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El Pasoans Were Targeted For Being Mexican — Historians Say That's Been Happening For 200 Years

The gunman who killed 22 people in El Paso specifically targeted Latinos in a city that's nearly 80% Hispanic. A deep fear among some El Pasoans has cast a chilling shadow over their defiant shows of strength and unity. For others, the tragedy offers opportunities to elicit bittersweet smiles, express their love for each other and confront this nation's darkest truths.

The makeshift memorial at the Walmart store where the shootings took place has grown by the hour. Visitors brought candles, signs and depictions of religious figures as they paid their respects and wiped away tears.

"People don’t want to use violence, but sometimes... when they feel fear [or] scared, they’re gonna use violence," said Carlos Ramirez, an El Paso native. "Like me, I got friends like that, right now, they say, 'Let’s do the same.' I wish I could go to jail and confront the dude. He’s wrong, but I don’t think violence will cure nothing."

Rocio Landeros was at the memorial Thursday with her young granddaughter Ariel. They were both scared.

Landeros explained their feelings in Spanish: "My granddaughter just told me, 'If we get out of the car, somebody’s going to come and shoot at us.' I told her, 'Don’t think like that.' It’s very sad that the children think that way because it’s now in their little minds, thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ or ‘They’re going to shoot us.'"

Credit Norma Martinez | Texas Public Radio
The Mexican, U.S. and Texas flags fly over the makeshift memorial behind the Walmart.

Since the shooting, there have been calls for the government to enact policies to stop this from happening again, ranging from stricter gun control to an improved mental health care system, to removing violent video games from store shelves.

Randy Parraz, national organizing director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said people want something to happen now.

"Whether it’s background checks, whether it’s taking assault guns off the streets, more monitoring on social media, investing in domestic terrorism, people want something to be done," he said. "They can no longer say it has to be all or nothing. This whole thing of nothing happening after these types of tragedies, I think that’s over, and it’s time for the people to set the new standard of, ‘This is the time.’ We want action, we want urgency."

Parraz hoped what happened in El Paso would be a turning point in an ever-growing trend of hate-inspired mass shootings.

Credit Norma Martinez | Texas Public Radio
Ariel Chenoweth, her grandmother Rocio Landeros, and Maria Hernandez. They live in fear of going out in public since the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso. They felt safe at the memorial because of the increased police presence.

"Everyone has their threshold for injustice," he said. "It comes to a tipping point where people say, 'You know what? That’s it. That’s my family member, my community.' It can’t just be a one day, it can’t be an event. It has to be part of a movement, part of a process."

It’s a process that’s been nearly 200 years in the making. White Texas settlers in the 1820s viewed Mexicans and Mexican Americans as foreigners — invaders — in their own land. The Texas Rangers and other Anglo vigilantes are believed to have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicans and Mexican Texans between 1914 and 1919. Just because they were brown.

Yolanda Chavez Leyva is the director of the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso. She reflected on the historical legacies as she stood outside one of El Paso’s oldest neighborhoods, Duranguito.

She said the El Paso shootings were just another chapter in a long history of anti-Mexican violence in Texas. Even the rhetoric hasn’t changed much in the hundred years that Mexicans were called "bandits" and "criminals." That sounds eerily similar to being labeled "criminals" and "rapists."

"One of the things I find most useful as a historian — but also it’s kind of a burden of being a historian — is that when things happen, you can tell when it happened before and before and before," she said. "So this language goes back to the 1820s where we’re criminals, where we’re lazy, where we shouldn’t be part of the United States and all the way until now."

Leyva said a solution to hate crimes had to go beyond gun control. She believed this country must confront a culture of white supremacy.

"White supremacy is so evident in Texas history but it’s evident in the whole history of the United States," she said. "So if we take away guns, that still doesn’t take away that system of inequality, of violence, of hatred. I want us to look at white privilege. I want us to look at who has power. I want us to look at the systems of power because that’s huge and that’s ingrained and that’s been here for hundreds of years. And I don’t know how we dismantle it... I’ve been thinking and thinking. But I know for sure we can’t get rid of it if we can’t acknowledge it first. If we as Americans can finally say this nation is built on white supremacy. If we can do that, this could be a huge turning point."

Leyva admitted she was afraid. "I’m not usually a scared person but right now everything seems to scare me," she said. "I saw a group of students in a crowd earlier today, and my heart started beating really fast. It was new-student orientation. My heart was just beating."

Credit Norma Martinez | Texas Public Radio
Carlos Ramirez grew up in El Paso hating other races. He doesn't believe responding to violence with violence is the answer.

Juan Rivera, 25, shares her sentiment. He recently visited the Walmart memorial for the first time, accompanied by his two nephews. They brought pizzas to mourners and left candles and a poster.

"I just got so emotional because I was like, these people were just shopping," he remembered. "What we’re doing right now, they were doing. Minding their own business. Back to school, buying food, stuff like that. And it could happen literally anywhere, anytime now. That really kind of affected me. I couldn’t even sleep yesterday."

Rivera’s 17-year-old nephew Michael wore a black Spiderman costume. In 97-degree heat. He and his uncle wanted to do something special for the families at the makeshift memorial.

"I’m happy that I made at least five kids smile today," Michael said. "Giving them pizza or taking pictures with them. It feels really good… They probably haven’t smiled ever since they probably lost a family member or lost somebody’s friend."

Javier Alvarado, 12, visited the memorial with his mother. He said he's endured active-shooter training at his school. Still, he said he couldn't believe a shooting happened here in El Paso. Javier said he couldn't understand why people could hold so much hatred in their hearts.

Credit Norma Martinez | Texas Public Radio
Michael Rivera, in a black Spiderman costume, gets a hug from a child at the Walmart memorial.

"This sign over here says, ‘If we could spread love as quickly as we spread hate and negativity, what an amazing world we would live in.’ I love that quote because it’s true," he said. "A lot of people spread more negativity instead of positivity. We need to start spreading a lot of positivity around this world."

Javier’s mom, Myrna Ceballos, hoped her son will be OK when he returns to school.

"I’ve been having the conversations with him throughout the week, asking him how do you feel about going back to school," she said. "I don’t want this to change his way of being or the stuff he’s done on the norm. Honestly, this was an outsider who came to our city to break our town. But he’s not broken anything. He’s made us so much stronger. It’s taught us to love each other more, to hold on to each other more, and to tell each other, ‘We love you,’ more often."

Norma Martinez can be reached at Norma@TPR.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1