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El Paso Is Already Great

Scenes from the memorial of 22 murdered El Pasoans

EL PASO, TX - AUGUST 15:  People gather at a makeshift memorial honoring victims outside Walmart August 15, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. 22 people were killed in the Walmart during a mass shooting on August 3rd. A 21-year-old white male suspect remains in custody in El Paso which sits along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

EL PASO, TX - AUGUST 15: People gather at a makeshift memorial honoring victims outside Walmart August 15, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. 22 people were killed in the Walmart during a mass shooting on August 3rd. A 21-year-old white male suspect remains in custody in El Paso which sits along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

El Paso — The site of the memorial is a parking lot behind the Walmart and a Hooters. Twenty-two white wooden crosses line a fence separating the two buildings. Each victim’s name is written in black marker. Throughout the week, people piled flowers and candles on the shrines. Mourners hung homemade posters on the fence — some with messages to the president, some not.

The day I arrived in El Paso, I counted 159 steps from the memorial’s start to its end. When I left, the number had grown to 273. Greg Zanis, a 68-year-old retired carpenter, made and delivered the crosses after driving from his home in Illinois. Starting with Columbine in 1999, he’s done this each time there’s a mass shooting. He couldn’t stay here long. Dayton was waiting.

The Wednesday after the mass shooting, a man in a suit with blond shoulder-length, gelled-back hair showed up to the memorial. He talked about liking guns. Like, really liking them. He wouldn’t say his name or what he does for a living, but he’d come here to proselytize. Tensions escalated mid-soliloquy after he shouted, “David Duke supported Hillary!”

He was a football field and four days removed from a Walmart where a gunman had killed 22 people and wounded 24, but — like much of America — he wasn’t talking about the murdered El Pasoans. The conversation over the massacre, one more in what feels like an unending string of mass shootings and another terrifying example of the rising tide of white-racist violence, was quickly nationalized, fueling another flash in the cyclical argument over gun control and, once Donald Trump weighed in, immediately transitioned into another episode of the daily spectacle that is his presidency. It’s a shouting match that failed to stop the last mass killing and will fail to stop the next one. Now the suited man was bringing that national conversation to the memorial for the fallen here, and reporters and cameras were there to receive him.

I was among them until a short, elderly man wearing sweatpants tapped my shoulder and said, “I think something bad is going to happen.” He motioned for me to follow him to a patch of grass in the shade, away from the protesters. “Sit with me,” he said, and I talked to him, leaving the suit and his shouting match behind. His name was Manuel, and he’s lived in El Paso his whole life. For the rest of the day, this man was my shadow. Whenever there was a display of aggression or anger, he would tap my shoulder and usher me to that same spot in the shade.

Manuel, as I would learn in the days that followed, is emblematic of what it means to be an El Pasoan.

Juárez-El Paso is home to the largest bilingual, binational work force in the Western Hemisphere. The two cities face each other, separated by a few hundred yards, a narrow stretch of riverbed, and a brown fence. It’s a symbiotic relationship; their cultural and economic identities are inextricably linked. This is how it’s always been. A gas station in El Paso just past the Paso del Norte bridge displays a sign advertising that it accepts pesos and gives dollars in return. A lot of headlines highlight undocumented border crossings and violence in Juárez, but the reality is that traveling back and forth between the two countries — sometimes more than once a day — is a lawful, fundamental way of life for the 2.5 million people who live and work in the region. Every day, about 20,000 pedestrians and 35,000 cars pass through.

El Paso, a city of about 845,000 people, is consistently ranked as among the safest large cities in America. Statistically, it’s safer than Austin, Tampa, and San Jose. In all of 2018, the  city recorded 23 murders, one more than a gunman killed in a matter of minutes that Saturday morning.

El Paso’s Latino population sits squarely at 80 percent, and the culture permeates every aspect of the city’s soul: its music, cuisine, architecture, street names.

It is a city that was attacked but has not fractured.

A few minutes after Manuel led me away, I saw a man and a woman crouched over a cross. A fractured baseball bat rests on the right of its horizontal piece. Written in silver marker on the bat is a message: “This bat is broken . . . El Paso is NOT!!!”

 

Walter Buster is a soft-spoken 68-year-old Army veteran with a white handlebar mustache and a buzzed flattop. Everyone calls him Buster. For 19 years, he’s managed the Hooters behind Walmart, the place that turned into the media’s gathering site two weekends ago. After the shooting, he closed his business down but kept his doors open to the public. He gave people his air conditioning and his clean restrooms. He gave reporters free Wi-Fi and slung bottled waters all week. He gave emotional sanctuary to anyone who needed it.

