Yolanda Tinajero found herself returning again and again to the makeshift memorial that sprung up to honor the victims of the Walmart massacre last year.
After her brother, Arturo Benavides, was shot by an alleged white supremacist on Aug. 3, 2019, she found comfort in the collection of glass-cased candles, rosaries, flowers and placards that grew by the day.
There was solace, she said, in the outpouring of grief among strangers, a collateral love to counter the hate that stole 23 lives.
El Paso now faces the first anniversary of the deadliest attack on Hispanics in modern U.S. history amid a pandemic that has made such physical solidarity impossible. What should be a time for collective healing is, for many, marred by the divisions forced by the coronavirus – restrictions on gatherings of friends and family, a border largely closed to binational traditions.
This week there will be no spontaneous embraces between strangers, no gathering close to hear a corrida written for lives lost. There will be drive-through and socially distant memorials. There will be calls for a reckoning with the country's unresolved struggle with racism, highlighted by this mass shooting on the U.S.-Mexico border.
As Aug. 3 approached, Tinajero remembered a sorely needed healing moment the days that followed the early Saturday morning attack.
"When we would go and visit the memorial they had behind Walmart" – she paused as her voice broke in emotion – "there were strangers. There was a particular old lady there and she said, ‘I hope they give this man the death penalty.’"
Tinajero recognized the anger in the woman's voice. She had felt that rage herself.
Her brother – a retired city bus driver and decorated veteran of the U.S. Army who also served in the Texas Army National Guard – was gunned down, allegedly by a 21-year-old white man with an AK-47 and a mission to kill "Mexicans."
The woman turned around as Tinajero approached.
"I asked if I could hug her," Tinajero said.
"She didn’t say anything," she said. "She just nodded yes."
The hate-fueled attack scarred the community on both sides of the border. Yet the year has been marked not by calls for vengeance but by acts of kindness. Even under the gray cloud of coronavirus, the focus is squarely on community healing.
These are the 23 U.S., Mexico and German citizens who died in the attack.
- Jordan Anchondo
- Maribel Campos
- Arturo Benavidez
- Andre Pablo Anchondo
- Javier Amir Rodriguez
- David Alvah Johnson
- Sara Ester Regalado Moriel
- Angelina Silva Englisbee
- Adolfo Cerros Hernandez
- Juan de Dios Veláquez Chairez
- Gloria Irma Márquez
- Maria Flores
- Maria Eugencia Legarreta Roth
- Raul Flores
- Jorge Calvillo Garcia
- Alexander Gerhard Hoffman
- Elsa Mendoza de la Mora
- Luis Alfonzo Juarez
- Ivan Filiberto Manzano
- Margie Reckard
- Leonardo Campos Jr.
- Teresa Sanchez
- Guillermo "Memo" Garcia
Healing in the time of the coronavirus
The star on the Franklin Mountains – perpetually lit and long a beacon for El Paso and Juárez – will blink 23 times on the night of Aug. 3.
Parks across the city will honor the dead with light and color.
There will be a drive-through path of luminarias at Ascarate Park – a Borderland tradition in which tea-light candles are tucked inside paper bags grounded with sand. The city is asking people to decorate their cars to show El Paso pride.
The city will light 23 luminarias at Cleveland Square Park and give people a chance to tie orange ribbons against gun violence at a memorial in Ponder Park. Public art along Interstate 10 will glow orange.
There will be social media hashtags: #elpasostrong and #atimetoremember.
The El Paso Museum of History will display memorabilia of the impromptu memorial on its outdoor "digital wall" downtown. Inside, the museum will have a permanent exhibit using some of the objects from the makeshift memorial.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created enormous obstacles to traditional ways of collective grieving in the Borderland, cutting deeply into the social fabric that makes the region so unique.
Eight Mexican nationals were killed in the attack. Because of coronavirus-related restrictions, the U.S.-Mexico border is closed to most Mexican nationals – including many of those who lost a loved one in the shooting. They can't cross to participate in the El Paso memorials.
Some families divided by the border have gone months without seeing each other. Even gatherings in El Paso among extended families are off-limits, as the county continues to prohibit events involving more than 10 people.
