One year later, El Paso reflects on the hate behind Walmart shooting

Photo : Joey Palacios

Roberto Jurado hid with his 88-year-old mother between toy machines at the entrance of the Cielo Vista Walmart. 

Lying in broken glass, he listened as the sound of gunshots grew closer. Then the man with the AK-47 was only 10 feet away. 

“That day, I believe I stared death in the eyes,” Jurado, 53, said.

But the shooter left after his attention was drawn to a moving vehicle outside the store, and Jurado and his mother survived.

Jurado spent the next few hours helping victims in the Aug. 3 mass shooting and giving statements to police. Later that evening, he sat down, popped open a beer and flipped on the news: The gunman had allegedly driven more than 600 miles across the state from North Texas to target Hispanics in the border community. 

The fear and adrenaline he felt throughout the day turned to anger. He’d been a target of the deadliest attack against Latinos in recent U.S. history.  

“I think we all were, because of the color of our skin,” Jurado said. 

Twenty-three people were killed in the shooting. The man charged in the attack allegedly wrote a 2,356-word white supremacist rant before the shooting and posted it to the online message board8chan, which carries a reputation for being a breeding ground for white supremacy. 

The now 22-year-old from Allen, Texas, decried an “invasion” by immigrants to the United States in the post. He cited a 2011 French book by Renaud Camus called “The Great Replacement,” which promoted a conspiracy theory that the “white race” was being replaced by nonwhite, or non-European, people.

Those sort of racist ideas can emerge from changing demographics in a country where Hispanics accounted for more than half the nation’s population growth from 2010 to 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

“When you have a few people of color, the community is not seen so much as a threat,” said Maria Cristina Morales, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But the more that the population grows – the population of Latinos grow for instance – the more fear that there’s going to be a loss of power.” 

El Paso congresswoman worried this day would come

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, was holding a town hall in her hometown the day of the shooting. The freshman congresswoman, less than a year into her first term, had just responded to a question about conditions for migrants at the southern border when the microphone was removed from her hand. After a few moments, Escobar announced there was an active shooter at Walmart. 

In the days that followed, President Donald Trump visited El Paso. The trip was met with criticism by many in El Paso, including political leaders who told him to stay away. Some victims and their families refused to meet with the president. 

Trump has called immigrants “animals” and “rapists.” He once chuckled when an audience member at a Florida rally suggested shooting migrants. 

A year later, Escobar admits an attack against Hispanics like the one experienced in her hometown was something she’d long feared. 

“I had been worried for some time that something really awful was going to happen,” Escobar said. “I had felt unsettled between the really horrific language used by the president to describe immigrants, to the inhumane treatment of them.” 

Asked about the criticism of the president’s language, a representative of the campaign said, “Democrats using a tragedy to score political points is beyond disgusting.” 

“Our hearts go out to the victims who are being used by political opportunist,” said Trump Victory spokeswoman Samantha Cotten. “This day is a day for reflection and healing.” 

El Paso has been described as thetesting groundfor many of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including the widely condemned separation of families at the border. 

The president received backlash – including from fellow Republican, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo – during the 2019 State of the Union address when he claimed El Paso was a dangerous city until a fence was built along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

All of this plays a role in how people view immigrants and minorities. When you treat people like animals, then you strip them of their humanity, and I had really been carrying a fear for a long time that something bad was going to happen. – U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso

“All of this plays a role in how people view immigrants and minorities,” Escobar said. “When you treat people like animals, then you strip them of their humanity, and I had really been carrying a fear for a long time that something bad was going to happen.” 

‘Aug. 3 was not circumstantial’ 

Wearing camouflage reminiscent of military members and often armed, members of the United Constitutional Patriots, a militia group, patrolled a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border in New Mexico, about 20 minutes from El Paso, in the months before the El Paso shooting.  

The civilian group received backlash from the ACLU of New Mexico, after sharing a video of members detaining more than 300 migrants who crossed the border illegally.

A spokesperson for the group has said videos shared prove there is a “crisis” at the southern border and that it wasn’t something manufactured by Trump. 

Before the attack, there was a narrative, a very powerful narrative coming from the President of the United States. And unfortunately, that narrative was about racism and xenophobia and white supremacy. – Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights

“Before the attack, there was a narrative, a very powerful narrative coming from the president of the United States,” Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an immigration advocacy group, said. “And unfortunately, that narrative was about racism and xenophobia and white supremacy.” 

The shooting at Walmart took place  as a result of the merging of three systemic problems, said Garcia: gun access, white supremacy and the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

“August 3rd was not circumstantial,” Garcia added. “It was something that happened because three evil systems came together.” 

A year later, Garcia wishes he could say the Aug. 3 shooting prompted a closer look at racism and combating hate, but he cannot. 

“Probably we are in a worse situation than before,” he added. 

The construction of the border wall continues and we still see children in cages, Garcia said.

“I think when we get closer to Aug. 3, the realization is that little progress has been made,” Garcia said. 

Addressing the roots

On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, yelling “All Jews must die,” as he opened fire on worshipers. Eleven people were killed.

On social media, the man made derogatory remarks about refugees and Jewish people, blasting a refugee advocacy group that “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.”

The language is eerily similar to that allegedly used by the gunman in the El Paso shooting. 

