Why El Paso is determined not to roll up the welcome mat

Why We Wrote This

El Paso is an old city with a big heart, residents told our reporter. Its embrace of all isn’t going anywhere, they say, despite a terrorist attack aimed at its diversity.

Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters
Norma, Luke, and Mark Jimerson pay their respects at a memorial four days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Aug. 7, 2019.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

As the sun set over El Paso, Texas, dozens of people gather outside the Immaculate Baptist Church for a vigil for the 22 people who died in an attack at a Walmart. Pastor J.C. Rico leads prayers in both English and Spanish.

“I refuse to let that change the way we live, change the way we are,” says Rosie Rico, the pastor’s wife.

The alleged gunman had no ties to this 400-year-old city on the banks of the Rio Grande. He drove more than 600 miles from a Dallas suburb to commit the attack, which law enforcement are treating as domestic terrorism. El Paso has been, for years now, statistically one of the safest cities in the country – but now some residents are questioning whether they are safe from the rest of America.

“It’s like we’re the antithesis of how a lot of people in the heartland, where I grew up, view us,” says Bill Clark, co-owner of the bookstore Literarity. “It’s probably the most welcoming city one could want to live in.”

Daniel Aguilar, who attended the vigil, says, “It sounds like [the gunman] was not getting love. He would have got love from us. We would have given him love.”

Telma De La Rosa’s family immigrated to the United States more than 100 years ago, after being driven off their land in Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution. The family settled in El Paso and worked as accountants and business owners, but mostly as soldiers. Her father served in the Korean War and her uncle, who was awarded the Silver Star, fought and died in Italy during World War II.

In the Chihuahuita neighborhood where her family lived, a street is named after her uncle.

“We are proud Americans. We love our country; we really do,” says Ms. De La Rosa, a retired social services worker. “So to be questioned about it, it’s hard. To go back where you came from, where do you want us to go back?”

One source of comfort for her and others is that – even after last weekend’s deadly mass shooting – they can still tell themselves that El Paso is safe. The alleged gunman had no ties to this 400-year-old city on the banks of the Rio Grande. He drove more than 600 miles from a Dallas suburb to commit the attack. El Paso has been, for years now, statistically one of the safest cities in the country – but now some residents are questioning whether they are safe from the rest of America.

Courtesy of Telma De La Rosa
Pablo Zambrano, an accountant, was one of many Mexicans who fled to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution. Pictured here in 1910. De La Rosa's family, like many Mexican-American families in El Paso, have lived there for generations, often with long records of military service.

“It’s like we’re the antithesis of how a lot of people in the heartland, where I grew up, view us,” says Bill Clark, who grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, and lived in several Southern cities before settling in El Paso in 1993. “It’s probably the most welcoming city one could want to live in.”

 “I’m not worried about myself,” he adds. But, “when I know that someone drove hundreds of miles to target my neighbors … people in my community, I worry about my community.”

Twenty-two people have died as a result of the Aug. 3 attack, about as many murders as the city usually gets in a year. The alleged gunman – Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old from Allen, Texas – is believed to have posted a “manifesto” on social media minutes before the massacre that said it “is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Fifteen of the victims were American citizens, while seven were Mexican citizens. (The Walmart is one of the closest big department stores to the border, and popular with day-shoppers crossing from Ciudad Juárez.)

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Bill Clark stands outside the Literarity book store, which he co-owns with his wife. He moved to El Paso in 1993 after spending most of his life in the southern U.S. and says he's never lived in a city as welcoming as El Paso, which was targeted in a mass shooting on Aug. 3.

Texas history is rife with examples of violence toward Hispanics, dating as far back as when the state was a backwater province belonging to Mexico. But at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric is reaching a boiling point, when a U.S. citizen is held in a border detention facility for weeks, and when the city itself has been the focal point of overcrowding and questions about the treatment of migrant families and children seeking asylum, that history is echoing in ways that El Pasoans, who love their tightknit, peaceful city and its more than 400 years of multicultural heritage, find unexpected.

In recent decades, El Paso has grown both in size and as a safe and modern city. Nicknamed “El Chuco” by locals, after zoot suit-wearing Mexican American “Pachucos” from the 1940s, it is a world leader in water conservation, it’s the home town of award-winning singer Khalid, and it has been one of the safest cities in the country since the early 1990s.

