My parents moved to El Paso more than 20 years ago, after living in Ciudad Juárez for most of their lives. It’s the place where they watched their daughters outgrow Barbie Dolls and pursue careers, and where they hope to retire someday.
“It’s a quiet city where we respect each other,” my mom Lily said, when I asked her to describe her adopted home. “We are a very friendly and very affectionate city.”
Growing up, my parents taught my older sisters and me to appreciate the uniqueness of our border city. I always assumed they meant the beautiful orange and pink skies at sunset, or the city’s majestic mountains.
Now I understand they also meant its richness as a place where two countries and cultures blend into one.
“El Paso is a city of many languages, of different races,” my dad Jose said. “Where we can all sit at the same restaurant and enjoy each other’s company.”
“El Paso, in its name, is the pass between two cities,” my sister Maleny added. “It’s living with two cultures. It’s living with two worlds.”
My dad has worked as a truck driver for more than 25 years. He used to tell us about the racism he experienced when he traveled outside of El Paso: the stares he received, the remarks he heard.
But my sisters and I didn’t experience that kind of discrimination here, where more than 80% of the population is Hispanic, and thought we never would.
That changed on August 3 of last year, when a 21-year-old white man allegedly drove more than ten hours from North Texas to El Paso, with the intention of targeting Mexicans.
He killed 23 people at a Walmart my family from both sides of the border has been to dozens of times. It’s a popular store, known as the go-to Walmart for people crossing over from Juárez to shop.
“I think everyone’s first instinct is to believe that it’s a hoax, that it’s not actually happening,” Maleny said. “But it quite fast became a real hard-hitting reality.”
My sister Arely was 600 miles away in Denver, where she studies molecular biology. She worried that our parents or grandparents could easily be at the Walmart.
“My first thought was, ‘I need to call my family,’” she said. “It was surreal. It was a very sad thing to watch and not be able to be there for your community and your loved ones.”
As the news came in, we started to realize that this was an act of hate targeting our community. To this day, my family and I have not read the alleged gunman’s manifesto — not because we’re afraid of what it might say but because we know better than to spend time reading nonsense.
Instead, we mourned the victims, recognizing that this tragic event driven by racism had finally burst El Paso’s bubble.
“In El Paso you’re around your own people,” Arely said. “There’s no such thing as hating Mexicans, because we all grew up with the same culture.”
My dad has a different view, and says El Paso isn’t exempt from racism. When he moved here from Juárez, he quickly realized the role language plays in how you’re perceived, and he heard the comments that would follow for not mastering English.
But while he said racism does exist in El Paso, “it is not noticeable, it is not seen.” Even he did not think this type of violence would reach his adopted home.
August 3rd made us all realize that El Paso is not immune, and that we can be targeted just for who we are. We no longer feel as safe.
“It’s inevitable to go out to the stores and think that perhaps behind you is a person with bad intentions,” said my mom.
She also feels more on edge at work, as the vice principal of a preschool right next to the border wall.
“As an educator, I think schools are susceptible places for these kinds of things to happen,” she said. “I feel vulnerable being there and in great fear that something could happen to our children.”
Like my mom, the rest of us are now more aware of our surroundings, as we enter stores or find ourselves in large crowds.
El Paso has also changed. You find increased security outside of Walmarts, and remember the victims of the attack every time you drive by the 30-foot-tall candela built in their honor. You see El Paso Strong written on every other billboard across town.
You also feel the strength and unity a city has found through loss, and a deeper sense of pride in who we are.
“I think some of us have this sense of responsibility to export our values and let everybody know what El Paso is like,” Maleny said.
“I think that we’ve all come together and realized how strong and what an example our community is to what the future can hold and what a community with immigrants coexisting can look like.”
El Pasoans are not immune to suffering. Many of us suffer every day when we see our brothers and sisters being mistreated for coming to the U.S. in search of a better life. We also suffer when we leave the city and hold our breath, hoping we don’t encounter any racist remarks. But I don’t think we have ever experienced the pain that came and continues to come with the memory of August 3.
In a way, I hope my community never fully heals. I hope we stay angry, and use that anger and pain to demand change. We’re not immune to what happens in the rest of the world, and we can never go back to that bubble.
Anahy Diaz is a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso and produced this story as part of UTEP’s Audio Journalism and Podcasting research course.