August 3, 2019, a young white supremacist intent on killing Hispanics committed a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, leaving 22 people dead and 24 injured.
Only four days later, a different white man parked his pickup outside a community center in El Paso, pulled on blue latex gloves, garnished a knife and revealed a gun in his truck. Members of the mostly Hispanic Casa Carmelita community center, still on edge from the shooting, called the police.
According to news reports, the young man’s truck displayed a large banner showing President Donald Trump brandishing an assault weapon, Rambo-style, and bumper stickers promoting InfoWars, a far-right conspiracy website and radio show. The man arrived the same day Trump visited El Paso in the aftermath of the El Paso Walmart shooting.
The police responded, questioned the man, and soon released him about a block away from the center, news reports said. The man told the police and media that he was on his way from Houston to a right-wing gathering in Portland, Oregon, when he decided to stop at the El Paso center. Police said he had broken no laws.
Guillermo Glenn, a long-time labor organizer and activist in El Paso, said he has experienced racism for many years, and is not usually surprised by it. But he added that he was caught off guard by the mass shooting.
“The shooter did surprise me. The manifesto surprised me. I mean, we’re used to some violence here. And we shouldn’t be used to the institutional racism we got,” he said, laughing as if to say, “But we are used to it.”
Glenn, 78, was in Walmart when the gun shots began, and he helped carry wounded people to paramedics.
He noted the existence of white-supremacist camps on the outskirts of El Paso, which he said could mean additional racist shootings focused on brown-skinned people.
“I think [there’s] gonna be more,” Glenn said. “And I don't think the city, nor are the agencies really preparing for that. The attorney general in Texas says, well, the solution is that we should buy more guns so everybody can be packing. It was his solution. This is pretty bad.”
Glenn came directly to La Mujer Obrera (The Woman Worker) organization and community center after the shooting and read the shooter’s manifesto with others. La Mujer Obrera is in the heart of El Paso’s Chamizal, mostly Hispanic, neighborhood.
Another El Paso activist who read through the shooter’s statement with Glenn the day of the shooting was Cemelli de Aztlan, an outspoken El Paso Latina activist. She said institutional racism has long been a reality for El Paso Hispanics. She also said that the second white gunman who visited El Paso that week was likely focusing on another local activist.
De Aztlan works with the El Paso Equal Voice Network, a group of community organizations working for low-income El Pasoans. She said earlier in the year El Paso organizer Ana Tiffany Deveze had been entered into police records, which were distributed nationwide. Deveze and other protesters were charged after a February 2019 incident in which they put up anti-immigration-policy stickers at the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso.
“To put her mugshot alongside murderers, thieves, wife-beaters, and to brand her as one of El Paso’s most wanted,” de Aztlan said. “That’s what they did to her.”
De Aztlan said the the Border Patrol released a press release sending out names and zip codes of people arrested for vandalizing the museum. The February activists were accused of causing more than $2,500 in damage to museum exhibits by gluing stickers with photos of migrant children who died in Border Patrol custody, according to media reports.
“It was like an invitation to every white supremacist to come and visit them,” De Aztlan said.
“Why do we even have a Border Patrol Museum?”
For some people in El Paso, Texas, a mass murder of brown-skinned people by a racist white man was not as shocking as the public seemed to think.
DeAztlan said for Hispanics in this city, poor treatment from people in authority including law enforcement is nothing new.
“This is the highest populated neighborhood of immigrants, ” De Aztlan said over a plate of steaming cactus rellenos in Cafe Mayapan, located in La Mujer Obrera.
The organization and center focuses on Hispanic history, stories and power. La Mujer Obrera was created in the 1980s to support mostly Hispanic El Paso garment workers. With the signing of the 1994 North American Free Trade Act, however, many of those workers lost their jobs. NAFTA is a trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Several El Paso factories were shut down, and a 2014 study found that the agreement meant more than 800,000 people in the U.S. lost their jobs. Several women who work at La Mujer Obrera center and Cafe Mayapan restaurant were retrained after being displaced.
De Aztlan criticized destructive NAFTA’s destructive nature, saying that it devastated El Paso Hispanic workers.
“It tore the base of this community, the economic base of this community,” she said. “And it literally sent the message that these women were disposable.”
The La Mujer Obrera celebrates the dignity and diversity of the Mexican heritage. This includes the low-price authentic Mexican-food restaurant, a space for art exhibits, day care, and training in the restaurant. The center’s mission includes pushing for community health and civic engagement.
“Many people from my generation feel like it’s the mother hen of our community,” said
de Aztlan, 38, who added that as a girl she and her sisters used to hang out in the center with their parents and later on their own as teenagers. “So I love it here.”
While El Paso is nearly 85 percent Hispanic, most of the people in political power are Anglo.
Many policies put forth by the current administration and other leaders past and present “have been anti-immigrant, have targeted the poor, have disenfranchised and dismantled those communities,” de Aztlan said, and Glenn agreed.
There may not be a direct link between disenfranchising policies and the mass shooter who came to an El Paso Walmart, but de Aztlan said it was unsurprising to a community of Hispanics who are often abused by those in power, and who feel constantly harassed by “police or ICE hanging around.”
“The top priority is that … we want safe communities. But the way to invest in safe, secure communities is to invest in families, invest in the poor,” she said. “People talk about how, you know, we're all community, [but] we’re like huddled in the attic.”
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.