EL PASO, Texas—Mourners at an emotional vigil were still in shock Sunday night that the murder of 20 people happened here, and all seemed to agree that a mass shooter could never have emerged from within the binational community of this unique city.
“When they said he was from out of town, that explained it,” one mourner told The Daily Beast. Another added “my first thought was that he couldn’t be from here.”
“We have never met that type of evil in this community before,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo. “He came from out of town, and I don’t believe anyone in El Paso would have committed a crime of that nature. It’s not what we are about as a community.”
The alleged shooter reportedly drove from a predominantly white suburb of Dallas to the border city after posting anti-immigrant and racist messages online.
Mayor Margo’s speech referenced his own journey of the past days, including visiting patients in the hospital. There, he met a 10-week-old baby whose parents were both killed in the shooting. Following his trip to the hospital, he visited the United Blood Service blood bank. He spoke with individuals who had been waiting five or six hours to give blood. “That is what our community is all about,” he said.
Within the crowd at the vigil, many proudly sported bandages from recently giving blood.
Pride in El Paso was a recurring theme at the vigil.
Among the many leaders to speak were Dylan Corbett of the Hope Border Institute, local news anchor Estela Casas, State Senator José Rodriguez, and Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX). All spoke to the power of the community, with shouts of “El Paso Strong!” echoing in the crowd.
El Paso’s binational character was reflected in the grieving crowd and in the death toll. Seven Mexican nationals were among the dead, shot in a Walmart and shopping center. El Paso itself is 83 percent Latino, a tight-knit community with roots on both sides of the border.
“We know people,” said El Paso resident Shelley Hernandez. “There’s nobody in El Paso who can say that they don’t know somebody who was there. It’s even closer than Kevin Bacon—six degrees? It’s closer. It’s two degrees and it’ll impact you.”
The community came together to mourn and find solace on a cloudy August evening. Prior to the vigil, Rabbi Ben Zeidman told The Daily Beast that the event was designed to allow the community as a whole a place to mourn and begin the long process of healing.
Representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities offered prayers in both Spanish and English. The evening closed with traditional Mexican music. Flags from both countries—Mexico and the United States—dotted the crowd.
Bishop Michael Berkel Hunn, of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, was one of the many who offered a prayer for the wider community, calling specifically for love for neighbors on both sides of the river. It was a sentiment echoed by most of the speakers, including former El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
O’Rourke, who wasn’t scheduled to speak at the vigil, spoke to a cheering crowd after faith leaders exited the stage.
He spoke of the everyday heroes from both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez who have stood up to hatred. “This, the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere... [is one] of the safest cities in the United States of America, not despite but because we are a city of immigrants and asylum-seekers and refugees from the world over who have found a home here and made us better for their very presence.”
Diana Diaz’s husband Rick was in the Walmart on Saturday morning. He heard shots and saw people running, and was able to quickly escape and run home before news even broke of the shooting. When he heard there were 18 deaths, “he broke down,” said Diana.
Diana was shocked that a mass shooting could happen in El Paso. She’s angry as well. “He was aiming for Mexicans.”
Diana’s daughter, Andrea, was less surprised, citing emboldened racism as a sign that a racially motivated shooting was bound to happen. “It was surprising that it was here, but at the same time it wasn’t surprising, with everything going on and the rhetoric,” she told The Daily Beast.
Elsewhere in the crowd, a young girl named Emma danced between adults holding candles. She stood still while Msgr. Arturo J. Bañuelas, the pastor at St. Mark’s Parish, led the vigil in “Amazing Grace” and the ringing of bells for the victims. Emma wore a cape made from an American and Mexican flag. “I taught her to be proud to be Mexican and from El Paso,” her mom says.
A man named A.J. weaved his way through the crowd of thousands of mourners, Mexican flag hoisted above his shoulder. He shook the hands of each first responder that he saw at Ponder Park, the site of the vigil. A.J is from El Paso, but Mexico is also home.
He carried the Mexican flag, he said, for “the same reason people are giving blood. We support community here.”