Aug 27, 2019

Everbody's Store: The El Paso Walmart Shrine

Everybody’s Store:

   The El Paso Walmart Shrine

By Kent Paterson/The Digie Zone Network

Photos special to the Digie Zone Network

Thousands pay tribute to the Aug. 3 victim at the memorial site.
El PASO, TEXAS - They file past rainbow rows of flowers, protruding bright crosses, clumps of stuffed and cuddly animals, collections of fluttering flags, and posters of smiling faces with sparkling eyes that seemingly talk to the passerby. Mostly in silence and with somber expressions the people take in the scene, dozens at a time. 

Young, old and middle-aged. Brown, black, white and red, entire families partake in the viewing. Immigrant and non-immigrant alike, the people form a cross-section of El Paso society, mainly of Latino origin but representative of the other ethnicities that inhabit this borderland as well.

All have come to the community shrine that’s emerged on the high ground above the Walmart store where a youthful white gunman from a Dallas suburb arrived the morning of August 3 with the apparent intention of killing Mexicans. Before he was arrested, the killer snuffed out the lives of 22 people and wounded 25 others with an AK-47-style assault rifle.

Displaying stunned looks, an older couple from the west side of the city, Mr. and Mrs. Bhakta, were among the floating crowd early in the afternoon of the third Saturday after the massacre.

“I’m very sad. God bless everything for our family. I’m very sad, heard the news,” the woman said.

“El Paso is a very safe city. People are very kind and gentle. We never thought this would happen here,” added the man, who explained that he and his wife had lived in the Sun City for ten years. “God bless their souls.”

Below the milling crowd, in the sprawling Walmart parking lot, workers dumped what appeared to be metal shelving in a garbage dumpster. A security guard stationed next to the shrine prevented the public from getting a better look. Flanking the site, two El Paso Police Department units stood watch.

Adjacent to the Cielo Vista Mall popular with middle-class shoppers from northern Mexico, the store overlooks neighboring Juarez, the big industrial city and beltway of the U.S. manufacturing sector where many of Cielo Vista’s and Walmart’s clients live, just across truck-laden Interstate 10 that funnels the cross-border commerce and the wrinkled pools of the Rio Grande that delineate a sort of international boundary. For many years, Mexican customers have trekked to the Cielo Vista Walmart, pumping money into the local economy, supporting jobs and bolstering Texas state tax coffers.

From the high ground behind the still closed store, the large barren mountain on the outskirts of Juarez stands out with its iconic message painted in big white letters: “The Bible is the Truth. Read It.”

Victims. Photo/Robert Chessey
At first described as a “makeshift community memorial” by one local media outlet, the shrine for the Walmart victims stretches out for yards and yards along a fence above Walmart’s parking lot. It sits directly below a Hooter’s restaurant and a Cinemark movie theater, where the front entrance is fronted by a vehicle barricade. In August, the remake of “The Lion King” was among the productions showing at the movie house.

In both Spanish and English, painted, written and scrawled messages of love, grief, hope, resistance and outrage adorn the shrine.

“Wow, how sad!” blurts out a woman with children as she gazes at a poster of the 22. A sign with a world map simply proclaims, “Believe there is good in the world,” while a painting depicting two tennis shoes stamping out automatic rifles poses a question: “How many more will it take?” Yet another message in Spanish and translated to English vows: “Your racism will not destroy my home. El Paso strong.” In a nod to local history, a homemade wooden game of Mexican lottery features a depiction of El Paso between pictures of El Minero (The Miner) and El Valiente (The Brave One).

One cardboard sign is directed at the killer: “If you only got to know our people, our streets, our culture, then you would’ve seen how precious our city is. You chose hate without knowing us. Our love will follow you for eternity.”

Religion and politics are intertwined in another message:

“Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill)” or Amendment (2)The Right to Keep and Bear Arms).
“When God created this he meant it for all people and all generations. When our forefathers created this they did not intend this to include radical weapons of war.
Obeying one will help get you in Heaven.
Obeying the other will help get you into Hell.”
Translated from Spanish to English, another message says “I am going out…I am with God if I don’t return.”

"El Paso Strong" - the city's adopted slogan after the attack.

Photos of the 22 murder victims are sprinkled throughout the shrine. According to lists released by the City of El Paso and assorted media outlets, their names and ages include: 

Andre Anchondo, 23; Jordan Anchondo, 24; Arturo Benavidez, 60; Leo Campos, 41: Maria Flores, 77;

Raul Flores, 77; Jorge Calvillo, 61; Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, 68; Alexander Hoffman, 66; David Johnson, 63; Luis Juarez, 90; Maria Eugenia Legaretta; 58; Elsa Mendoza, 57; Maribel Loya, 56;

Ivan Manzano, 46; Gloria Marquez, 61; Margie Reckard, 63; Sarah Regalado Moriel, 66; Javier Rodriguez, 15; Teresa Sanchez, 82; Angelina Silva-Elisbee, 86; Juan Velazquez, 77. 

Of the victims, 13 were U.S. citizens, 8 Mexican, and one German.

