Un año después. Our Affiliates in El Paso remember that dreaded day

It was the first day of our Annual Conference in San Diego, and right before we kicked off, the news came in. There had been a deadly shooting in El Paso. UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía started her remarks at the event acknowledging the tragedy: “I’m going to ask that we keep the families affected and our Affiliates in El Paso in our prayers today. I hope you all will do that as we continue with our efforts here.” Dr. Sylvia Acosta, CEO of UnidosUS Affiliate YWCA El Paso Del Norte Region, joined her on stage to receive a recognition for the organization’s 110-year anniversary. She was devastated. Today, one year after that dreaded day, we bring you her voice as she reflects on this anniversary, as well as the voices of two of our other El Paso Affiliate leaders. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, we stand with El Paso.

By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

It was a tough month of August that started with this tragedy. Then, on August 9, the first day of school for many children, almost 700 undocumented immigrants were arrested at seven different Mississippi food processing plants—the same immigrants that today, under this unexpected pandemic, are considered essential workers—in a raid orchestrated by the Trump administration. And as if those events weren’t enough to startle a hardworking community committed to this country, on August 14, the Department of Homeland Security posted the final version of the public charge rule that went into effect later that year.

We knew that this ruling will harm Latinos in many ways, but we didn’t know COVID-19 would happen or that the pandemic would disproportionately affect Latinos. The ruling has made many in our community even more afraid of seeking medical help at a time when, as a country and as humanity, we need it the most.

Unidos for our community

However, as Joe Hernandez-Kolski put it at this year’s UnidosUS Annual Conference and Virtual Marketplace: “If anybody is resilient, it’s us. Just look it up in the dictionary: you will find under the word ‘resilient’ photos of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who helped build this country.” And that is precisely what we saw from our Affiliates in El Paso after the mass shooting on August 3, 2019, and that is also what we are seeing in our community and community-based organizations as we deal with the devastation COVID-19 is causing our community. Resiliency is built on us, and following we bring you the voices of El Paso community leaders speaking of that strength.


Laura Ponce, Executive Director of Project BRAVO, brings this reflection about what today means for her and how we can move forward:

“There are no words to describe the sadness I feel for the 23 families who lost their loved ones in this senseless massacre. My heart goes out to all the victims and their families who are reliving that day, this August 3, and will continue to be haunted by the violence and loss of that day for many years to come.

“As an American city with an 80% Latinx population, El Paso has always felt like a safe haven from the racists attitudes that are more overt in other parts of the country. Many El Pasoans I know, including myself, never witnessed or experienced racism until we left our city for school, work, or travel. It took a person driving 650 miles to our city to kill innocent people for many El Pasoans to finally see how destructive racism can be to all communities.

Laura Ponce, Executive Director of Project BRAVO, visited the memorial for the El Paso victims with UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía last October.

“Although the shooting broke our hearts, it did not change our spirit as a community that is forever gracious, generous, and loving.

“I think that all Latinx people, regardless of income level, education, and immigration status, have to come together to bring an end to racism. We need to start with examining ourselves and our negative attitudes towards groups of people we consider ‘different’ from our own. We need to work towards a society where we support all people and embrace differences so that we can all attain the American Dream.

“Never forget what one person is capable of doing when we let racism go unchecked. Keep the memory alive of the 23 people who died senselessly in El Paso. And finally, love one another and work towards tolerance, understanding, and equity in your community.”


Dr. Sylvia Acosta, CEO of YWCA El Paso Del Norte Region, explains what today’s anniversary means to her and her community.

UnidosUS: What do you feel one year after that dreaded day when 23 people lost their lives in your community?

Dr. Acosta: “This has been the most difficult essay I have been asked to write. I have written and rewritten the answer to this question several times. I have had to start over many times and delete sections of this piece because I still have so many emotions tied to that day. I still have so much pain tied to August 3, 2019. On that day, a person who was not from my community killed 23 innocent people because they were Mexican. I have a hard time understanding how a person can carry so much hate in their heart. How a person can decide that they have the right to leave a child orphaned or parents without their children. I am still healing. Our community is still healing. I understand that forgiveness is tied to finding peace and to healing. I am just not there yet. I am angry. I am heart broken. I still need more time to heal. We all still need more time to heal.”

UnidosUS: How did the shooting impact El Paso and its people?

Dr. Acosta: “El Paso has always been a kind and friendly city. A city that responds to adversity with kindness. As one would expect, the pain of what occurred brought us together. We mourned together. We cried together. We tried to make sense of this together. Our community has become even closer. The act of violence meant to divide us and make us weaker actually made us stronger. It made us aware that in these moments, and in times of complete darkness it is the light that shines in each of us that will provide the path forward. It is that light that will uplift our voices and it is that light that will not allow for the evil and the hatred that we encountered on August 3 to define us and our community.”

