Two years after the Walmart massacre, El Paso is trying to heal

Published in Washington Post

On Monday afternoon, dozens of people gathered inside La Fe Cultural and Technology Center. The center is part of La Fe, as it is most often called, the health clinic that has served El Paso’s Segundo Barrio for decades. Inside the center’s auditorium, in between murals of Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata, there is a large poster. It shows a large pair of hands cupping a smaller, upturned pair, which are in turn bearing a white lotus. Above this image is the phrase “Healing Together.”

That was the reason for the gathering, a day before the Aug. 3 second anniversary of the El Paso massacre. Healing together, as at several other sites across the city this week, by honoring the 23 people who died in a shooting perpetrated, according to prosecutors, by a white supremacist who feared a supposed “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The suspect, Patrick Crusius, who faces multiple state and federal charges, has pleaded not guilty to capital murder.

El Pasoans gathered to heal, because forgetting that saddest of days feels impossible when you live here.

To live in El Paso is to live around constant reminders of that day. They’re there, in the “El Paso Strong” stickers that have faded and cracked under the harsh desert sun. There, in the multiple murals and signs across the city that say the same. It’s in the Walmart where it all happened, still open in the geographic center of the city. It’s in the rust-colored border wall that has always represented more than just the divide between Texas and Mexico.

If there is an undercurrent in Texas history, it is anti-Mexican violence, epitomized by the white supremacism practiced for more than a century under the guise of law enforcement by the Texas Rangers. The border wall is a monument to that hostility; the El Paso massacre was just the latest manifestation of it.

There’s no ignoring that. No forgetting it, not even when watching ballet folkorico and matachines dance, or hearing mariachis sing — as they were at the La Fe memorial. It sometimes feels like events such as these are the closest El Paso will get to the therapy that we all need. There was something oddly comforting about being there, mourning together, with those who understand why, when trying to explain the feelings from that day two years ago, sometimes, “I just don’t know,” is all one can say about the ever-present anger, pain and sorrow.

Such as many communities along the border, most with a significant Mexican ethnic population, El Paso is underserved by the state. Higher poverty rates, less access to quality education, more residents without health insurance. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic turned several of these areas into covid-19 hot spots. When Gov. Greg Abbott (R) prioritized the health of businesses over people’s health amid the pandemic, it felt like a familiar betrayal.

In June, Abbott announced a $250 million “down payment” to build “hundreds of miles” of border wall between Texas and Mexico. As The Post reported, “Abbott painted a bleak picture of border cities as victims of an ‘open border’ policy he blames for the large numbers of migrants ‘wreaking havoc’ and ‘carnage’ on both populous and remote communities along the Rio Grande.”

Because more is always needed, the Texas-Mexico border has been increasingly militarized. In places such as El Paso’s Segundo Barrio, you hear helicopters so often they sometimes fade from notice. As you drive down the highway that runs parallel to the border, you see U.S. Border Patrol vehicles parked in the wall’s shadows, waiting to pounce, as if they’re desert predators.

At the La Fe Cultural and Technology Center on Monday night, the poet Gris Muñoz fought back tears as she spoke. She had taken off her mask, noting that it had been awhile since we’d all been together. And then she said, “It’s been 730 days since that Saturday morning when a white terrorist followed the I-10 highway that ribbons through Texas, from his hometown into mine.”

We still remember that day. It began as a beautiful morning, but it turned gray, and by the evening, dark clouds were pouring rain on El Paso. Two years later, that day is impossible to forget. Two years later, El Paso is still trying to heal.

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