By Janet Murguía, UnidosUS President and CEO
One year ago, on Aug. 3, a man drove 12 hours from Dallas to El Paso, Texas, for one reason: To perpetrate the single largest attack on Latinos in this country’s history. Twenty-three people – all of whom were just Saturday morning shopping at their local Walmart – were killed, an entire community was shattered, and thousands of lives will never be the same.
Last November I witnessed the lingering devastation firsthand when I met with some of the victims of that senseless tragedy. Alexandra and Luis were Walmart employees in the first hours of their shift and were able to guide customers out of harm’s way. Marivel was outside the store fundraising for her daughter’s soccer team when the shooting started. So anxious to find her daughter in the chaos, she did not realize she had been shot in the arm and her ankle until she was reunited with her child.
Marivel told me that she knew she and the others were targeted because they are Latino since her Walmart was known to be the one the community relied on even though there are dozens of Walmarts in the city. We know this is true because the shooter posted a manifesto that explicitly said he was going to deal with “the Hispanic invasion” of “his” state. We also know that much of the language he used in that disturbed rant came directly from the highest levels of our government, specifically President Donald Trump.
The president, with his life-long allergy to honesty and accountability never acknowledged the role his rhetoric played in what happened that day in El Paso. This was nauseatingly evident in his bizarre photo op at the El Paso hospital with a baby who was injured in the shooting. The two-month-old baby boy had just become an orphan, having lost both his parents in the shooting and whose life was only spared because his mother protected him at the cost of her own life. Impervious to empathy and common human decency, Trump is grinning and giving a thumbs up in the photo.
Far from re-evaluating his years-long assault on the Latino community, Trump has only gotten worse. He has doubled down on his assaults, from his attacks on DACA to his continued infliction of misery on immigrants and refugees to his epic and historic failure on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Latinos and other communities of color. The depraved indifference to human suffering and human life he demonstrated in the El Paso photo was a disturbing foreshadowing of the inaction and indifference he is showing to tens of thousands of people who have died of COVID-19 and millions who have contracted the virus in the past six months.
“Although the shooting broke our hearts, it did not change our spirit as a community that is forever gracious, generous, & loving.” @ProjectBRAVOinc & @ywcaelpaso share their thoughts on the senseless shooting in El Paso. #AffiliatesUnidos #ElPasoStrong https://t.co/tOIR05Z3j8
— UnidosUS (@WeAreUnidosUS) August 3, 2020
He, and particularly his campaign, have not relented in painting Latinos and immigrants as a threat. He even suspended legal immigration in April to “protect American jobs” during the pandemic. This empty rhetoric and these empty gestures fly in the face of the reality that emerged because of COVID-19: A significant portion of the people who are keeping the country going right now are Latinos and immigrants. They are the essential workers on the frontlines, working in hospitals and nursing homes; in meat-packing plants and in the fields; keeping our public spaces safe and sanitized; and allowing grocery stores and other essential businesses open.
It reminds me of my conversation with the two Walmart employees in El Paso. Despite what they had suffered, they were eager to move forward and go back to work at that very same Walmart. Their resilience, willingness and ability to step up when needed mirrors what our essential workers are doing right now – stepping up for a country that too often does not defend, protect, or value them.
One of the reasons it’s so easy for the president and his allies to continue demonizing Latinos is because they believe they never have to pay a political price for it. This has to change. As the late and much-missed John Lewis noted, we already have the power to make that change. He wrote, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America. … Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” It is time to use it. Remember El Paso. Remember in November.