UnidosUS: Have you seen the community change, for better or for worse?

Dr. Acosta: “The love and the compassion of our community is constant. I have only ever seen good things in our community. The good in our community comes from the kindness and the compassion that is part of our every day. Over the last several years, the City of El Paso has been presented with many challenges. It began with the humanitarian refugee crisis on the border—not the “invasion” as has been portrayed, then it moved to the separation of families, then the attack on innocent lives on August 3 and now the pandemic. In every one of those challenges the humanity and kindness of our community has responded. We do not respond with anger and hate.

“We also respond by organizing. Over the last several months, a lot of work is being dedicated to educating our community on their rights and on ensuring they know they have the power to make change. As such we have been working on registering people to vote and making sure that they participate in the census. Our kindness and compassion have turned into activism.”

UnidosUS: What do we do moving forward? How can we continue building a more tolerant and a more just nation?

Dr. Acosta: “We build a more accepting nation by becoming active participants in our narrative and not letting anyone else define us. At the YWCA, our commitment to our mission is moving us forward in ensuring that programing aligns with ensuring our voices are heard. We want to live in a nation that celebrates our contributions and our heritage. A nation that understands that our history precedes the founding of this nation. Our voices, our work, and our spirits can be found rooted in the very soil of this country. Our people are not visitors. Our people did not migrate to this land rather we are the core and its foundation. Moving forward our goal should be to raise our voices and solidify the pride of our heritage. We should educate ourselves on our lineage and our history. We must reclaim our space, our voice, and our truth.”

UnidosUS: What other thoughts would you like to share with our readers?

Dr. Acosta: “August 3 was a devastating moment in the history of our nation. It served as a reminder that hate and misrepresentation of a people often breeds violence and death. We must unite to fight against the narratives that define our communities. We must take control and create our own narratives. We have to unite to ensure that our voices are represented. The most important way that we can do that is to make sure our communities are voting and are participating in the census. There have been very deliberate attempts to silence our communities. It is our responsibility to amplify voices that will ensure representation at every level. This is a time for our communities to come together. We must become active and engaged in the processes and institutions that define the structure of our nation. Voting and census activities must be the top priority even during these pandemic times.”


Estela Reyes-López is the Media Relations and Public Information Officer at Centro De Salud Familiar La Fe, and she lived the fear of the shooting, thinking her mother and sister were there shopping that day. Fortunately, they weren’t, but the anguish she felt for a few minutes was unbearable:

“I remember that day, with that heaviness in the pit of my stomach, wondering how that store, at its fullest, has easily thousands of people inside, and I thought: ‘I know there’s someone inside that store right now that I love.’ It’s the worst feeling in the world.

“Looking back on all of that now, I guess that there’s a lesson that we’ve all had to learn more that day, and I know it sounds terribly cliché, but it is holding the ones that you love close, always.

“In the year since that horrible incident, our city, our community, has had not only that reason to feel pain and to cry out. It wasn’t our only attack on our community. Yes, that man chose to come here with weapons and to kill, but others have come here with words and chosen to hurt and to insult and dehumanize us. And it hasn’t ended.

El Paso Memorial

“I think a lot of us in our community here are tired of feeling hurt, tired of feeling the pain that is stained of racism, whether it is in the form of a gunman or in the form of a president that doesn’t seem to be capable of humanity and decency, whether is in the form of legislation that continues to dehumanize and to strip people of the ability and their right to access health care, funding for the programs that they need to survive, for the safety net programs that are disappearing at a time when we people who are trying to survive COVID need them the most.

“Again, I know it sounds cliché, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so El Paso is going to be a heck of a strong community after this.

“It’s about standing, not matter how many times somebody tries to take you out or knock you down, and just remembering that you have a reason to stand, and the best reason of all is because there’s someone probably standing right next to you, or trying to rise up, and you have to help them stand up too and not fall. That’s ultimately the meaning of comunidad, lifting each other up.

“Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves right now at this point in history: ‘What are we going to do about this?’ There is no way of outlawing ignorance. There isn’t. All you can do is fight ignorance with education, fight hatred with love and compassion and understanding, and when you see racism, you fight it back with the best weapon our people have right now, and that’s our vote. You take away its power.

“As I watched John Lewis’ coffin being carried over the Edmund Pettus bridge one last time, I thought how this man gave his life so that the rest of us could rise. This man was willing to lay down his life and his health and his well-being, so that the rest of us could casually stroll into a polling place, and do the one thing that White supremacists were terrified of: being able to vote and take their power away. I thought that what a better way to honor him, and to honor all those on whose shoulders we stand, than to stand up as a community and lift each other up. Use our vote and take down that power that others have tried so hard to hold against us.”

Let’s rise above fear, division and hate. Let’s bring back respect, dignity, and humanity for all in our society. Join us and our Affiliates as we move our country forward to make sure all communities feel safe.

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