'We have to keep going forward': Grief, trauma linger 2 years after El Paso Walmart shooting

EL PASO, Texas — The Walmart shooting attack of Aug. 3, 2019 took place on a sunny summer Saturday two years ago, but its memory, horror and emotional devastation are still fresh for El Pasoans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened that pain for the families of the victims. Twenty-three people died in the racist domestic terror attack.

"It seems like these past two years I've been in a dream, especially with COVID and then losing my dad," Tito Anchondo said. "Everything seems like still surreal for us, but we have to keep going forward."

Anchondo's father, Gilbert Anchondo, died of a heart attack last February. Six months prior, his brother and sister-in-law, Andre Pablo Anchondo and Jordan Anchondo, were killed in the shooting at Walmart. The couple’s baby boy survived the attack, carried to safety by a good Samaritan.

The shooting happened on a busy, weekend day at a Walmart that is typically popular with shoppers from Mexico and the U.S.

Authorities say the shooter confessed to driving more than 600 miles to El Paso from his home near Dallas to target Mexicans. Just before the attack, authorities said, he posted a racist screed online. He has pleaded not guilty, and his defense lawyers have said he has severe "mental disabilities."

In addition to those who died, more than two dozen were injured. Many were citizens of Mexico.

The mass shooting horror was followed less than a year later with the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 2,700 people in El Paso.

El Paso:City mourns 23 lives lost in racist Walmart mass shooting one year later

These are portraits of the 23 victims killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart mass shooting in El Paso. They were painted by Appalachian artist Ellen Elmes.

Two years after Walmart shooting, 'it gets worse over time'

The anniversary of the Walmart tragedy can be a sad, painful and stressful time, Anchondo explained.

The Anchondo family tries to honor their lost loved ones by doing the right thing and working hard at their family-owned body shop, he said during a quick work break.

The pain of losing loved ones doesn't always diminish with time, he added.

"I actually think it gets worse over time 'cause then you start realizing the little things, like you know, having a conversation, like wanting to call up my brother or my dad," Anchondo said. 

"You know to talk to them about something that I saw on TV that I know that my brother liked and it's like, oh man — that's when it really hits you as like, oh, I wish I could call him up right now. But I can't, like, it doesn't even seem real. But it is real."

El Paso Shooting:Memorial for mass shooting victims unveiled at Walmart site

Brother and sister Tito Anchondo and Deborah Anchondo at Color Master Paint & Body Shop Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at 120 North Piedras Street in El Paso. Tito and Deborah's brother, Andre Anchondo, was killed Aug. 3, 2019, when a gunman opened fire at a Walmart and their father died of a heart attack in February of 2021.

Whole community, not just Walmart shooting survivors, affected by trauma

Mountain poppy flowers, the Star on the Mountain and "El Paso Strong" are part of colorful children's paintings commemorating the Aug. 3 tragedy.

The paintings decorate the lobby of the El Paso United Family Resiliency Center, a hub created to help those impacted by the attack in finding therapy, counseling and financial resources.

The shock of the mass shooting was felt by all El Pasoans, whether or not they were inside Walmart, resiliency center staffers said.

"All of us were indirectly affected," Idalhí Huizar-Mendoza, the center's director, said.

El Paso Walmart shooting:Events honor victims on 2nd anniversary of Aug. 3 tragedy

Idalhi Huizar-Mendoza M.Ed is photographed at her offices at the El Paso United Family Resiliency Center in El Paso, Texas on July 26, 2021.

Counseling and other services are available to those impacted directly and indirectly by Aug. 3, staff at the resiliency center said.

“It’s secondary trauma, vicarious trauma. They weren’t there, but they were emotionally affected by it," said Alberto Ruiz, the center's lead resiliency navigator who helps clients link up with a variety of help available in the community.

"We have people who are not able to go to that Walmart after that happened," Ruiz said. "We have people who even can’t go to other stores and other establishments. They start looking for emergency exits right away in case anything happens. We have people who aren’t able to be in crowded places after that happened."

'Something I’ll think about forever':Trauma surgeons recall Walmart shooting, aftermath

Secondary trauma can manifest itself in many different ways depending on the person, Ruiz said.

The shooting occurred at the Walmart store near Cielo Vista Mall, one of the busiest Walmarts in the U.S. and a popular store with Mexican visitors coming to shop in El Paso. The store has since been remodeled and reopened. The golden Grand Candela memorial stands in the parking lot.

The resiliency center opened in December 2019 and is dedicated to long-term community recovery. It is hosted by United Way of El Paso County in collaboration with the county and city and funding through the Texas governor's office.

The center offers free, bilingual services and currently serves 187 clients, including about 40 children and teens and a handful of clients in Mexico.

Some of the children are survivors of the shooting, while others are family members of victims, staff said.

The center's many services are currently done remotely, with its doors still closed because of COVID-19 safety precautions.

El Paso Walmart shooting anniversary anxiety rises 

The resiliency center has seen an increase in requests for assistance as the second anniversary of the shoot arrives and the COVID-19 situation has improved, Huizar-Mendoza said.

Huizar-Mendoza said the El Paso shooting anniversary also raises fears of copycat killers who may use the date to do something similar.

The Walmart shooting has been described as the deadliest U.S. domestic terror attack on Latinos in modern times. The accused racist white shooter from the town of Allen in North Texas was allegedly targeting Mexicans. He remains jailed, awaiting trial.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego designated a Month of Unity and Healing that started on July 3 in reflection of the anniversary.

"Only in unity can we bring out the best in humanity and overcome the hatred in our society that led to this horrible act," Samaniego said.

Mayor: It's important to 'never forget'

Jefferson High School students honor the victims of the Aug. 3, 2019, Walmart shooting by planting 23 trees in an area south of the football field Friday, July 30, 2021, in El Paso. There are 22 Spartan Junipers and 1 Raywood Ash in honor of Jefferson High School alum Arturo Benavides, a decorated U.S. Army veteran.

The Aug. 3 tragedy "was something that impacted our whole community, not just the ... families and those who were injured as well. It was something that impacted everyone," Mariana Sierra, outreach and communications director for the El Paso resiliency center, said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city is strong and resilient, and it's important to remember the tragedy of Aug. 3.

"It's important when we talk about Aug. 3 that we will never forget. Everybody talks about where they were, what they were doing," Leeser said.

Officials in El Paso will unveil a garden Tuesday that is meant to bring healing after  the attack that stunned the U.S. and Mexico.

Much like the first anniversary of the shooting, many of the events honoring those slain will again be affected by precautions for the coronavirus pandemic. The dedication of the healing garden — in a county park space dedicated to quiet reflection among water and plants — will be closed to the public. Victims' families and officials will take part in the ceremony, which will be livestreamed.

Another socially distanced observance will include a luminaria drive-thru. Luminarias are traditional lanterns made from paper bags, sand, and candles or LED lights.

"I'll never forget the lives that we lost — the innocent people that lost their lives because somebody decided to travel 11 hours to El Paso and was racially motivated to hurt our community," Leeser said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Daniel Borunda and Aaron Martinez on Twitter:  @BorundaDaniel and @AMartinezEPT on Twitter.