Today, on the anniversary of the El Paso massacre, in which 23 Hispanic people were murdered at a Walmart, the world is living in the pandemic of Covid-19, we must not forget the other pandemic of racism.
When I was seven years old, my father drove me across south Texas from Dallas to El Paso. My mother was waiting for us at my grandparents’ home and I was trilled to have this special time with “Big Dave”.
On our second day around noon, we stopped at a roadside diner in the desert. Before we went in my father said to me: “When we go into this diner we have to sit at the counter and not in one of the booths. Do you know why?”
“No” I said.
“Because we are Mexicans and some of these places won’t let us in. If we get in without a problem,” he continued, “we sit at the counter so we can see them make the food we order. Do you know why?” he asked, teaching me.
“Because sometimes they will put sharp pieces of glass in the food to cut our mouths and drive us away.”
We went in, sat at the counter, and ordered. I nudged as close to my father as I could without slipping off the stool. We watched every move the gringa waitress made preparing the ham sandwiches and soup. I remember feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck when she placed the food before us. My father stealthily looked inside the sandwiches before signaling we could eat.
Behind the counter was a green sign that I was to see many times in Texas. “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Halfway through the lunch I looked down the counter and saw another sign on the side wall. It had the outline of a gun above the words “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”
Years later, another man drove 10 hours through the night on the same road, now a four-lane highway heading into El Paso. He was on a mission, not to put glass in the mouths of Mexicans, but to fire bullets into their bodies and drive them from the country. On arriving in El Paso, he went to the Cielo Vista shopping center a few miles from my 95 year old mother’s longtime home. Inside the huge Walmart store, over 1000 people, the majority Mexican Americans, were shopping. Some for back to school supplies.
The killer first entered the store to investigate the crowd. He returned to his vehicle to put on protective earmuffs and safety glasses, and grabbed his high-powered assault-style rifle. Outside in the front of the store a youth girls soccer fund raiser was underway in the morning light. Young girls with family members had gathered to greet passersby, serve chicharrones and cold drinks, and ask for support.
Seeing that many in the group were Hispanics, the shooter opened fire. Jorge Calvillo García, a 61-year-old Mexican national, was one of the first to be killed. Jorge had come across the border from Juarez earlier that morning to visit his son’s El Paso family and support his granddaughter Emily. He threw himself in front of the girls at the attack and was cut down.
Juan de Dios Velázquez Chairez, a pastor from Juarez, was also killed in the parking lot. Screams and moans filled the air. Cries of ‘Shooter,” “Tiros,” and “Vámanos” went up as people crouched down, hid, and ran.
The killer can be seen pick off Mexicans in his range of vision as he entered the store through security footage.
“He shot at us individually, trying to get us individually,” said Maribel Latin from her hospital bed. “Then he came walking toward us to make sure we all got shot again and killed. All I could say was ‘God, please take care of my children and please don’t let him do anything to my daughter.’”
David Johnson, one of the two non-Hispanics killed in the attack, stepped in front of his wife and nine-year-old daughter as the shooter fired from a few feet away. Arturo Benavidez, a 59-year-old army veteran and bus driver for Sun Metro in El Paso, was at the self-checkout line while his wife Patricia was in the rest room. She made it safely out of the store later, but the killer shot Arturo to death at the front of the store. He killed 86-year-old Angie Silva Englisbee, mother of six and grandmother of 21, also in the checkout line.
The attacker then turned toward other panicked and confused shoppers and killed 15-year-old Javier Rodriguez, Adolfo Cerros Hernández, Sara Ester Regalado Moriel, Gloria Irma Márquez and Maria Eugenia Legarreta Rothe, who was on her way to pick up her daughter at the airport before she stopped at the Walmart to make some purchases.
The gunman shot anyone who looked Hispanic, regardless of age. Seventeen were 56 or older, two were in their 40s, two in their 20s and one was 15. A mother, Jordan Anchondo, 25, was murdered as she shielded her 2-month-old son from the gunfire. Her 23-year-old husband Andre was shot to death when he tried to shield them.
One witness said that the killer avoided Blacks and Whites, and while that may be true, at least one African American, Chris Grant, was terribly wounded. Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, a German national living in Juarez, was among the slaughtered. The assassin, stone-faced, later told police his intention was to kill “as many Mexicans as possible.”
Before the attack, the killer had uploaded his manifesto, “An Inconvenient Truth”, onto the 8chan message board known to be favored by white supremacists. In it he railed against “race mixers,” claiming that the United States should be split into territories based on race. “I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Four months earlier, the white supremacist Christchurch shooter had invaded two mosques in New Zealand, killing 51 people because “white people were being replaced by foreigners.”
The killing action on August 3 stretched out for months as one victim, Guillermo Gómez, died eight months later on April 26, 2020. What mattered the most to the killer was their ethnicity. The news reports said that among the dead were thirteen Americans, eight Mexicans and one German.
But when we read and say the names, we realize that twelve of the thirteen “Americans” were Mexican Americans and that is why they were killed. While this attack extends the centuries long brutal history of Anglo violence against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, as well as the Trump era public attacks on these same peoples, my purpose in telling this story one year on from this atrocity is to invite readers to say the names. Speak out loud the Mexican names.
In our time, when the names of African American victims of police violence have powerfully raised our national consciousness about racism and hatred toward people of color, take heed of the names, Mexican and otherwise, of the people in the El Paso attack.
This past Christmas, I visited the Cielo Vista Walmart to see the “Grand Candela”, the 30-foot tall golden obelisk monument which honors the people killed in this attack, located on the same highway that my father and I used to travel into El Paso many years ago.
I was disappointed that there was no plaque that listed the names of those killed. After talking with the Mexican American guard, who spoke of his admiration for my father’s El Paso work with Mexican American poverty from yeas ago, I stood in silence for a few moments. I pulled out the list of names from my pocket and whispered them to myself.
Besides the ones listed above were Ivan Manzano, Raul Flores, Teresa Sanchez, Luis Alfonzo Juarez, Leonardo Campos Jr, Elsa Libera Márquez, Maribel Campos, María Flores, Margaret Reckard. As I said the names, a pain slowly arose in my tongue, as though one of those sharp pieces of glass my father warned me about so many years ago had somehow lodged itself in my mouth to drive me into silence. I took the pain, continuing to say the Mexican names.
David Carrasco is the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor for the Study of Latin America at Harvard with a joint appointment with the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of Anthropology. He writes frequently for ReVista. A version of this story was originally published on the Harvard Divinity School website.
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