The Anchondo couple was reportedly cut down while reportedly trying to shield their 2-month old son from the butcher’s bullets; the baby survived, together with two siblings who were not at the store. Who will explain to him, and at what age, why he doesn’t have parents?

Rita Davis and her 6-year old son, curly-haired Jacob Davis, said the August 3 assassin did his dirty work “because we are brown.”

Facing a stark and hard decision in the shooting’s aftermath, the El Paso mother was forced to lay out the uglier realities of life to her son. Mother and son have been to the shrine so far twice. The boy, whose demeanor exudes an age far beyond his tender years, has developed an affinity for the victims, confiding to mom that he misses the 22 even though he didn’t know the individuals personally. “I feel real sad,” he said.

Jacob’s newfound sense of compassion is something his mom said she wants to keep going.

Davis, who works near the Walmart and used to frequent the store for last-minute items before dropping her son off at school, said that she found out about the slaughter first on Facebook and then via a mass text that was sent by authorities the fateful morning of August 3.

She said her ex works at the store but wasn’t on shift the morning of the massacre.

“I think El Paso has been kind of a gem in the desert for a long time and we haven’t experienced this kind of level of violence,” Davis said, articulating a common sentiment in this border city. “It scares me as a parent because this is the environment my son is growing up’s senseless.”

The El Paso native detailed how August 3 has changed the lives of her family and loved ones. She’s talked to Jacob about respecting all people but also maintaining an alertness of his surroundings.

Items at the memorial site. Photo/Robert Chessey
Concretely, she’s mapped out a store evacuation plan and along with relatives enacted other changes in their routine behavior. “We’ve even stopped wearing sandals and the flip-flops when we’d go the store,”  she remarked, just in case an unexpected and rapid exit becomes necessary.

The massacre compelled a mother to examine things she previously had “zero interest” in, including obtaining a concealed handgun permit and signing up for an active shooter class, which Davis said had no room for additional students at the moment. Admitting she was terrified of guns and doesn’t even like fireworks, Davis nevertheless stressed, “As a mother I need to protect my child at all times.”

A tall woman with a proud poise, Davis could be the perfect spokesperson for El Paso: “We are scared but we’re not gonna let this overcome us as a community...I think it’s been great how the community has come together and support each other ... we have good people here.”
In El Paso these days, “strong” is the word of the year. The slogan “El Paso Strong” is visible on T-shirts, on business billboards, on Sun Metro buses, in murals, and even across the fenced off border line on the streets of sister city Juarez, Mexico.

“Solidarity” is a close second for the choice word, illustrated in part by the $5 million dollars raised to date for the victims and their families. Local media outlet KVIA reported on an August 25 joint fundraising effort “Tattoos for El Paso” organized by 11 shops in El Paso, Austin and New Mexico cities Las Cruces and Albuquerque.

At the shrine, words of love and support abound. Among them are messages from employees of various Walmart and Sam’s stores, the workers of Urgent Care Hospice Inc., people from Northwest Florida and Southwest Alabama, California high schoolers, San Diego church-goers, the Fronterizos motorcycle club of Tijuana, the League of United Latin American Citizens, State Tejano Democrats, the crew of, and the Vaqueros team of Sierra Blanca, Texas.

One message reads “Margie, Happy Birthday,” an apparent reference to victim Margie Reckard, who would have celebrated her 64th birthday on August 21. After local news media reported that Reckard’s husband was without family and confronted burying his wife alone, his invitation was answered by hundreds and hundreds of “strangers” who showed up to accompany the man for the final parting with his wife. 

“That’s El Paso. I think it’s something real sad. The unity, that everyone came together in the community. The innocence of those whose lives were taken, and the families who have to live it,” commented Ana Arciniega on the multi-dimensional nature of August 3, pausing from a walk up and down the shrine. “It’s still a state of shock.”

But Arciniega was impressed by both the official emergency response and the community outpouring of love. “I think it’s a great support system...even if it’s just bringing flowers and the messages,” she said. “We should be able to reach out a hand with our neighbors.”
Originally from Chicago but counting 20 years in El Chuco ( a nickname for the city), Arciniega called living in the city where she’s raised her children a “blessing.”

The behavioral health worker said that she had been on her way to shop at the Cielo Vista Walmart the morning of August 3 when an urgent call from her daughter warned mom to turn back.

Like Rita Davis, Arciniega also has since engaged in serious talks with her school age children, a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old, advising them to be aware of their surroundings.

According to Ariciniega, the school district her children attend has notified her that the issues pertaining to August 3 will be brought up at upcoming parent meetings. The beginning of El Paso’s 2019-2020 school year has been unlike any other in recent local memory.

Changes are in the wind at work too, Arciniega added, with previous active shooter plans now elevated to a higher level of importance, a “Code Silver.”

Asked about Walmart’s recent statement that the company would reopen the Cielo Vista store within a few months, Arciniega was in agreement but suggested that a section of the store property be set aside for a park and a memorial dedicated to the victims.

“I think it should continue. It was everybody’s store,” she opined.

Feet away from where Arciniega stood, 22 sculpted butterflies topped individual pedestals. “They tried to bury us but, they didn’t know we were seeds,” read the accompanying words. Only time will tell what seeds the butterflies bore.

