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‘The Ellis Island Of The Southwest’: El Paso Residents Remain Proud Of Immigrant Ties

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A memorial outside of the Walmart where a mass shooting took place in El Paso.

El Paso is a border town with a predominantly Hispanic population and a culture linked to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And now the community feels like it is being targeted because of that.

Residents are still reeling from a mass shooting that left 22 dead.

The area is a patchwork of communities hugged by rugged mountains and the sprawling Chihuhuan desert. Its name is a nod to a history of migration; El Paso is Spanish for “the pass.” 

José Rodriguez is a Democratic state lawmaker, who represents this deep blue district. He estimates the region’s population at nearly 3 million — counting both El Paso and its sister city across the Rio Grande, Ciudad Juarez. 

“We've always been welcoming of immigrants, we're supposed to be the Ellis Island of the Southwest,” he said. “Here you have U.S. citizens that live in Juarez. You have Juarenses that live in El Paso. You have families that go back and forth and I think what America needs to understand is that this has been going on for over 400 years.”

Today El Paso is nearly 80% Hispanic, and authorities say that might have drawn the alleged shooter to the city. The 21-year-old suspect is believed to have written a 2,300-word manifesto warning of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” 

Rodriguez said he’s seen this kind of hatred before. 

“There is a culture of violence that's grown here in this country for a number of years that predates Trump but that which has accelerated, including here in Texas,” he said.

But not in El Paso, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. The number left dead in Saturday’s shooting almost eclipsed the total number of homicides last year.

At a small park — a short 10-minute walk from the Walmart where the mass shooting took place —  Beverely Flores sits on a park bench and remembers what it was like growing up here.

Now 63 years old, Flores comes to this park almost every day with her husband and their dog Bella. Normally, she says it’s packed with families, kids running through grassy fields playing soccer and football — but not on Sunday. 

“Usually there’s more dogs, usually there’s more people,” she said. “It’s weird today.”

Her husband Albert, who is 78, said this isn’t the El Paso he knows.

“When I first heard about it (the shooting) we were home and things like that don’t happen here. At all — ever,” he said.

Albert is fighting to stay in El Paso as he gets older. He said his kids want him and their mom to move away closer to them, but he doesn't want to.

"I enjoy living here, I love my home, I love my neighbors — they’re great,” he said.

Over the last few days, outside the Walmart, a makeshift memorial has steadily grown — with people bringing flowers, leaving notes or trinkets — like 42-year-old Danny Flores.

"You never imagine ever that it would happen in your own backyard. That's my high school I graduated from right there. My parents live just a mile down that way,” Flores said. “These are these are our stomping grounds right here.”

Flores brought his 3-year-old daughter who added her stuffed bunny to the memorial. 

“We told her that we were gonna go and give one of her stuffed animals for people that got a coco. Some people got a really bad coco, huh baby?” he asked his daughter.

Coco is Spanish slang for “little bump.”

As the city mourns, more vigils are planned. Funerals are expected to begin soon, including some in Mexico. And many of the wounded, more than two dozen people, are still in the hospital.

At the memorial outside the Walmart, resident Alberto Ortega said El Paso is going to change a little now. He said people, at least for a while, will feel a sort of dread and nervousness whenever they’re out in public. 

He hopes that feeling passes soon and that El Paso can return to the quiet, close-knit border town he calls home.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.