President Donald Trump arrived in El Paso Wednesday to offer comfort after Saturday’s mass shooting. “I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate, I don’t like it, any group of hate, whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate, I am very concerned about it and I’ll do something about it,” the president said, speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before his trip. When asked by a reporter whether his rhetoric has contributed to violence, he said, “No, I don’t think my rhetoric has at all. I think my rhetoric brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well. China is not doing well.”

But some residents interviewed said they can’t help but think of a rally two weeks ago when his supporters chanted “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The chant was inspired by a tweet in which the president told four nonwhite congresswomen, three of whom were born in America and all of whom are U.S. citizens, that they should “go back” to the “crime-infested” countries they came from.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Mourners gather at Immaculate Baptist Church for a vigil remembering victims of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 3. Twenty-two people were killed in the attack, which is believed to have deliberately targeted Hispanic Americans.

“We love America”

“I don’t want to be afraid,” Ms. De La Rosa says. But it’s difficult when your deep ties to the country of your birth are being challenged, if not dismissed out of hand.

“If your ethnicity was being hunted in a place, you wouldn’t feel comfortable about it,” she says.

“We’re fortunate to live here. We love America just as much as anyone else, if not more,” she adds. “Why do we have to defend ourselves though? Why do we have to say, ‘No, I’m an American. I love this country’? Why do we have to prove anything?”

For centuries, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez were one city known as El Paso del Norte. It wasn’t until 1850, more than a decade after Texas declared its independence from Mexico, that the new border split the city in half.

By then, Tejanos in Texas – those descended from the region’s Spanish settlers – had been facing harassment and violence from Anglo settlers for years. Juan Seguín, a Tejano defender of the Alamo, fled to Mexico in 1842 out of fear for his safety. The early 20th century saw the indiscriminate killing of Mexican Americans in the Texas borderlands, scholars have recently uncovered, including the killing of 15 unarmed men and boys in the village of Porvenir a century ago.

When Clarissa Hernandez’s grandmother came to America decades ago, her first job was in a peanut factory. She was on the assembly line, picking out the bad peanuts as they trundled past, earning enough money to move into a home in a quiet neighborhood in northeast El Paso.

Ms. Hernandez and her grandmother were idling away a peaceful Saturday morning a few hundred yards away from the Walmart when the gunman opened fire.

If it wasn’t for her slow start to the day, Ms. Hernandez would have been there buying cases of water. Two days later, she is there with her young son, handing out bottles of water to first responders and the steady stream of El Pasoans coming to pay their respects at a small memorial.

“I feel not safe,” she says. “I feel that everywhere I go now I’ll have to look at who’s there, what’s going on.”

“I still believe in people”

As the sun set over El Paso Monday evening, dozens of people gather outside the Immaculate Baptist Church two blocks from the Cielo Vista Mall for a vigil. Pastor J.C. Rico leads prayers in both English and Spanish.

After the vigil, Rosie Rico, the pastor’s wife, says they wanted it “to communicate that there’s hope.” A second-generation Mexican American, she still feels safe in El Paso.

“I refuse to let that change the way we live, change the way we are,” she says.

Ms. De La Rosa has a similar optimism about the city, and about the country as a whole.

“I still believe in people, and the goodness of people,” she says.

“We are proud Americans. We love our country. We love El Paso. We love Texas,” she adds. “We will overcome this.”

That spirit has been on display for a national audience this year, as hundreds of thousands of migrants – mostly families and children from Central America – have traveled to the city seeking asylum in the U.S. With immigration officers and facilities overwhelmed, local residents, nonprofits, and churches have been working around the clock to house, feed, and clothe the migrants.

For Mr. Clark, that context is what seems to be so unsettling about last weekend’s massacre.

El Paso “has opened its hearts and its arms to the migrants,” he says. “I’m sure there’s people out there in today’s world who don’t like that.”

“We are, and have always been, one of the safest cities in America, and it is because we don’t just tolerate or respect our differences but we fully embrace them,” Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told reporters at an event Monday morning. While acknowledging that “there is a level of intolerance and hatred and racism that has not been seen in a very long time,” Mr. O’Rourke said it was precisely because of El Paso’s character that it could help lead the way. “Though we bore the brunt of this hatred and this violence, we also hold the answers for the way forward.”

Daniel Aguilar, a third-generation American who attended the vigil and says he has been feeling “lost” and “speechless” since the attack, put it a different way.

“I feel he was disgusted by us, I guess,” he says, referring to the gunman.

“It sounds like he was not getting love,” he adds, shaking his head. “He would have got love from us. We would have given him love.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.