Editor’s Note: CNN’s Nicole Chavez calls El Paso and Ciudad Juárez home. She has been reporting on the Walmart shooting from El Paso since Sunday.
I often – way too often – write about mass shootings across the country. I’ve scrambled many times to take notes as police chiefs speak surrounded by microphones and felt horrified by the death toll. A bar in Thousand Oaks, 12 people. A Pittsburgh synagogue, 11. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, 17.
Many of my stories are filled with terror and loss and sometimes I feel like I’ve lost my humanity afterward. We report on how the shootings unfold, the victims’ names, their vigils and their funerals. It’s become so routine.
Everything changed this week when a white man traveled hundreds of miles to my hometown to open fire at a Walmart store and killed 22 people. It was an act of terrorism against Mexicans and the Hispanic community. It was against my people and those I consider my family.
When I saw the 22 white crosses at the makeshift memorial in El Paso, I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve seen photos of similar crosses before in the wake of other shootings.
“Not here, not here,” I kept telling myself. “No puede ser.”
I sat down with the maker of those crosses, Greg Zanis, after he spoke with a relative of one of the victims and wrote her name on one of the crosses. His hands and T-shirt were stained from the black marker he was using to write.
“I never imagined that I was going to see you here,” I told him as I broke down in tears.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying in that moment and many other moments this week. I cried when I read “915” – the city’s area code – and “El Paso” in the signs at the memorial. I cried when I heard Juan Gabriel’s “Amor Eterno” being played by a mariachi. I cried when I hugged my 7-year-old niece for the first time since I arrived to cover the shooting, and when my mom told me how anxious she felt when she went to another Walmart to pick up eggs and ham two days after the shooting.
I’ve cried so much this week because this is my home. I didn’t know any of the victims but still I’m mourning them. I’m mourning because I’m part of a community full of love and fraternity, where families get together every weekend to go to church and cook carne asada in their backyards. I’m mourning because I grew up around people who are going to hug just minutes after meeting you, because in El Paso a simple handshake wouldn’t make it – it feels so impersonal.
It hurts because when I think about those who were inside the store that Saturday morning, I think about my own family.
My mom could have been there buying blood glucose test strips and sugar-free snacks for my grandmother who has diabetes. My dad could have stopped there to pick up Coca-Cola 12-packs for his business in Juárez.
One of my sisters had just gotten my niece’s list of school supplies and was running low on water bottles, about to go shopping. My other sister could have been buying groceries before heading to Juárez after her work shift or taking my nephews to check out the toy section.
None of them was there that day and I’m thankful for that. And I’m also thankful that my late grandfather, mi abuelito Nacho, doesn’t have to live with this pain.
He would always sit at a metal bench near the entrance by the restrooms while the rest of us would walk for hours around Walmart. My grandfather would give me a $1 bill or the few coins he had in his pocket so I could go on with my mom and buy candy myself. Meanwhile, he would sit there and make friends with everybody around him.
Many of the victims were older, just like he was. They’ve gone to this Walmart for decades with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A gruesome homecoming
I never imagined that I would arrive in El Paso and not spend every minute with my mom, go to the movies with my family or buy Chihuahua cheese to bring back home with me.
Instead, I’ve been driving around with a photographer who’s seen me at my best and worst at all hours of the day and night: when I keep crying in the middle of interviews, when I gave up on makeup and got my face sunburned, my multiple bathroom stops and when all my family showed up at a Starbucks where we were filing a story.
When I arrived Sunday morning at the intersection behind Walmart, a few people were praying and others were just standing in silence on the empty street. The store’s parking lot was full of empty cars like any other weekend. Only this time, there weren’t any children running around or families loading groceries. There was only silence.
The sole bouquet of yellow flowers that arrived that morning to this intersection has since turned into a yards-long memorial. Crowds of people have come with flowers, Mexican and American flags, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and drawings of the Star on the Mountain. They’ve come to pray in large groups or by themselves.
I’ve taken photos and recorded my conversations with dozens of people but I’ve also taken breaks to mourn with them.
When a teenage boy standing next to me started crying at the memorial, I turned and hugged him in silence. I never asked his name and I just offered him my water bottle before walking away. When a family was singing Spanish worship songs, I quickly snapped a photo and joined them for a song before they left.
Home is El Paso and also Ciudad Juárez
The tragedy has shaken a completely binational community and it’s something that’s hard to understand for many outsiders. When someone asks me where I am from I mostly say that I’m from El Paso. It’s really just the easiest way to answer but things are slightly more complex than that.
My parents are from Ciudad Juárez and my sisters are as well, but I was born in El Paso. I lived in Juárez for most of my life, just like more than half of my classmates at school in Mexico. We grew up on both sides, crossing back and forth to go shopping, visiting family and eventually going to college at the University of Texas at El Paso.
In 11th grade, I would go to high school in Juárez in the morning and attend El Paso Community College in the late afternoon. I met one of my best friends while walking across the Santa Fe International bridge and waiting for a bus to UTEP. I’ve spent countless hours waiting in my car to get across. My car broke down or ran out of gas many times, and when I got expedited entry, there would be days I’d cross as many as four times.
This was the first Walmart I’d ever set foot in and the only one my family would go to for years.
‘We always go there’
When I talk to my nephews and niece about what I do for a living, I mostly just tell them that I write about crime and other things that happen around the country. My niece just started reading but I don’t want her to read my stories.
As I’ve walked to the memorial site every evening, I see large families coming to visit with children of all ages. I’ve asked many parents how are they handling it with their children. What have they told them, and what are they doing if their children say they are scared?
My nephews and my niece are not my children, but they are my world. I want to shield them from all the pain and hate in this world, but I know we can’t. While my niece knows only the gist of what happened, my 12-year-old nephew has seen a few of the more graphic videos that circulated on social media early on.
“We always go there,” he told me as his eyes filled with tears. He also knows the shooter was targeting Mexicans and the Hispanic community.
Sitting at a Mexican restaurant, I told him he should not be afraid. I told him he should be proud of his heritage. I told him that now that he and his friends, and his generation, know of these shootings, they can still build a better future for themselves if we fail them. I urged him to not be afraid of interacting with white people and to treat them the same way he would treat our family members.
“You can show them love and who we really are,” I told him.
It’s been a week since the shooting at Walmart. The media outlets that stormed to El Paso from around the world have mostly left or are leaving soon. Like them, I will have to leave in a few days and get to the next story.
This time, I don’t want to move on. I may not stay here in El Paso for the time being, but I’m taking both the pain I felt this week and the strength of my people to continue telling the stories of my city and Latinos across the country.
How can I turn my back on the people who have surrounded me with nothing but love for so many years?
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of crossmaker Greg Zanis.