My El Paso
You tell yourself it can happen anywhere. But when it does happen, you can’t contain your shock.
My hometown just became the site of one of the 10 worst mass shootings in U.S. history.
El Paso, Texas was a sleepy, international community for most of my life. As a child, we freely walked or drove across the bridges from El Paso into Juarez, Mexico for shopping, visiting friends and eating great food. That changed, in later years, as the increase in drug traffic made crossing dangerous. Drug wars prevented many of us from enjoying the multi-cultural village that had become a cross-border international community. And now, of course, it is all about controlling immigration.
On Saturday, Aug. 3, a hate-filled young man from North Texas walked into El Paso’s mid-city Walmart and shot to kill. According to a published manifesto the FBI has attributed to the shooter, he was fueled by a hatred for Hispanics. We may never know if he researched the most likely spots to find a high percentage of Hispanics, but that mall is an El Paso favorite among Mexican shoppers. He succeeded in gunning down 22 individuals. Another two dozen were hospitalized or treated for injuries, while authorities have confessed some victims illegally in the U.S. may have left the scene, fearful of being deported.
Not my town. Not El Paso, Texas, ranked the safest city in the country the past three years. I can’t begin to tell you the gamut of emotions I have felt. And the pride I have felt as the residents of my former town rally together.
We don’t know all the victims’ names yet. By the grace of God, my family members are not among them. My best friend’s daughter was barricaded inside the restaurant she worked in – safe – until the all clear was given. My daughter’s best friend’s husband was a first responder. Former journalism colleagues sweated out the hot sun until the story was told, and one was forced to seek medical treatment for the heat.
A number of friends shop in that Walmart, some of whom noted they had been in just a day earlier or neglected to go on Saturday as planned.
Other friends stood in hours’ long lines to give blood, lines that stretched around the building until organizers had to appeal to potential givers to stay home. Local funeral homes – Martin, San Jose and Perches – are absorbing all costs associated with burying victims in support of their families.
Those are the things I do know. What I don’t know is how to deal with the aftermath. El Paso has joined a new fraternity, ranked on a national list we never aspired to.
I don’t have the answers, but there has to be a conversation about the sanctity of life. This conversation – between lawmakers who CAN do something – must lead to action. I don’t agree with those advocating for action as a replacement for prayers. I do believe continued prayer is crucial WHILE legislators take action.
I do not understand racism. I cannot fathom xenophobia – the fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners. Our country has strayed far from the innocence of my youth, when I played happily in the modest home of a cotton picker’s daughter and later developed a relationship with a black journalist who could not be closer to me than by own sisters. I fear for my grandchildren, who are inheriting a world of fear and hate.
So I continue to pray, because it is all I can do at the moment. Meanwhile, we try to find ways to channel our anger and helplessness into a positive outcome. There are many already stepping out to lead the charge.
My friend and former pastor Ellen Fenter posted this in the aftermath of the shooting:
Step into the light.
Live lives of courage and commitment and clarity.
Stand against the darkness and call it what it is.
Free your hearts from a political and economic agenda that imitates safety but welcomes demagoguery and hate.
Fuel yourself on love and understanding and goodness by entering the fray and serving in the trenches of otherness.
Manuel Oliver, father of Joaquin, one of the 17 high school students massacred last year in Parkland, had his own words of advice. He just happened to be in El Paso on the day of the mass shooting.
“In the next 10 days you will find teddy bears, crosses and balloons, then people forget. Don’t let this happen,” Oliver said. “This will never be the same city again, I can tell you that.”
Richard Wiles, sheriff of El Paso County, agreed.
“This Anglo man came here to kill Hispanics. I’m outraged and you should be too. This entire nation should be outraged,” Wiles said.
“In this day and age, with all the serious issues we face, we are still confronted with people who will kill another for the sole reason of the color of their skin.
“It’s time to rise up and hold our representatives accountable at all levels. I want representatives who will stand up against racism. Who will stand up and support the diversity of our nation and our state. Who will stand up for a strong criminal justice system that holds criminals responsible and keeps violent individuals locked up and off our streets. Who support robust community mental health services. Who support keeping guns out of the hands of people who are just waiting for an opportunity to kill others,’ Wiles said.
My extended family is split on this issue. Many protect the second amendment as a sacred right, refusing to consider any change that might weaken it, in their eyes. Others, including me, believe changes are imperative.
It took a year and a half to enact a federal ban on bump stocks after the mass killings in Las Vegas. With pressure on legislators, we could begin with a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Background checks should be required for all gun purchases. If the voting public would push back against the powerful gun lobby, we could develop stricter government tracking of weapons used in crimes and improvements to the collection and sharing of data between law enforcement agencies.
According to the FBI, the racist El Paso shooter left a manifesto claiming his massacre was a “response to the Hispanic invasion.” It accuses the Democratic Party of “pandering to the Hispanic voting bloc,” and expresses his contempt for “race mixing” and supports “sending them back.”
That last comment reminded me of a conversation I had with a privileged family member after I moved my two small children to El Paso in the mid-90s. She asked me about my adolescent daughter’s choice to go to a public, rather than private, school. “Aren’t you afraid she will date a Mexican?” the family member asked. I was floored at her blatant xenophobia, but all I could say is that there was a good chance she would, and that I would look forward to meeting him.
Education has to begin now, at home, with our children. We can’t afford to raise another generation that includes fear-mongering, racist citizens. And while I am fully in favor of increasing funding and access to mental health nationwide, we need to separate the issues. As a recent Internet meme said, “Racism is NOT a mental disorder; it is a conscious decision to hate.”
We have an opportunity to put aside hate. We have a responsibility to do it now. Start by speaking up and voting. And yes, don’t forget to pray.