The suspected killer told police he came from outside to attack El Paso families – mothers and fathers, children and their abuelos – and it's in family that El Pasoans have sought refuge to heal.
Bernadette Falcon, who took the first 911 call from Walmart the morning of the shooting, said the agony of what was unfolding over the phone hit her when she realized "somebody had come to attack my community, my family."
"That's not OK," she said, taking a breath to hold back tears.
As the pandemic began sweeping the region in March and stay-at-home orders, now lifted, went into effect, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego worried about the effects on a community still trying to heal from trauma.
"We still have a heavy heart due to the third of August, this tragedy. We know how hard it is on our community," Samaniego said in April. "We were called to unite. And now we’re called to be individuals in this battle.
"As we get used to being separated from each other, I’m holding on to the hope that we come out of this not fragmented."
One more hero lost, another fighting to survive
The year has been relentless with its reminders: fresh tragedy, enduring anguish, moments of healing.
The last El Paso victim of the massacre died in April after a nearly nine-month battle for his life. Across the border, a father who was shot as he bear-hugged his wife and daughter to protect them remains hospitalized in Mexico.
Girls soccer coach Guillermo "Memo" Garcia, known to those who loved him as "Tank," was shot three times in the back as he protected his young players at their fundraising stand outside the superstore.
The 36-year-old father of two was mourned a hero at a funeral attended by hundreds donning face masks and keeping their distance.
"He held on as long as he could to bless us just a little more and he did it out of pure love," his wife, Jessica Garcia, had said in a statement.
The girls he led on the field have been resilient in the face of so much – the horror of that day, the loss of their beloved coach, said Benny McGuire, the team's assistant coach and a father to one of the players.
But the sound of fireworks at an El Paso Locomotive soccer game where they were honored, the first home game after the shooting, set them off. The girls screamed at the popping sound, terrified.
"There was nowhere to run and hide,” he said.
There were an estimated 3,000 people inside the Walmart during the attack, according to police. The shooter wounded more than two dozen people. Hundreds more witnessed the carnage.
Recovering from the physical wounds and psychological scars could take a lifetime.
The De Alba family lived a life that epitomized the region's cross-border customs – upended by the Aug. 3 attack and now hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
They live in Chihuahua City, four hours south of El Paso and would vacation in the U.S. Before Aug. 3, they often shopped and visited family in El Paso.
Mario De Alba saved his wife and young daughter during the Walmart shooting but hasn't recovered from the bullet that struck him in the back and perforated his intestinal tract.
Confined to a hospital bed in Chihuahua, he is still unable to eat and must be fed intravenously. He dreams of being home with his family, of returning to his workshop where he repairs appliances, of carne asada grillouts on the patio.
"I want to live and be all right, with my daughter, my wife," he said.
'We are people of color here'
The El Paso mass shooting was irrefutably about white supremacy and racism. It was an early sign of the racism the country would soon confront again as COVID-19 killed tens of thousands nationwide and people protested deadly police abuse – both of which have disproportionately claimed Black and Latino lives.
The pandemic has made it hard to grieve together but has provided opportunity for reflection, said Daniel Chacon, author and professor in the prestigious bilingual writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso.
The conclusion Chacon has drawn is that the suspected killer's racist rampage and the country's handling of the coronavirus pandemic are related.
"I don’t think we can help but connect what was happening – the racism and the official sanction of racist ideas and racist acts – and what’s happening during the pandemic," he said.
The death rates for Black and brown people in the U.S. from COVID-19 are starkly higher than for whites: a reflection of pervasive economic and social disparities that affect health outcomes.
It's as if Black and brown people are "disposable" to the country's leadership, he said.
When the accused shooter posted a tirade to an online message board notorious for white supremacy, just minutes before the attack, he echoed language used by President Donald Trump on social media. The president publicly denounced the shooting.
"Today's shooting in El Paso, Texas, was not only tragic, it was an act of cowardice. I know that I stand with everyone in this Country to condemn today's hateful act. There are no reasons or excuses that will ever justify killing innocent people," he said on Twitter a day after the mass shooting.
