By Michelle E. Carreon
A lot can change in one year. At the same time, lives can be forever altered in a matter of minutes. The August 3rd mass shooting lasted for less than fifteen minutes but ultimately resulted in the death of twenty-three people and left countless others wounded. Our community would be forever changed, and, as we heal, many of us continue to grapple with the serious implications of this racist attack.
Reflecting on the one-year anniversary, I realize that so much has transpired in twelve months—both in my community and my personal life. On August 3, 2020, I found myself feeling so alone, such a contrast from that day in 2019. Like many others, I’ve been coping with loss and uncertainty in this era of COVID-19. That evening, I visited Ponder Park and tied orange ribbons to the memorial. I, then, made the short walk to the scene of the shooting. I avoided that Walmart all year. I felt uneasy when it reopened just in time for Christmas shopping last year and found it strange to be walking in the parking lot where many had lost their lives. At the Grand Candela Memorial, I witnessed a group of young adults saying the rosary while another group nearby sat in a circle and honored the victims with music and prayer. I could smell the sweet scent of incense that reminded me of mass. Shortly after, I decided to drive to Ascarate Park to view the luminarias display. Unfortunately, the line was too long. I made it home in time to witness another memorial on our Franklin Mountains. That evening, the familiar star that is lit every night and reminds us we are home would go dark and flash twenty-three times in honor of the victims. I sat alone in my driveway in the dark and reflected on that day.
In August of 2019, I had been back home for six years. While born and raised in El Paso, I left our city in 2003 to attend college in the Midwest. I returned in 2013 to conduct research for my Ph.D., which I completed the previous year. In order to support myself during my studies, I worked at the El Paso Public Library. This is where I would be on that tragic day. It was while I was working at the circulation desk with a coworker that we learned about an active shooter near Cielo Vista Mall. Immediately, I contacted a loved one with the hope that she had not gone shopping that morning. As a public servant, we were not strangers to unsafe situations. Library staff face harassment and issues related to mental health more often than the public realizes. With rumors circulating that there was more than one shooter, we watched the front doors closely and tried to stay in informed of developments. Within an hour, the library shut down. We were sent home.
What would occur throughout the rest of the day were feelings of sadness and uncertainty, as well as misinformation and close calls. I received text messages from loved ones checking to make sure I was safe. One family member called me panicked, because I hadn’t responded. Everyone was on edge. Yet, what I remember most about that weekend was a sense of community. When I tried to donate blood on Sunday, staff were kindly turning people away. The local response was immense, and they were backlogged. As I left, a local food truck vendor was giving away snow cones. I accepted one to beat the heat. I spent that afternoon driving up and down the streets of our border town, viewing murals and thinking about all that makes this community unique. I echo the perspective of this series that highlights the limitations of #elpasostrong. While at the time these words were comforting, I support expanding the scope to #fronterafirme to include our sister city—Ciudad Juárez—and other parts of Mexico as we honor those Mexican nationals whom also lost their lives. By recognizing our binational connections, we honor la frontera and our region’s history and strengths.
I cannot reflect on August 3rd and the year since without acknowledging what this attack reveals about the history of our border and our current context. What occurred on that day was an act of hate and white supremacy. I recall watching the press conference where Governor Abbott, Mayor Margo, and others tried to blame mental health. This was a premeditated attack on our border community—not an act of insanity. Racism and violence against Mexicans has a long history in this region, which our city government all too often fails to acknowledge. I remember the anger I felt when I saw the shooter peacefully apprehended. I still see that image as the cases of police brutality against unarmed Black men and women in our country continue to rise. While I refuse to give the shooter much attention, I did read his manifesto. I read his accusations of a “Hispanic invasion” and xenophobic musings, as well as his eco-fascist comments about environmental degradation and sustainability. What he failed to understand is that our community holds the key to true social change. This change does not rest on racist violence and separation but on collective action, honoring our histories and culture, and shifting our mindsets to prioritize our community over profit. Change happens through love in action, and El Paso showed this when he attacked our community.
A lot can change in one year. As a community, we can protect and recuperate our local history and document our own stories while, ultimately, working together towards social and economic justice alike. This necessitates a paradigm shift and accountability for those who want to continue to sell our community to the highest bidder. Our community deserves better, but we must also remember that we possess the roots to create the change we want to see. Let’s begin that change now and see all that we can accomplish together in one year…and beyond.