Three weeks ago, thousands of citizens of El Paso, Texas, filled the Southwest University Park to listen to community and religious leaders from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border
assure them love would win over hate. I joined them that warm night.
People lined up for hours waiting to get into the memorial, which honored those people killed in the August 3 mass shooting by a white supremacist who targeted Hispanics. El Paso is more than 80 percent Hispanic. He shooter murdered 22 people shopping at Walmart, and injured about two dozen more. Less than 24 hours later, a different perpetrator killed nine people and injured 27 August 4 in Dayton, Ohio.
On the baseball field luminarias glowed — nine white circles commemorating
the Dayton victims, and 22 stars in honor of those killed in El Paso.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said battling white supremacy would be a priority for state police. He announced the creation of a group to battle domestic terror. A large electronic screen showed photographs and short bios of those killed in the El Paso shooting. Some of the survivors were in the crowd, weeping, remembering. Other people came to support them and their families, and to show the heart of El Paso. Normally the stadium is home of the Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team and Triple-A affiliate team of the San Diego Padres.
Andrew Wise, 28, said a friend’s grandmother was killed at the Walmart. He said he was there for that family, but also for all the Texan and Mexican grieving families.
“Just being here, just having everybody to support each other really shows how tight knit this city and community is with each other,” said Wise, who works for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “And how much we want to just lift each other back up.”
He said the shooting shattered the sense of safety in this Texas border town where many Mexicans come to shop and visit relatives.
“Of course, you never want to see any city or any families go through something like this, and you always hope that it never comes to your city,” said Wise, who was born and raised in El Paso. “When it hits home directly, it gives a whole bunch of different meaning and a whole — it hurts a lot worse when it gets right up close to home.
“And El Paso being one of the safest cities,” he told me, echoing what many said that week. “You think that we’re gonna be always safe. And as soon as somebody came and did this tragedy to us, now, like, our guard is higher. Our awareness is up. Everyone’s on edge. It just destroyed our sense of security. Like, everyone jumps at any loud sound. It just ruined a lot of things for everybody.”
Claudia Calderon also came to the stadium to show her support. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Calderon said when she became a mother, she decided to move to El Paso to be near her family— and to feel safer. Now she feels afraid.
There is “the fear that we thought we had left behind when we moved away from Los Angeles,” said Calderon, 36. “You know, you’re always watching your back in L.A., going from just to your car or whatever. There’s day-to-day violence there that you don’t see here. And all of a sudden, it felt like this bubble that we were living in bursted with this, with the violence.”
Because she and her children are Hispanic-American, this particular white-supremacist shooting made a “huge difference,” to her. “I think that it instills a fear of being who you are.”
She added that since the shooting happened, when she goes to the grocery store, she leaves her children at home — for now.
Two days after the memorial service, many more El Pasoans gathered outside an overflowing church to show another survivor they were his new family.
After 63-year-old Margie Reckard was murdered in Walmart, her husband Antonio Basco told the funeral home that he had no family in El Paso. He asked if he could open the funeral to the public. They had to move it to a larger church, because the response was so great. More than 900 flower arrangements and thousands of sympathy cards arrived from Texas, around the country and all over the world. People packed the church, and filed back outside after expressing their condolences, so others could enter the church.
“We just had to come and show our respect for his family, and to show him how great El Paso is,” said Dolores Luna, 77, lifelong resident of the city. “We’re going to get through this, one way or another. And we’re just so sorry of this tragedy that happened. In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way.”
Luna, who was there with her family, said they often shopped at the Walmart where the shooting happened.
“I just couldn’t believe it. Walmart is our number-one store for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. And I was just stunned. What if we would have been in one of the stores like that?” she told me. “My heart breaks.”
She was outside the church with hundreds of other people to witness the arrival of Basco, who runs an El Paso mobile car wash. In the nearly 100-degree heat, hundreds upon hundreds stood patiently in line for hours, many holding colorful umbrellas to block the sunshine.
“In our hearts, deeply in our hearts, we are with him all the way,” she said before walking up the church steps to greet Basco, who was surrounded by strangers hugging him.
Basco, tears in his eyes, said he could not believe the response from the public to the death of his “angel.”
After walking back down the crowded steps, Luna told reporters what she told the widower.
“You will always remember this, especially for your wife,” she said. “We will never forget you. This is your home, and it is El Paso strong for you and your family.”
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.