Rep. Veronica Escobar on How El Paso is Recovering After the Shooting

August 22, 2019
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by Marcia Robiou Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Representative Veronica Escobar hugs an attendee during an El Paso Strong Community Action event in El Paso, Texas, U.S., on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. (Luke E. Montavon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Weeks after one of the deadliest attacks against Latinos in recent history, El Paso is grappling with how to move forward. As the last of the victims are buried, anxiety and fear in the predominantly Latino community remain high.

The alleged gunman told police shortly after the shooting that he targeted Mexicans, a chilling confession for El Pasoans, who enjoy a fluid economic and cultural border with Mexico. The Walmart where 22 people died and dozens were injured will reopen in three to four months, officials announced this week. But first, the retail giant will rebuild the entire interior of the store and add a new feature: a permanent memorial honoring the victims and recognizing the “binational relationship” with El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

As the city continues to heal, FRONTLINE sat down with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, of El Paso, to discuss the aftermath of the massacre.

How is El Paso recovering?

Veronica Escobar: People are trying to find their way back to normal in many respects. I think it’s been challenging for our teachers, the educators who are having to help kids with their trauma and help them also feel safe. I know that there’s still a lot of pain and hurt from the realization that we were targeted because of the color of our skin. It’s a lot to grapple with.

Do you get a sense that the Latino community in El Paso feels targeted after the shooting?

Escobar: It’s still very, very raw for the community.

This week I was walking out of a restaurant and this young woman, a young Latina, came up to me and embraced me. She just started weeping. She made some comments that indicated to me that she’s never been afraid like this before because of who she is.

Our community has been this beautiful, special bubble where it’s 80 to 85 percent Hispanic, and very deeply connected to Ciudad Juárez, deeply connected to our history, to our identity, to our traditions. All of those things for us have always been things to celebrate whether you’re Mexican-American or not. This is just such a special place in that respect.

I think there’s a real profound concern about why there are still people in this country who feel that we don’t fit in or we’re not a part of it. That’s what I’m hearing a lot of. People are trying to understand, ‘how can this be? We’re America.’

Can you describe how intertwined El Paso and Juárez are to people who have never been?

Escobar: There’s this old saying that when El Ciudad Juárez sneezes, El Paso catches a cold, or vice versa.

We are so interconnected. We share air, we share water, we share in some respects an economy — because if something happens to the peso, there’s a direct impact on our local economy. There are some people who live in El Paso and work in Juárez and vice versa. It really is a very unique international community.

For me, to see the region, you’ve got to see it from the air. You see from the mountain top or from a helicopter ride a skinny little river slicing through it. You’ll see bridges connecting the community over that skinny little river, and it’s that vantage point that offers great perspective for reporters, visitors or for people who want to get to know the border to understand the magnitude of the almost singular nature of the two communities.

If the ports are closed down, that’s a direct hit to both our economies. And not just our economies but our livelihoods, our ability to get people back and forth. When the president threatened to shut down the border, for us there was a mad scramble to figure out what would happen if that were to occur.

El Paso buried one of the last victims of the massacre on August 17. What has it been like to attend the funerals and wakes of those who passed away during the shooting?

Escobar: I saw a mixture of emotions. There were funerals where it was absolutely clear to me that the family was still in shock, and I attended funerals where there had been steps taken towards acceptance. Everyone is at a different place in their stage of grieving.

But what I saw consistently in funeral after funeral after funeral was a tremendous amount of support. People were coming out to ensure that families had the support and the love and care that they need during this time. It really was a privilege to be able to sit among my fellow El Pasoans and show that love.

Are there concerns that El Paso might attract further anti-Latino violence?

Escobar: I was hearing that fear expressed frequently from people I would meet either at the memorial site or funerals. People asking, ‘What if there are copycat killers? What if they see our resiliency and want to keep trying to tear us down?’

My hope is that this is a one-time horrific event, that we will be able to be allowed to recover in our wonderful way and heal in the way that we need to. But I do worry about other communities, and until the president becomes the moral leader that we need or until we have a new president, I’m very concerned about the increase in hate crimes and domestic terrorism.

You were elected into office just seven months before this massacre. How have your priorities shifted as a result?

Escobar: The two weeks after the shooting, and really even now in many respects, the focus is on the families and on the community. My office is reaching out to folks who have been helping in the fundraising efforts. We need to figure out the best way to have a coordinated seamless support system for all of our families, not just the families who were directly impacted by the horrific events, but also the kids in the community who were nowhere near the Walmart that day, but who are scared to be in their classrooms or who are scared to go into grocery stores. I know that’s happening. I have heard from educators that that fear is there for kids. That priority obviously didn’t exist three weeks ago, but it is an important priority now.

And my priority as a legislator over the long term is to create meaningful change so that we have truly safe communities. The irony that has not been lost on me, the very tragic painful sad irony for all the talk and the obsession about border security all these years, and all the effort by some politicians to paint this community and others on the border as unsafe, we have been safe for decades. It’s not been the immigrants who have made us unsafe, it’s been the racist rhetoric.

Will this shooting define El Paso?

Escobar: It will not. Has it affected us? It absolutely has. But this is a catalyst for change and a turning point, not just on the issue of guns and violence, but on the issues of hate and racism as well.

It’s my obligation, especially as an elected leader, to fight for change and accountability, and to ensure that this is not just a headline. That those 22 lives and the dozens of people injured are not just a headline.

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