By Joe Moody, Special for El Paso Matters
There isn’t an El Pasoan anywhere who can’t tell you where they were and how they felt on Aug. 3, 2019, after the massacre at the Cielo Vista Walmart. I was at church preparing for a retreat, discussing community and how to reflect love within it. I’ll never forget the surreal disconnect -- amid the Good News came the bad news, the worst news, the unimaginable that was somehow real and right here in our hometown.
But I’ll also never forget April 26, 2020.
I was packing boxes as my family prepared for a coming move, thinking about whether I’d made the box I was working on too heavy, when I glanced at my phone and saw that Coach Memo had died.
I’d heard his story a hundred times since the shooting. He was one of the first targeted as he stood in front of the store trying to raise money for youth sports. He was a father, husband, and devoted teacher who’d touched countless people. He was a fighter who’d clung to life in intensive care for nine long, painful months. And now he was gone.
I pocketed my phone then reached over to close the box, but my hand froze on the cardboard, my whole body stiffening with it. Even my teeth were clenched. After a moment, I exhaled the abrupt tension, crumpled down onto the bare floor next to the open box, and sat there crying with the heat of the midday sun streaming down onto my head through the arched window behind me.
In that instant, I knew that for me -- for all of us -- Aug. 3 still wasn’t over. We’re still carrying around our rage, our disbelief, our elemental grief. We haven’t healed.
And as the surge of emotion washed over me, I asked myself the same question that’d been rattling around in my brain since the day of the shooting: “Why us?”
Mistaking El Paso’s accepting nature for vulnerability
As a Mexican-American in a community like El Paso, I know how obvious the answer seems. The shooter’s racist manifesto is well known; someone looking to murder brown people came to a brown city with hate in his heart.
What spurred that hate is also clear. Politicians and pundits have trafficked in anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant, anti-border rhetoric since long before I was born. A killer seething with single-minded animus sped past hundreds of off-ramps on a 650-mile drive across Texas to pull the trigger, but his journey was generations in the making.
It isn’t just Trump, although he hasn’t bothered dressing it up like so many before him.
Yet beneath the surface, the question is deeper: Why choose to scapegoat us in the first place?
How does any bully choose a victim? They attack those they think are vulnerable, those they think they can get away with attacking.
When I think about El Paso and its people, it’s easy to understand how an outsider might make that mistake. Ours is the story of America: people who came here from other places and created lives to be proud of. But while some other cities divided themselves along racial or religious lines, neighbors warring among themselves for a piece of the American Dream, El Pasoans have always believed in open doors and open hearts.
What we built, we built together. Maybe that acceptance looks like weakness to some.
One family’s El Paso story
My own family is like so many others here. On my mother’s side, my grandmother, Consuelo Tinoco, was orphaned in Durango, Mexico, before making her way to El Paso. My grandfather, Porfirio Morales, was the son of Mexican immigrants who farmed the Upper Valley and Mission Valley back when that’s all there was to do there. They lived alongside people like my paternal great-grandfather, Arthur Moody, a midwestern transplant who opened an auto body shop in town before bringing his son (my grandfather) to work with him here in El Paso.
In people different from themselves, both sides of my family saw human beings worthy of respect. In people different than themselves, my mother and father saw a common future founded on love. They reproduced that philosophy for us in the way our family organized around my older sister, Melissa, a person living with Down syndrome. My siblings and I were all taught that differences are seeds for learning, growth, and enduring bonds.
That’s the legacy that was passed down to me, the legacy my wife and I are trying to pass down to our sons today. What built this city is the truth that we’re better together than we are apart.
How those with hate can heal
I was blessed to have that upbringing in this special place where so many others share the same sentiment. So, I’ll say to those who’ve chosen to demonize us -- from political opportunists to media sensationalists and even to the young man who murdered Memo Garcia and 22 other brothers and sisters of mine -- let me share our strength with you.
