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One Year After Mass Shooting, El Paso Residents Grapple With White Supremacy: ‘It Was There the Whole Time’

11 minute read

Shots rang out while Guillermo Glenn was looking for dog food in the back aisles of a Walmart Supercenter in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3, 2019. People started running, and they were covered in blood. There was a woman calling out for her child, bleeding from her legs after what looked like shrapnel had pierced them. Glenn ran to the pharmacy section of the store to find some bandages for her. He and a group of bystanders lifted the woman up into a shopping cart to wheel her out the front of the store when it became clear that paramedics were tied up at what had now become an active crime scene. He passed lifeless bodies and others crying for help.

It wasn’t until Glenn arrived at a restaurant shortly after the shooting that he learned of a hate-filled manifesto spreading across the Internet, allegedly written by the shooter, Patrick Crusius. In Glenn’s 79 years, he’s been witness to other forms of violence, between his decades spent as a civil rights activist and cartel violence in Ciudad Juárez across the border from El Paso. “Savagery on the border kind of dulls you somewhat,” he tells TIME. “But I think the manifesto woke me up.”

Crusius’s goal was to kill Mexicans, according to El Paso police. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” his manifesto reads, ignoring centuries of Texas history. He killed 22 people on Aug. 3, a 23rd victim died months later in April from the wounds he received.

El Paso County’s population is estimated to be about 83% Latino, which provided a sense of security for many. It’s not uncommon for Latino El Pasoans to feel the safety in numbers, and many don’t experience overt racism until they leave the city. For some El Pasoans, the shooting burst a bubble that was already on the verge of exploding after the city became a focal point for the Trump Administration’s experimental immigration policies, including border wall construction and family separation.

The shooting, however, brought white supremacy to El Paso’s doorstep, forcing the city to confront anti-Latino racism and white supremacy that has always existed in the U.S., even hidden racist history in the city itself. Still reeling from the Aug. 3 shooting, hundreds have participated in current national anti-racist protests, questioning the city’s relationship with local police and calling for greater accountability. They’ve also begun to call out the racial demographics of city leaders—the city has only ever had three Mexican American mayors in its history, for example.

Abel Valenzuela meditates in front of the makeshift memorial for shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 8, 2019.Paul Ratje—AFP via Getty Images

In the days after the shooting small groups of protesters would show up to the makeshift memorial outside of the Walmart where the massacre took place, calling for stricter gun control measures. Many more hundreds showed up to protest a visit from President Donald Trump on Aug. 7, gathering in the heat at Washington Square Park to denounce what they said was racist rhetoric that enabled the shooter. Trump’s visit, however was welcomed by some, including the family of Andre and Jordan Anchondo, who died in the shooting, the Texas Governor, El Paso Mayor and other El Paso officials.

“After the shooting the official response was to grieve,” Kiko Rodriguez Glenn, Guillermo Glenn’s son, tells TIME. “People tried to protest, but it was suppressed. It was encouraged to not shake things up. Now things are different, things have boiled over nationally.”

Rodriguez Glenn was on the road driving to northern New Mexico when the shooting happened. He says he was filled with anger and shock when he learned that his father was at the Walmart. In the year that has passed, he’s also reflected on the fact that his father was “a freedom fighter, part of that fighting generation that John Lewis is from.”

“Some people never saw before how racism can be violent, that police can be violent, even though we’ve already had these testimonies from that generation,” Rodriguez Glenn says. “To see him have to go through it all over again in his golden years when he’s been relatively at peace—I can’t imagine what it was like for him to feel all of that all over again. And now we feel it in our blood.”

Dennis Bixler-Marquez, director of the Chicano Studies program at the University of Texas at El Paso says he noticed that many of his students had changed when they returned to classes later that fall. It was evident in the students who had never left the comfort of a city where Latinos are not a minority, he says. “You see in essence their innocence being effected because now [racist violence] is not just something they read about,” Bixler-Marquez tells TIME. “Now there’s a realization that it can happen anywhere.”

Historically, El Paso’s location on the border with Mexico has consistently positioned it as a pawn in national partisan politics. For those living there, Border Patrol sitings in SUVs and helicopters can become as frequent as the gorgeous pink and orange sunsets that backdrop the Franklin Mountains. Residents can easily become desensitized to the construction of the border barrier, which began with a fence that went up during the George W. Bush Administration. In the months before the shooting took place, a militia had begun construction of a private border wall and the Trump Administration had begun threatening to shut down the El Paso-Juárez border if Mexico did not begin to stem the flow of asylum seekers heading to the U.S. Before that, the Administration used El Paso as a testing site for family separation, launching a “pilot program” there in 2017.

“It doesn’t occur to you that there’s a war going on, and there’s always been a war going on—the helicopters the barbed wire—but you just kind of didn’t see it,” says David Dorado Romo, a Borderland and El Paso historian who lost his childhood friend, Arturo Benavides, in the Aug. 3 shooting.

