El Paso unites in sorrow, song and strength


Mourners attend a vigil in El Paso

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Mourners attend a vigil for victims of the shooting in El Paso

El Paso is a city that shows the best of humanity, a place where people can live in harmony side by side, and that’s why its people think it was targeted by a gunman.

At 10:30 on a Saturday morning in August, there is no more ordinary activity than heading to the supermarket.

Thousands of people were at the Walmart in El Paso that day. The car park at the border town was full of cars bearing US and Mexican number plates, their drivers and passengers picking up back-to-school supplies or just some bread and milk. Maybe a few beers for the weekend.

And then came the deadly violence that has shocked the city, its peace ripped apart by the sound of gunshots.

The shockwaves have been reverberating all weekend.

“I’m just worried for the list of names to come out,” says taxi driver Carla Karam. “Everyone will have known someone. We all know each other – it’s a city of six degrees of separation.”

What strikes you here is the friendliness. Strangers are welcomed with open arms – literally in some cases, with hugs being given to journalists along with bottles of water.

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Cynthia Chavez (R) praised El Paso as a welcoming city

Cynthia Chavez, 41, says: “I’m so sad and don’t know how we’re meant to explain this to our kids. In El Paso, we’re the type of people who, if you come to town, we will welcome you with open doors and make you feel part of this town.”

In such a close-knit community, it has come as a shock that someone would apparently drive hundreds of kilometres in order to wreak tragedy on its inhabitants.

Ivonne Diaz, 31, bursts into tears as she contemplates that. “I’ve never been scared of being Hispanic ever before. But now I am,” she says. “I can’t believe this has happened. El Paso is a city of immigrants and we have always fought for each other.”

Danielle Novoa, 30, who was with her husband, her twin sister and 10-month-old son, says they were heading to the store and were half an hour away when they heard what had happened.

“We knew right away it wouldn’t be someone local. There’s no way any citizen could live or think that way.

“Being Latina, in a huge Hispanic community, there were times I would think: ‘Hey, we could be a target because of how things are now in other states.’ But then I never really thought it would happen to us.

“We feel so safe walking out the door in El Paso. But now, we’ll be thinking: ‘Am I OK to go out and get a gallon of milk? Some diapers for the baby?'”

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The Novoa family hold a sign commemorating the victims of the attack

Julio Novoa, her husband, says: “We’ve always been proud of the fact we accept the diversity of being Mexican-Americans and US citizens. And we all get on so well…

“We were targeted because we’re the best of what unity and diversity means. They know we are representative of how America really can be. And because of that, it doesn’t surprise me that a white supremacist would want to target us.”

Others visit the makeshift memorial behind the Walmart store with their own tributes. There are flowers, teddy bears, and signs proclaiming “El Paso Strong”. There are tears, too, for those who died and for the shattered innocence of the community.

Deena Delgado, 26, who is there with her 10-month-old daughter Aerie, is weeping as she tells how her brother and niece were in Walmart at the time of the shooting. They were contemplating looking for one more item to buy when shots were fired.

She fears her niece, seven, will be left traumatised.

Everyone speaks of the need for the city to come together. They say they will unite and come back stronger than before.

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Signs and flowers were left at a roadside near the site of the shooting

And one of the major talking points is the issue of gun control.

Jose Rijos, who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, says: “As long as we have hatred and we have a way to release that anger through guns, we’re not going to have the answer. But we have the combination right now to cause this – we have the hatred and we have guns. And this is the result.”

But Willa Melendez says: “I know there’s going to be a lot of people doing applications for carrying guns after this. I think that’s the reality. It shouldn’t be that way, but it’s got to that.”

She says her sister had just left Walmart when the shooting happened. “We were on the freeway when I found out. I called everybody to check up on them, everybody,” she says.

“My 26-year-old grandson got stuck at the mall, where he was working. He’s not doing so well. He didn’t sleep last night.
We’re so near the border here – we don’t consider it two different countries.

“So this hurts. It hurts.”

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People take part in a rally against hate a day after the shooting

Jonas Porras, 19, speaks of the suspected gunman, who is just a few years older than him.

“The thought of coming here, of all places, coming here and disturbing the peace… why not leave alone what’s not to be broken? But I think this makes us stronger. It makes us who we are. We’re going to pull through.”

He had been on his way to Walmart when the cars in front of him started turning around, so he followed suit.

“I feel very blessed at the moment,” he adds.

As night fell, vigils were held in the city. Thousands turned out at the events to remember those who died and to join together as one community.

In Ponder Park, a short distance from Walmart, hundreds upon hundreds filled the Little League field. There was a multi-faith procession before people’s voices joined together in song, holding phone torches aloft.

One of the biggest cheers was for three Walmart employees hailed as the heroes of the community for saving countless lives. They wept on stage as their bravery was applauded.

And Democratic presidential candidate and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke was among the speakers at a rally at the city’s Las Americas headquarters, following a silent walk of remembrance.

He was cheered as he called for an end to gun violence, alongside the parents of Joaquin Oliver, who died in the Parkland shooting in 2018. Today would have been Joaquin’s birthday.

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Vigils were held in El Paso over the weekend

As Happy Birthday was sung, people were in tears, the joint tragedies bringing them together. Butterflies were released, flying between and fluttering around people’s heads. It was a reminder of the grim list of names this city joins.

People held their banners again as they left the rally. One of them read: “Shaken, not broken.”

El Paso is not the kind of place where this happens. That’s what its residents repeat, over and over again.

The queues to give blood to the injured, with people happily waiting for hours? That’s El Paso. Coming out in their thousands at a candlelit vigil to sing Amazing Grace? That’s El Paso.

A community coming together in one of its darkest moments to vow this can never happen again? That’s El Paso.

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