A year on, the president is using federal agents to put down Black Lives Matter protests and has struggled to calm racial tensions flaring across the country.
Eighty-three percent of El Pasoans identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census, and most trace their roots to Mexico. The Walmart shooting targeting Hispanics shattered the sense of safety many residents felt in their community.
Chacon is the father of a 16-month-old daughter.
"When I’m pushing her stroller through the neighborhood, I understand that if I was in a different place, I know I could be a target," he said. "All you have to do is speak Spanish somewhere and someone could go off on you.
"We are people of color here. If not immigrants ourselves, we are one step away. I think our leaders have the opportunity to emerge out of this and do some positive influencing."
For all the desire to recover from the pandemic and go back to "normal" life, El Pasoans know the problems that the shooting and coronavirus have laid bare can't be ignored.
El Paso poet Ben Saenz, born and raised in the Borderland, sees how demographic change is provoking inevitable – and much-needed – upheaval to outdated ways of thinking.
"This country is going to change and is changing, and we have to come to grips with our own history – all of the things we’ve done at the expense at other people. Japanese internment camps. The disrespect of Native American treaties. We don’t own up to that," he said.
"There has got to be a reckoning," he said. "My question isn’t, 'Why are we tearing down all these monuments?' My question is, 'Why did we put them up to begin with?' "
Broken hearts, 'violated city'
El Pasoans showed their true heart in the minutes and days and months after the attack.
Hundreds of El Pasoans lined up to give blood to the wounded that very day. Others brought pizza and Gatorade to the lines as people waited hours to donate.
Antonio Basco lost his only family when his wife, 63-year-old Margie Reckard, was gunned down. He invited El Pasoans to her funeral, and they didn't let him grieve alone. About 500 people packed the La Paz Faith Center church, with another 1,500 showing their support outside.
Willeta Corbett, a self-identifying Black woman and retired English teacher, simply went out to share her grief, her blanket, her hand.
"Now I’m an introvert by nature," Corbett said in an email to the El Paso Times. "But I stepped out the next day to attend the Ponder Park Memorial near the site, endured finding a parking space, the heat, the crowds, and sat on the grass with a 19-year-old Hispanic young man named Joshua, who shared my blanket. (We) held hands and cried for my violated city. I was crushed beyond measure."
If there was anger, it never spilled over into vengeance. El Pasoans watched the suspected shooter's arraignment – he pleaded not guilty to more than 90 charges for murder and hate crimes – in disgust but with deference to the rule of law, a belief that justice would be served.
El Paso's Beto O'Rourke was running for the Democratic nomination for president at the time of the shooting. He spoke out against gun violence and in favor of more restrictive gun laws, especially a ban on high-powered "weapons of war" like the AK-47 used by the shooter.
At the time, he made his rounds of the hospitals and got to know some of the survivors. Now at home full time, O'Rourke recently visited Rosemary Vega, who survived being shot. It was her birthday.
He drove by her house. They couldn't hug. He brought her cookies, his "house specialty": triple chocolate chip.
"I’ve kept in touch with some of the families," he said. "It’s very important that they know that we are all still thinking about them. That they are all still so important to us. That none of us is going to give up on the justice they deserve and that we as a community deserve.
"We have a solemn responsibility to remember this and act on it."
Letting go of those 'ugly feelings'
Back at the makeshift memorial behind Walmart, Tinajero embraced the woman calling for the killer's death and held her close.
"I hugged her with everything I had because I felt she needed it as much as I did," Tinajero said.
Her brother, Benavides, was thoughtful, kind and always there for anyone in the family who needed him. She thought about what he would want, if he was still here.
Tinajero spoke into the woman's ear.
"We all have to forgive," she said. "No matter how hard it is. My brother wouldn't want us to carry ugly feelings."
That forgiveness shouldn't come at the expense of justice, she said. Those who loved her brother want justice for him and all the other victims, she said, all of the people whose lives will be forever marked by the terror of that morning.
"I don't feel anger anymore," she said. "I just feel for all the families."
Bret Bloomquist contributed to this report and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Veronica Martinez contributed to this report and can be reached at email@example.com.
Lauren Villagran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.