“Oh no, not again,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue recalls thinking when he learned of the El Paso attack. “Every time one of these happens, a mass murder like this in the United States of this manner, it brings me back to Oct. 27.” 

Myers has made it a practice not to use the word “hate,” instead referring to it as the “H-word.” The rabbi was preparing to speak at a rally and trying to figure out what to say when a “divine inspiration” came to him. 

“All of these emotional responses are all just the greens on the top of the root,” he said. “That the root is our speech, and that the different actions are just manifestations of when we take that speech to heart and act upon. And to me, the root of that then became the word hate.” 

For Myers, it’s important to address the language used by the shooters in El Paso and Pittsburgh. 

“I think it behooves us, because if we’re silent about it, then we’re agreeing,” he said. “We’re condoning it. We can’t be silent.” 

That includes having difficult conversations, even with students. Clint ISD Superintendent Juan Martinez has had his share over the last 12 months.

The district, which includes much of rural El Paso County, lost one of its own on Aug. 3, Horizon High School freshman Javier Amir Rodriguez, who was 15. 

Martinez recalls being asked: “Why us?” and “What can we do?”

“I did say … as time goes on Hispanics keep growing in terms of population, and I kept saying to students, we need to be a population that is highly educated so that we can then be in positions of responsibility … so that we can make decisions that benefit not only our community, but the country as a whole,” Martinez said. 

Myers’ congregation and the shoppers at Walmart on Aug. 3 are part of an unfortunate group that has growing membership as the mass shootings continue across the country. Such attacks can result in a “sense of safety and security” being lost, said Morales, the UTEP sociologist. 

She knows firsthand, having lost a relative in the El Paso shooting. 

“A lot of times we tend to think of it as individual – whether an individual is racist or not – but really we have to think about the larger processes and structures that create the environment … for those things to happen,” Morales said. 

Sitting down at a common table

El Paso Pastor Michael Grady, who is Black and a former president of El Paso’s NAACP chapter, has personally seen the effects of hate. His daughter, Michelle, was among those caught in the crossfire. She survived, despite being struck three times. 

The family recently celebrated her 34th birthday, holding a COVID-19-era celebration – where people could drive by to offer their well-wishes.

“It was like a first birthday in some respects, because she was shot three times, and at some point while she was laying there, waiting for her mother to hopefully find her, she didn’t know whether she was going to be here for another day, let alone another year,” Grady said. 

Before Aug. 3, Grady had never before experienced the level of racism cast upon El Paso in the attack – a city regularly considered one of the safest in the country. 

“I knew it was going to get to this place, I just never thought it would make it to the city of El Paso by the Rio Grande,” Grady said. 

The attack came from outside, but it also cast a light on other systemic problems in El Paso, Grady said: Racism in hiring practices, the education system and policing, are a few examples that came to his mind.

The anniversary of the shooting comes at a time where there are reinvigorated calls against racism and white supremacy, with the Black Lives Matter movement leading the way after the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. 

“The fact that Black Lives Matter has emerged in the way that it has emerged, it tells you that these issues of racism were not resolved. … Not after Aug. 3, but also before Aug. 3,” Garcia said.

As conversations about race and white supremacy continue a year after the shooting, Grady hopes the heart of the issues will be dealt with. 

“The heart of the issue is being able to sit down at a common table and to see all men as created equal, endowed certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Grady said. 

Survivor now feels like a constant target 

Jurado still doesn’t know why the man with the AK-47, who now faces federal hate crime charges, didn’t shoot him. It’s something he still finds himself thinking about a year later. 

“I know the Lord had to be with me that day, because he saw me like I saw him,” Jurado said. 

His day began with trip to the bank followed by a stop at Walmart for dog food, pens and pencils. Jurado and his mother exited at the Garden Center, their normal routine, and headed to the other side of the store in the direction of his parked truck. 

A woman with a shopping chart crossed Jurado’s path, cutting him off as he headed to the other side of the store, and apologized. 

“It’s OK, you’re good,” Jurado replied, his mother nearby

He approached a tent where members of a girls’ soccer team were holding a fundraiser and Jurado began to askwhy they were raising money. It was then he heard what sounded like a gunshot.

The woman who had crossed his path accidentally just moments before questioned what the noise was. 

A second and third bang.

It was then Jurado knew what has happening. He started to tell the woman to get away but was too late. Jurado saw as she was struck and killed by a gunman’s fire.

He turned around and saw another woman get hit above the knee. A bullet hit the wall near him. He grabbed his mom and headed inside, ducking with her by the toy machines in the entryway. 

Another bullet missed. 

Tucked in the entryway of the store with his mom, Jurado saw the gunman enter the store. Time passed and the shots again grew closer, until he and the gunman were just feet away. 

I saw him pull the chamber back, and right there I thought I was gonna be a goner. – Roberto Jurado

“I saw him pull the chamber back, and right there I thought I was gonna be a goner,” he said. 

He finds himself wondering what would have happened if he’d had a gun with him that day.He had a handgun at home.  

Jurado went to get a license to carry soon after the shooting. He supports banning military grade assault rifles like the gun the accused Walmart shooter wielded in the attack, but Jurado feels he and his community are now constantly a target because of the color of their skin.

“Now I feel like I gotta be protected all the time,” he said. “That’s why I’m carrying. That’s not just for my protection. … I’m carrying to protect people around me as well.”