Tanya Barrientos found out about the shooting when messages from friends in her El Paso hometown began pinging onto her cell phone:
I’m safe. I’m OK. I wasn’t hurt.
She didn’t know what they were talking about. Then she checked the news.
“As a person of color, it’s been hard over the past couple years, but as a Latina, now I feel I’m being hunted, like I literally have a target on my back,” said Barrientos, who grew up in El Paso, Texas, and lives in Abington.
The El Paso shooting, which occurred Saturday morning at a Walmart in the border city, left 22 people dead. The suspect, a resident of a Dallas suburb 600 miles away, was linked to an online screed that attacked immigrants and spoke of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Among the dead were six Mexican nationals. Of the 26 wounded, seven are Mexicans.
The city of 683,000 is about 80% Latino.
Radio journalist Perla Lara of Philadelphia is connected to generations of immigrant families and local community leaders in El Paso and neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She said the common conversation she’s hearing is that this is the “tip of the iceberg.”
“We believe that there is a problem of ‘racial anxiety’ that is being transformed into extreme hatred in this country, and when there is access to a firearm, a hate crime seems easier to perpetrate,” she said.
The Mexican government’s secretary of foreign affairs issued a statement Sunday afternoon that condemned the attack, calling it an “act of terrorism" against Mexicans in the United States.
“We are outraged, but we are not proposing to meet hate with hate. We will act reasonably and firmly, in accordance to the law,” Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said in the statement. “These hate crimes must never happen again.”
Carlos Torres, communications consul for the Mexican Consulate of Philadelphia, called the situation “horrifying.”
Less than a day after the El Paso shooting, a 24-year-old killed nine in Dayton, Ohio, including the gunman’s 22-year-old sister. Six of those killed were black, three white. Officials said 27 people were wounded.
In a briefing Monday morning, President Donald Trump condemned white supremacy and racism and vowed to act “with urgent resolve.”
Brenda Hernández Torres, 28, who is Mexican and lives in South Philadelphia, reflected on the president’s speech. She said the “person with mental issues” rhetoric needs to end in order to stop portraying these as “isolated incidents.”
“The president needs to take responsibility for what he has harvested,” she said. Referencing an “invasion” is “something the president has done before, during his campaigns and statement around our community,” Torres said. "This only says that we will keep seeing these acts of white supremacy terrorism in the future.”
Barrientos, 59, is a naturalized U.S. citizen, born in Guatemala. From age 3, she grew up in a diverse El Paso, graduating from Coronado High School on the west side of the city. The former Inquirer journalist, who works in communications for a philanthropy, authored two novels about life on the Texas-Mexico border.
Since Saturday, “I’ve been surprisingly emotional,” she said. “I’ve been tearing up a lot about it, especially when I hear from my friends there. I think it’s a combination of sadness and anger.”
El Paso is different from other places, she said, set not just on the U.S. border with Mexico, but on the state border with New Mexico, the people there a rich stew of Anglos, Latinos, and Native Americans.
When she was growing up, city residents routinely crossed the line to buy groceries in Mexico. They played mariachi music at their weddings. At the same time, Mexico residents came over to work and do their own shopping.
El Paso is a place, she said, where a white Irish politician who was christened Robert Francis O’Rourke can answer to the childhood nickname “Beto” and nobody thinks much about it.
“What’s really tragic is the image the country has of El Paso because of what’s happened not only in the shooting, but with immigration issues,” Barrientos said. “There’s been a false image created of El Paso as a city that’s always had immigration problems. That’s just not true. For hundreds of years this has been a harmonious border town. … We celebrated our difference, what each culture gave to each other, and created our own culture that was a mix of all the best things of that.”
Miguel Andrade, spokesperson for the Philadelphia-based activist group Juntos, said the targeting of Latinos in El Paso has left people feeling vulnerable.
“What happened in El Paso is a direct result of the racist language coming out of Trump’s mouth,” he said. “We should be outraged that it’s gotten to this point, that someone who is the racist-in-chief is perpetuating this kind of rhetoric and vitriol against marginalized communities. … We need to hold him accountable for this shooting and the others as well.”
It’s time, he said, for Latinos and allies to come together as a community, and for people to reach out to Juntos and other organizations that can provide support and safe haven.
Marisa Franco, co-founder and director of Mijente, the national digital grassroots hub for Latino organizing, said people around her have been asking, “Where can we go that we can feel safe?”
“I don’t have an answer for them,” she said. “It’s not enough for the answer to be, ‘We just have to vote Trump out.’ It’s too far down the road. While Trump is a catalytic force, he didn’t start it, and it will continue after he’s gone.”
White nationalists, she noted, see demographic change as others see climate change. In their minds, it means extinction. The only way for good people to respond to that attitude is to confront it and defeat it, she said.
“There’s no confusion about what this is, what this attack is, what it’s connected to,” said Franco, who lives in Phoenix, about 400 miles northwest of El Paso. “The community is really disgusted. The community is tired. … People are legitimately discouraged about who has the political courage to do something.”
Other local Latinos and Hispanics made public announcements over the weekend, including Colombian-American Union soccer player Alejandro Bedoya. After scoring the opening goal of the game at D.C. United on Sunday, he ran to a field microphone on the sideline and shouted: “Hey, Congress: Do something now! End gun violence! Let’s go!"
The Philadelphia Union announced on Monday that Bedoya had been voted the Major League Soccer Player of the Week.