EL PASO, Texas — When El Paso County officials rose to say the Pledge of Allegiance before their weekly meeting Monday, black bunting was draped over the building's entrance and the dais inside, where the commissioners gathered. Mexican and American flags flew at half-staff. Highway signs glowed: El Paso Strong.
They had so badly wanted to celebrate their underdog boys and girls soccer teams that roared to championships, El Paso's long record as one of America's safest places to live, and the city's abiding ties to friends and relatives in nearby Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, despite a border wall that runs between them.
El Paso always has lived and loved in two countries. And now it grieves that way, too.
Funeral homes in El Paso and Juarez, the larger sister city long racked by hundreds of slayings a year, offered free services for the victims of the shooting massacre at a shopping center here Saturday. Businesses and residents from across North America have donated more than $600,000 for the victims. Mexicans and Americans are huddling over the burials, the medical bills, the prosecution — the aftermath of what some people here consider an act of war on the United States.
“That terrorist act is going to have emotional and mental consequences,” Eric Pearson, president and chief executive of the El Paso Community Foundation, which set up the relief fund, said at the county meeting. “Collectively, we’ve always taken pride in the idea that we were the safest city in the country and that we could rise above all of the fray of vitriol that has been sent our way from elsewhere. I think we were humbly put in a position where we lost our innocence on Saturday.”
Engulfed in grief, residents say they are stunned by reports that the alleged shooter, Patrick Crusius, harbored such animosity toward immigrants that he drove 10 hours from his home near Dallas to harm them. El Paso, a city of nearly 700,000 people at the juncture of Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, is 80 percent Hispanic, and the overwhelming majority are U.S. citizens.
One in 4 residents is an immigrant, and many of them are naturalized citizens. It is a community that often feels misunderstood. They live as if the border is invisible, having breakfast on one side and dinner on the other.
Here on the border it is normal for an Irish American soccer coach named Steve Donnelly to speak fluent Spanish. It is normal for a Latina named Felicity Randle, a 17-year-old soccer champ, to speak no Spanish, because her family speaks English at home.
What is not normal is what happened Saturday at a popular Walmart. In a brutal assault that lasted minutes, officials said, El Paso suffered about as many homicides as the city has in a typical year. As of Monday, 22 people had died.
El Paso is one of the largest cities along the southern border, and its population has always been predominantly Hispanic, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Many residents trace their roots to the early 1800s, when Texas belonged to Mexico — and when tensions between white settlers and Mexicans could turn deadly.
But now Latinos run this county, as business leaders, elected officials, clergy and police. They are Transportation Security Administration agents at the airport, where signs say "Welcome" and "Bienvenido," and a monument stands for the Army's Fort Bliss nearby. They are Border Patrol agents and sheriff's deputies, including the SWAT team that rushed to the Walmart on Saturday.
El Paso has become one of the major gateways for undocumented immigrants during the past year, with tens of thousands of Central American families and unaccompanied minors surrendering at the border to seek asylum. The Department of Homeland Security picked the city to illustrate that the border was at a "breaking point," with dangerously crowded detention cells and dozens of sick migrants.
But residents say most immigrants stay just a few days once released, most leaving to join relatives in cities all over the country, from California to Florida to New England.
The Walmart where the massacre took place is a sign of the thriving border community they leave behind. It is adjacent to the Cielo Vista Mall, more than 1 million square feet of stores and restaurants that, at this time of year, is packed nearly every day with back-to-school shoppers.
It is the largest mall in the city, a "superregional" magnet given its size and customer base. From the east and west, Interstate 10 plugs into it like a power line, bringing shoppers from across West Texas and from over the Rio Grande.
From the Bridge of the Americas and the Ysleta-Zaragoza crossing, shoppers from Juarez can usually make the trip to Walmart and the mall in 20 minutes.
And they do — in huge numbers.
"I'd heard the shooter wanted to kill as many Mexicans as he could," said Sandra Garcia, 41, a single mom and 25-year El Paso resident. "Well, he certainly came to the right place."
Garcia shops at the mall, calling it the "most convenient in the city, everything is right here." She often shops with her children, who range from 6 to 19 years old, but on this day they wanted to come for another reason.
"They had been watching it on the news all day and wanted to come by — to say hi to the police officers, to thank them," said Garcia, who left Chicago for El Paso, which she said seemed like "the safest city in the world."
The mall is the kind of place where local soccer teams sell bottles of water and hot dogs to raise money for the season ahead, as a few teams were that day. This coming weekend is a sales-tax holiday in Texas. Those who gathered at the makeshift shrine the day after the killings said perhaps the only fortunate aspect of the tragedy is that the shooter did not arrive during that time, which would have been busier.
The irony is that the gunman picked the most American of places, one characterized by popular national franchises and a friendly mix of Mexicans, Americans and Mexican Americans.
The Hooters next door passed out water to anyone paying their respects, as Diana Aitchison and her husband, Mark, did, dropping flowers on the widening pile and placing a lighted candle amid them.
Diana Aitchison, 44, was born and raised in El Paso, the daughter of immigrants from Juarez. The two sides of the border, and the two large cities, have been inseparable in her mind, as have the people on both sides of the river.
Her story is one of the many filled with "what ifs" that are coursing through conversation here and will be for months. She and her 14-year-old daughter, Allison, had been shopping at Cielo Vista two days before the massacre, buying clothes for school.
What if they had waited until Saturday? Allison, who bought a pair of pants that needed to be returned, did head toward the mall on the morning of the shooting. Aitchison was listening to the radio when the music was interrupted with news of a shooter there.
She called Allison immediately and told her to turn around.
"To think my daughter was almost there — it breaks my heart," said Aitchison, who works for a telemarketing firm here. "This all just breaks my heart."
On Sunday night, the candles at the makeshift memorial glowed against the backdrop of the glittering, sprawling city. People kept coming, dropping off bouquets, a wooden cross, more candles.
Firefighter Christopher Terrazas, 23, and Lillian Gonzalez, 21, held their poodle-mix dogs, Tito and Migo, as they stared at the flickering lights. People they knew were afraid to go outside. One of their favorite restaurants closed temporarily. Her sister nearly canceled her nephew's first birthday party.
"You really hate us that much? Just to kill our race? Is that real?" Gonzalez said, wearing an "I Love El Paso" T-shirt. "That kind of hate is in somebody's heart?"
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard thanked the people of El Paso on Monday after meeting with the mayor and with wounded Mexican nationals recovering in two medical centers. He sent his "affection" to all U.S. families suffering in the aftermath of the shooting, which claimed the lives of eight Mexican citizens.
"We are friends of the United States, and we are a binational community here," he said at a news conference at the Mexican Consulate. "We intend to maintain this in the future. We are different cultures, but we must live together."
At the El Paso County commissioners meeting Monday, members of the Rage FC soccer team wore matching orange shirts and cutoff shorts as they lined up to be recognized for winning the 18-and-under girls national championship last month in Tennessee. But their celebration was muted amid their horror at the shootings, which deeply affected another soccer team, EP Fusion, that had been setting up to fundraise at the Walmart on Saturday. At least two coaches for Fusion underwent multiple surgeries after sustaining gunshot wounds, a league official said. A teenage boy from another team was killed.