“There’s that story about the fish that leaves the ocean and goes to land and then comes back and the other fish ask this traveling fish, ‘what did you learn, what was the most important lesson that you learned?’ And the fish said, ‘that we live in water,’ and everybody says ‘what’s water?'” Romo says with a laugh. For many El Pasoans the shooting brought with it a sudden realization of white supremacy, despite the fact that it is not the only example of violence against Latinos on the border.

Contract Mexican laborers being fumigated with the pesticide DDT in Hidalgo, Texas in 1956.Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Romo has dedicated his career to teaching the Borderland community about the often racist and violent history of El Paso’s transformation. He’s helped bring attention to the 1917 Bath Riots that took place after a woman became fed up with the government’s daily delousing of Mexican border-crossers with hazardous chemicals. He’s also written about violence against people of Mexican descent at the hands of the Texas Rangers, and he’s currently writing a book about the Ku Klux Klan’s influence on the city and its education system—all examples of historic racial violence against Latinos that is left out of average curriculums.

“White supremacy is something that we’ve had to deal with for decades,” Romo says, and for that reason, he adds, it was painful to watch leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo blame the shooting on mental illness and say that it was an “outsider” attack on the city.

“It was just another way of white-washing,” he says, “but this was a white crime against people of color.”

A few days after the shooting Rodriguez Glenn, a traveling musician, returned to El Paso after being on the road for gigs. “People were in shock for sure,” he says. “I think people were different. People were on edge, not wanting to go out, not wanting to be in crowded spaces…That feeling didn’t die down for a while.”

In the year since the shooting, the city has seen an outpouring of national and international support, millions of dollars in donations and benefits and even an uptick in people getting El Paso-related tattoos in remembrance. But the city hasn’t been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Latinos and Black people across the country, and hundreds of El Pasoans have participated in national anti-racist protests, calling for a defunding of law enforcement.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, El Paso has seen more than 14,700 cases, and more than 270 deaths. As cases of the virus continue to rise in Texas, Latino populations and border counties have been disproportionately impacted. The immigrant detention center in the El Paso has also seen more than 160 cases of COVID-19, according to data by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

After the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of El Pasoans joined the national movement against police brutality and institutionalized racism. The protest movement has sparked some debate about defunding the El Paso Police Department and ignited calls for the resignation of El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen for the 2015 police-killing of a mentally ill 22 year old Latino who was unarmed and at home. The protests mirror years-long calls to defund and abolish ICE, and hold Customs and Border Patrol agents accountable for the fatal shootings of Mexican boys.

America Protests Texas
People protest outside the El Paso Police Department headquarters in El Paso, Texas on May, 31, 2020.Mark Lambie—The El Paso Times via AP

“The silver lining in all this—if you can call it that—of the shooting and of state-sanctioned brutality against people of color, is that now with the anti-racist movement it’s all out in the open,” Romo says. “As academic historians we knew it, it’s just only now are people accepting that the brutality is as dark and as extensive as we’ve been pointing it out.”

Romo was in Iceland on Aug. 3, 2019 speaking with a waiter who was half Mexican and half Icelandic when his phone started ringing and information about the shooting started coming in. “I mean I’ve studied Nazi Germany, all these para-military movements, the Ku Klux Klan, but now all of a sudden this was real,” he says. “This wasn’t 100 years ago…it just hit me. Man, it hit me.”

Rodriguez Glenn says he blames national rhetoric, local and state politicians and President Donald Trump for the Aug. 3 shooting. “[Racism] has a long tradition but it was all kind of unseen because, at [83%] Latino, it’s hard to see,” he says. “But it was there the whole time…Now there’s no excuse to hold back, to pretend, or to not see what’s there in front of us.”

“I do think it was a lot of negligence from our leaders that lead to the shooting, and I have not forgiven that. I’m not ready to forgive that.” Rodriguez Glenn adds. “All of a sudden by 79-year-old father is under attack while he’s buying dog food. It was a direct attack on my family…There is a raw emotion, a raw anger always, but I’ve learned from my family and from the Mexican community in particular that you have to move forward and let go. We don’t wish violence or harm on anyone.”

Restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic mean that many events to honor those who died on Aug. 3 will be taking place virtually throughout Monday, some of which will also address how to confront racism.

For Glenn (Sr.) and Romo, coping for the past year has meant diving further into work. Glenn has dedicated himself to dismantling institutionalized racism by bettering the education system in El Paso’s barrio, the poorest region of the city and home to mostly immigrants.

“Of course we think about race, but so many of us just have to survive,” Glenn says. “That needing to survive is also a trap, it keeps you from speaking up. That’s also institutionalized racism.”

For that reason, Glenn doesn’t like to say “El Paso Strong,” a term coined after the shooting that was plastered onto t-shirts, stickers, bracelets and painted on murals. Instead, he says “El Paso Firme.”

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com