El Paso afternoons in August are 100 degrees, and the sun is relentless. When I walked inside his restaurant the first time, I was heat-delirious with a Kafkaesque sunburn.

Buster was very concerned. He made me sit down and wrote out instructions for sunburn treatment on a napkin: apple-cider vinegar and ice water. Chaplain Tony Dickey, who had driven in from Alabama, would pinch-hit for Buster when talking about the shooting became too much. Dickey, like Greg Zanis the cross-maker, goes to every mass shooting. He told me the people at Hooters stepped up in a way he’d never seen at a mass-murder site. “They’re right here in the middle of all this emotional turmoil,” Dickey said. “Their workers are having to see the people and see the families.”

They’re all still numb, Buster told me before excusing himself. And each time he came back, he apologized. “We’re all just still numb,” he said. Chaplain Dickey said Buster is one of the most tenderhearted people he’s ever met. Buster refuses to take any credit.

Something I heard repeatedly is that what happened is simply not El Paso. “We got this guy from here in Texas but from outside the community,” Buster said a few minutes later. “And he came in and he did what he did.”

“He picked the wrong city,” Dickey said. Later, Buster said the same thing. It’s a sentence I must have heard 10 different times that day.

Another chaplain, who, according to his T-shirt, was with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, sat on a blanket in the grass with four young children and their parents, who were crying. They were staring at the crosses, bewildered, not talking much. He stayed with them for an hour. I wish some of the cameras that left when Trump did had stayed for that.

Locals, even newly arrived ones, tell me this is typical of El Paso. Fatima Daley moved here three months ago, with her husband, Ryan, who is stationed at Fort Bliss. Their four children, who are white, attend a previously all-Mexican school. Before the Daleys moved to El Paso, the kids worried they would face discrimination. They didn’t.

“We got welcomed with love,” she told me. “Nothing but love. These people don’t think like those type of people. These people here don’t look at you and see your skin color. They accepted us, they welcomed us, they made us feel home.”

But Daley feels how deeply the shooting has wounded her newly adopted community. “These people are grieving to the core,” she said. “And you can tell they all came together, from the start. And even if you are just a neighbor across the street, they come together, they hug each other. They’re just there for each other. Even if you don’t know me . . . I have people at work [Daley was working at a P.F. Changs down the road at the time of the shooting and was on lockdown for three hours] saying, “ ‘I don’t even know you, but I’m so glad you’re OK.’ “

She has tried to keep herself together, to be strong for her kids. “Because they need to also understand not everyone in this country just goes around and shoots people. But it’s just tough because kids don’t understand why anyone would go there.”

 

Back to the cross and the broken baseball bat. The man kneeling over it was Ray Attaguile, and I asked him if he knew the subject of this particular memorial. “He’s my brother-in-law,” he said.

David Johnson, 63, was an eternal optimist with a dry sense of humor. He grew up in El Paso. When he died, he still lived in his childhood home, less than a mile away from the Cielo Vista Walmart. On weekends he enjoyed watching Dallas Cowboys games and, especially, NASCAR. In fact, he recently bought a NASCAR-themed Toyota Camry “with all the bells and whistles.” He liked country music, but also the song “Baby Shark,” because it’s what his granddaughters wanted to listen to. He would play beauty shop with the girls, letting them put ribbons in his hair, and occasionally adding makeup. The broken bat was a gift from his 15-year-old nephew, Zeus. Baseball was their thing together.

Soon after they married, in 1991, David and his wife, Kathy, Ray’s sister, started fostering children. First they took in a couple of babies and fell in love with them. Eventually they adopted one, Wayne. A few years later, a group of three siblings — two girls and a boy—came through. The couple took care of them for five years, eventually adopting the girls.

Ray and his wife, Angie, adopted the girls’ brother after first becoming foster parents with David’s encouragement.

“I was scared and not sure I could do it,” Ray said. He confided in David, who was steadfast in his encouragement. “He helped me understand the importance of giving children in bad situations a second chance,” said Ray. There’s something else out there for these kids, David told him, something better than what they were taken from.

“He said, “ ‘You’re going to show them a different life. Try it out,’ ” Ray remembered. “If I could be half the father he was, I would be OK.”

Wayne got married six months ago. David’s funeral was last Monday.

