El Pasoan,” Joshua Anaya, a 17-year-old El Pasoan, said at the vigil.
“Immediately it left me hopeless and afraid,” Anaya said. “But as of right now, I’ve allowed myself to mourn, to feel grief, to feel sadness, but now it’s all morphed into an anger and into a need to fight for the rights and the love that I’ve always known in El Paso.”