People bring mementos like these to the memorial.
In El Paso the number 22 now has a meaning connected to an act of violence, similar to the number 43 in Mexico, which after 2014 is synonymous with the forcibly disappeared students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, whose fate is still unclarified. Will a certain date here, August 3, remain forever etched in the memories of Paseños, like the dates of December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day), November 22 (JFK assassination) and September 11 were wired into the collective, generational memories of a nation and marked historical befores and afters?

Where were you when...?

As a hot and breezy Saturday afternoon picked up in the Sun City, as El Paso is also known, people continued to descend on the shrine, as if in an endless pilgrimage. A woman with sniffles and tears was consoled by another woman. Two older women departed the shrine holding hands, closely followed by a younger couple, a man and a woman, doing the same. 

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Kent Paterson, an author-journalist based in New Mexico, is a frequent contributor to the Digie Zone Network.

Aug 4, 2019

Racist terrorism suspected in El Paso, Texas massacre

Racist terrorism suspected in El Paso, Texas massacre

 Albuquerque steps up security

Kent Paterson/The Digie Zone Network

Media and supporters gather Aug. 4 at the site. [DZN]
On a recent visit to El Paso, Texas, a couple I met vented about violence and criminality in neighboring New Mexico. From both personal experience and the broadcasts of El Paso television stations, which have correspondents in Las Cruces that routinely inform El Paso viewers of the latest atrocities in the Land of Enchantment, the woman and man were well-versed about New Mexico’s high homicide rates and other criminal indices. I really could not argue with them.

In recent years the Albuquerque metro area, which has more or less the same population as El Paso County, has been a far more violent place than its Texan counterpart on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Indeed, the Sun City - El Paso's nickname - has consistently ranked as among the safest places to live in the United States, despite wrong-headed notions propagated of El Paso as a dangerous place under siege by the drug-fueled violence of neighboring Juarez, Mexico.

But on August 3, 2019, El Paso endured its own day of terror, grief and panic. And it was a violence that came from outside the city, from another part of Texas.

While all the details are still not known, the basic story is that a 21-year-old white man from a Dallas suburb with an AK-47 rifle (captured on video) entered a Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall on the near east side of El Paso Saturday morning and began shooting. At least 20 people were killed and 26 injured, Texas Governor Greg Abbott was quoted as saying in local media. The names, ages and gender of the victims were not immediately disclosed, pending notification of relatives.

Plush toy and candle. [DZN]
The suspected shooter was arrested, reportedly surrendering to police outside the Walmart store.

Cielo Vista Mall and its adjacent shopping corridor are important destinations for customers from Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City who can spend hours in line waiting to pass U.S. customs in the hope of finding bargains for items that cost more on the Mexican side of the border. By Saturday evening, senior Mexican officials said three of the slain victims and six of the injured were Mexican citizens.

“This is a problem of (social) disintegration, of the problems that certain people have, not a generalized issue,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said. “We send our condolences to the families of the victims, and our solidarity and support to the U.S. people and to the U.S. government. We are going to give all our attention to our citizens. That’s the instructions we’ve given to the Secretariat of Foreign Relations and the (Mexican) consul in El Paso, Texas.”

Besides turning a Saturday morning afternoon shopping spree into a blood-soaked nightmare for those inside Walmart, the horrendous shooting turned life in El Paso upside down. Cielo Vista and Bassett malls were both evacuated, as was another Walmart miles away on the west side of the city. The same was reported for all El Paso Community College campuses. 

Residents create impromptu memorial at the site. [DZN]
Police were posted at the Sunland Park Mall bordering New Mexico. Activities scheduled for the Ysleta, Socorro and Clint school districts, two concerts, and the Duranguito Market were all canceled.

The slaughter in El Paso had immediate repercussions a few hours up Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, where back to school shoppers enjoyed a tax free holiday and residents geared up for the outdoor Summerfest in the city’s downtown district Saturday evening.

In a joint statement, Mayor Tim Keller and Albuquerque Police Department Chief Mike Geier announced that “officers will boost their presence” at shopping malls, department stores like Walmart and Summerfest as a response to the “tragic shooting; in El Paso.

“We want to reassure the public – Albuquerque residents and neighbors from throughout the state – who are taking advantage of the tax-free holiday to shop for back-to-school items,” Mayor Keller said. “We also want everyone to feel safe and enjoy Summerfest. Nobody should have to worry about becoming victims of senseless gun violence.”

According to breaking news accounts, the suspect in the El Paso massacre was said to have possessed a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto. Quoted in the El Paso Times, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said the manifesto “indicates a possible hate crime.”

In Juarez, Mexico, dozens of people gathered Saturday evening for a candlelight vigil on one of the city’s principal streets. According to El Diario de Juarez, signs at the event read “No More Arms.”

“We want to show our solidarity with our sister city of El Paso,” said Idhali Lopez, member of the Juarez Executive Rotary Club. “We all cross over there once in a while . We all have family over there. There are people who study there and people who work over there.

"We have to show peace and love, and this is our little contribution.”

Kent Paterson, an author and journalist based in New Mexico, is a frequent contributor to the Digie Zone Network.