You’re hurting inside to the same degree you’ve spewed hurt outside. You’re alienated and afraid, looking for a place in a world that hasn’t always been fair to you. The hate and powerlessness you’re carrying is an incredible burden; I felt the same way on April 26 when an unbidden avalanche of those kinds of feelings literally floored me in my own home.
You don’t have to shoulder that weight anymore. That hate doesn’t have to be yours. Please, just set it down for a minute, for even a second, and open yourself up. You’ll find us here, ready to embrace you, and we’ll both be better for even the smallest measure of mutual empathy and acceptance.
Love is our strength in El Paso. It will heal us, and it can heal you, too.
El Paso’s path forward
As we work through the healing process now -- very much a journey, one without shortcuts -- we’re also navigating the medical, social, and economic realities of a pandemic along with a complex crisis around race and inequality and policing. It feels like thrive has given way to survive. But this can also be a time of hope and opportunity.
“Intersectionality” is something my good friend and colleague Mary González has taught me a lot about. It’s the idea that many different factors (like race, class, and gender) all have overlapping effects that have to be understood to explain and overcome discrimination and disadvantage. In other words, our world is complicated and connected.
What we’re experiencing now is intersectional: the shooting in El Paso, a surging coronavirus, racial strife in cities across America, the breakdown of policing as an institution, families struggling to make ends meet, and hyper-partisanship so complete it almost isn’t recognizable as politics. All of these are woven together into a singular moment on the threshold of a world guaranteed to be different than the one before it -- just how being left for us to decide.
Maybe the lesson I was learning at my church during the shooting was no coincidence. Shining a light of love and understanding is the path forward for us as a community. I’ve said before that we didn’t choose what the shooter did to us, but we can choose what we do next. Both justice and healing have nothing to do with him. They happen in your heart and mine as we decide who we are and who we want to become, and our hearts, like any muscle, can grow stronger as they mend.
The border insists on respect
Right now, the only thing many of us can see is the fight. We’re battling the virus, we’re battling racism, we’re battling injustice, but there will come a day after the battle when healing is all that will remain. Those we’re locked in conflict with now are still our neighbors. When the dust settles, the divide between us must be bridged.
I’m proud of El Paso. I’m proud of the border. I’m proud of the values that have always made us great. And those taken from us a year ago, different people who walked different paths here in our city, are now forever united as a catalyst for our community to stand up for the kinder, fairer future this state and country deserve.
Healing is action, and we can show the people who’ve used brown bodies as a political football that the fires of racism are a crucible that has forged a people ready to meet today’s intersection of challenges head-on. By confronting hate with love, El Paso can be the template for tomorrow, a new city upon a hill, a promise.
We each have to do our part every day -- social change is the accumulation of small actions.
As an elected lawmaker, I care deeply about policy, but the process of getting to it is at least as important. Government must be rooted in decency. Government must be rooted in dignity. Government must be rooted in diversity. Leaders must speak to and for all Texans, and even when firmly confronting racist fearmongering, there must be room to reconcile and reunite.
That’s my part. I work every day to be mindful of El Paso values. I’ll never hate people on the other side of the political spectrum, even those who’ve wronged us, because they’re still people who I can find common ground with.
I’m committed to restoring a baseline of respect in Texas politics and creating an environment where our differences, although very real, are secondary to a love of all Texans. I still believe we’re better together than we are apart.
Another colleague of mine, the inimitable Harold Dutton, Jr., once said: “If they don’t respect us, they’d better expect us.” It was a call for bold action in a different circumstance than we face today, but it resonates with me because what we’re facing demands bold action from El Paso and other border communities.
We’ve been disrespected for too long, and we must insist on respect -- not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Healing from the adversity of Aug. 3 and a history of subtler violence can mean taking our turn to set the table, one finally big enough for every Texan.
In this incredible time, Texas should expect El Paso strength, El Paso love, and El Paso leadership.
Joe Moody is the speaker pro tempore of the Texas House of Representatives and represents parts of West and Northeast El Paso .
Cover photo: Parents took their children to the spontaneous memorial that went up in August 2019 near the Cielo Vista Walmart. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)