The morning of the shooting, David drove Kathy and their nine-year-old granddaughter, Kaitlyn Melendez, to Walmart to shop for school supplies. The gunman started shooting at around 10:40 a.m. According to witnesses, the shots sounded like loud fireworks. One thought a man outside was dancing and described the sounds as “pops.” David pushed Kaitlyn and Kathy down to the floor and got on top of them, shielding them from the bullets. The shooter, who stood only a few feet away, was silent. The last thing Kathy heard her husband say was to run toward the Sam’s Club next door. They did, but then she turned around and went back inside Walmart to give David CPR. She knew intrinsically he wasn’t here anymore.

When the paramedics arrived, they took her to the hospital because she had passed out and was covered in blood. They thought the gunman had shot her too. She told them over and over that the blood wasn’t hers. It was her husband’s.

As afternoon stretched into evening, there was still no word from David. The family hadn’t found his name on the hospital registries, so Kaitlyn’s mother drove to one. She showed a staffer a photo of David on her phone and asked if they had seen him. The staffer told her he was in surgery and would probably be OK. They told their family and friends, but the relief was short-lived. A few hours later they learned it wasn’t David. On Sunday afternoon, 30 hours after the shooting, the family met with the FBI. Kathy’s instinct had been correct. David died at Walmart. They kept his body at the store overnight, because when they arrived it was a crime scene and they knew he was dead. His cross behind Walmart reads simply, “David Johnson, hero.”

Kaitlyn started fifth grade last Monday, the same day as her grandfather’s funeral. The family scheduled his service for late in the evening so that the little girl he died saving, the one his finger had been wrapped around since the day she was born, could be there. She didn’t go back to school on Tuesday and hasn’t started talking yet about what she saw. But she does talk about the smell of gunpowder.

 

A friend of mine wrote a long magazine story for the first anniversary of the 2017 shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman killed 26 people during a church service. My friend spent three or four days there talking to people who were affected. There’s a moment, he said, when the reporter autopilot bubble pops and the emotions you came to report on overwhelm you: “It seeps in and spreads, and it’s very real.”

At the El Paso memorial, there was a pink stuffed monkey that clutched a handmade card that said, “God helps you when you are going through something sad,” in a child’s handwriting.

I must have looked sad, because a petite twentysomething woman, whose name, I learned, was Phoenix Vasquez, came up and asked if she could pray with me: “Lord God, oh, loving God, I pray that you will comfort Rachel and heal her heart. Take away her fear and give her confidence in the power of your grace. Even when she is afraid, she may put her trust in you.” I’m a nonreligious, lapsed Catholic. I didn’t deserve these people or this place. This is El Paso.

It’s one thing to read that it’s among the safest cities in America, one where things like this don’t happen. It’s another thing to see it lived out. Have you ever accidentally locked yourself out of your Airbnb at 1 a.m. two minutes away from the Juárez point of entry? I have. I didn’t have my phone. The next-door neighbors were asleep when I rang the doorbell. He answered in his pajamas, his wife behind him in her nightgown. They gave me water and aloe vera from a plant in their backyard for my sunburn, and they stayed with me until I got back inside an hour later.

It’s one thing to read that the people in El Paso are kind. It’s another to meet people like Manuel and Buster and Phoenix, whose acts of kindness toward strangers transcend explanation. They are El Paso.

I’ve had plenty of time to think about how to say this. Yet here I am, still struggling how to say it in a way that might make you understand. I won’t get there tonight, so I’ll leave it here. There is no other place in America like El Paso.

 

The things that make El Paso so special, its very fabric, are the same reasons El Paso was attacked from the outside. He didn’t just go anywhere, he went to the most stalwart border city in America — no, the most stalwart city in America, period. He went to a city with a Latino majority and an Anglo minority.

It’s the place where my childhood best friend, Amy, a towhead blonde, the only blond kid in El Paso, if you ask her, was born and raised until she moved to Dallas in middle school. At sleepovers, Amy told me about her family’s trips to Juárez and how magical both cities look at night. And how great El Paso was to them.

This, a majority-minority city where white people live equally but not dominantly, is a terrifying prospect for white supremacists everywhere. It terrified one of them so much he drove 10 hours to shoot 48 people at a Walmart because of their skin color.

But the future they fear, the shooter feared, is already here all over America. Here in El Paso — this border city that the border crossed over, deeply enmeshed with Ciudad Juárez on the other side — it is as old as the city itself.

It’s a living repudiation of everything the shooter stood for. It’s now a living guidepost of what the next chapter of America can be.

And it is beautiful.

Rachel Williams is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

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