El Paso is a wounded city. An urban spot that floods two nations and soaks everything it touches. At first glance, it is just another horizontal community that thrives on the edge of the highways, where its people converge in fast-food franchises, Target aisles, and gas station bathrooms. But from the seams peers the pain of yet another small city impacted by violence. This can be heard in the voices that break when they narrate the tragedy.
On Saturday, August 3rd, a 21-year-old white male entered the Walmart store located in the busiest commercial area of ??the city, and when he left several hours later, over 20 people were dead. Most of the victims had Hispanic last names. Eight were Mexican citizens. Two died to save their two-month old baby. Their sacrifice was successful.
Beyond statistics, in El Paso there's a tight-knit community that tries to collect the pieces and try to redo the puzzle. The legend "El Paso Strong" can be seen everywhere, stamped on T-shirts, on billboards, and restaurant canopies. The violence of its sister city on the other side of the border with Mexico feels somehow distant now. In contrast to other areas in Texas, Donald Trump barely exceeded 25% of preferences during his 2016 Presidential Campaign, as opposed to Hillary Rodham Clinton's almost 70%. Here the rhetoric of ultranationalist fear-mongering did not yield political fruits
This is a community which has insulated itself from anti-immigrant polarization. Here, this kind of situation would seem impossible; there's just no El Paso without Mexicans, and there's no Juarez without gringos. Terror didn't come lurking from violent Mexico, just around the corner. It drove over 600 miles from Austin, the state capital.
"For us, the border is not a place that separates us from them, or friends from enemies," Bishop Mark Seitz, appointed by Pope Francis in 2013, explains by telephone. "For us, the border is a meeting place. It represents what we are. "
The religious leader points out this city can serve as a model for the rest of the country, since "outsiders are the life and blood and reality of our community," and where migration is not a problem, " but instead, it's part of our identity." Seitz believes that, without the hospitality that characterizes Latinos, El Paso would not be what it is.
"We are a border community, based on people moving through it, and it has been so for centuries," he says "we provide a stark contrast to the traditional narrative of borders which is so prevalent nowadays in our country and around the world."
For Peter Svarzbein, the 1st District representative of El Paso, the long-term impact of the tragedy remains to be seen. "We are a different community from the rest of the world. El Paso, Juarez, southern New Mexico. We do things differently here, and we are united," he says.
"What this means is - Peter remains silent for a few seconds- see, my father emigrated from Argentina and chose to settle in El Paso, because it was a safe haven for a Latino; here being an immigrant could be a blessing. Here he could have the opportunities of the US and keep Latin American culture close. People as beautiful as the sunsets we have. I can't imagine what my father'd think if he saw what happened here" He says this standing in front of the large memorial for the victims that the community erected a few steps from the Walmart store.
Along some 300 meters, residents of El Paso have placed banners, flowers, candles, Mexican flags, and offer prayers to commemorate their dead. The community is slowly picking up the pieces.
"We are now in the early stages of grief," the prelate tells me. "We are just coming out of the initial feeling of chaos. Our world was turned upside down, and we are beginning to gather our thoughts. We are establishing the meaning of all this. I've been with the community this week, in prayer meetings with other religions, and I see a resolution in people. A certainty that we are not what that man thought we were, and we won't allow them to make us that. We are more aware of these things than we were maybe yesterday, because we just took them for granted."
Svarzbein says the tragedy has shown the country at large, something that has characterized this city time and again: its solidarity. "We are seeing the best of El Paso. This is what we are, a city and a region with a heart full of compassion that treats people with humanity and dignity, no matter on which side of the border they come from."
The local politician adds that part of the shock, it has to do with the fact that "here we don't have the issues of division and racism that other communities have; that is not our history." In contrast to other border communities, El Paso hasn't experienced a rise of white supremacist or ultra-nationalist ideology.
"We have supported refugees and immigrants. There has not been a single night in which a mother and her son are sleeping in a park without someone from the community - from private initiative, religious groups, the nunciature or the city government - come out and make sure that these immigrants are treated with dignity and have a place to sleep, something to eat, and continue on their way. Remember when ICE threw more than 300 immigrants on the street last Christmas Eve?, 10 minutes later, the mayor's office had given them shelter."
For this community this is an everyday situation: "The town of El Paso has always been here for immigrants, so I am not at all surprised at the response we've seen after the shooting. Unity, compassion and love," he says. "Sometimes I think the best wall they could possibly build is one which encompasses El Paso and Juarez, leaving DC and DF out of our business."
I ask the bishop if the US is going through a new crisis of racial hatred.
"Anyone versed on US history knows quite well that this has been a problem in our country since its origin. There have always been people who do not have the same freedoms and guarantees as the rest of the Americans. And we believe that each individual having the same freedoms and guarantees should be the basis of this country " he adds ". One would like to believe that, since the era of slavery ended, and the civil rights movement took place, that we'd have already resolved these issues. Now we see that below the surface there is still a feeling that it is acceptable to look down at someone based on their race. This tragedy should be a call to raise awareness for everyone in the US."
The Vatican representative does not want to specifically address the "one-man" political rhetoric. He says that everything Trump says as part of his agenda "reflects a lot about who we are." Criticism and judgment have to spring from within ourselves, he explains. "We all have to examine ourselves, and I certainly believe that our leaders must too."
I ask the bishop what's the role the community could play in helping families in this crisis. "The very first thing is that this community needs to be what it already is; an exemplary community" he says ". I'd never seen such a response. We announced that there'd be a service for different religions on Sunday morning. I don't know how many people came, but there were several thousands, all religions. They prayed and sang, expressing their pain and grieving together. Hundreds, thousands went out to give blood for those in need. This is an amazing town. "
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