"Forgiveness isn’t given lightly": El Pasoans balance healing with anger a year after Walmart massacre

Members of El Paso Firme and Border Network for Human Rights on Monday marched down Sunmount Drive toward the Walmart where a gunman killed 23 people and injured several others Aug. 3, 2019. Briana Sanchez/El Paso Times via REUTERS

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EL PASO — It’s been about a year since the lyrics to the Spanish-language ballad rang out in the parking lot of a shopping complex in East-Central El Paso. The song, Amor Eterno, was penned by borderland hero Juan Gabriel and speaks about a family’s tragic loss. It was played several times here in the aftermath of one of the deadliest mass shootings in the state’s history.

On Monday, the lyrics resonated once again as a duo sang its message of agony and remembrance just before 23 white doves were released in honor of the victims.

But there was also an undercurrent of enduring fear and anger that hasn’t faded since a gunman confessed to targeting Hispanic people in order to ward off what he said was an invasion of this country. The alleged gunman, Patrick Crusius, 22, has spent the last year in jail and is charged with dozens of state and federal crimes that could result in a death sentence.

To some, that punishment is justified. To others, what’s more important right now is that people don’t forget what led to the shooting: hate-filled rhetoric in a divided nation that scapegoats people of color.

“We want to remember them and ask for justice. But justice happens through remembering why this attack occurred,” said Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights. “We’re worried that people want to forget the reason this happened. It was a racist attack, it was motivated by white supremacy.”

Crusius is being prosecuted on state and federal charges, though it’s unclear which case will proceed first. His punishment in both trials could lead to the death penalty. That determination is likely years away in a judicial system whose regular operations have been hard hit by a global pandemic. Meanwhile, a city that still mourns is grappling with how to heal without shortchanging itself on the best way to stand against the hatred that acted as a catalyst for the tragedy.

“I’ll never forgive him. That was my wife. That was everything in my life,” said Tony Basco, a widower whose wife, Margie Reckard, died in the shooting. “I felt her die when he shot her in the head. He stole my soul away, he stole my love. I hate the dude, I wish death upon him.”

Basco last year said he had no immediate family in El Paso so he invited the city to mourn his wife’s loss with him. More than a thousand people showed up to support him.

Bishop Mark Seitz, of the El Paso Catholic Diocese, said he understood the anger and said forgiveness needs to be earned.

“People have a right to be angry, I am angry at what happened and I am angry at him,” he said. “Forgiveness isn’t something that’s given lightly. All of that being said, vengeance is not the solution to violence. It just creates a cycle of more violence and so we’ve got to find ways to find justice that don't simply continue that cycle of violence. And we have to direct our anger in such a way.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, didn’t mention an elected official by name. But she didn’t hide her message that GOP rhetoric — at the highest levels — contributed to the massacre.

“While we have to make sure that our families come first and that we recognize the needs of these families, it is also critical that we recognize why we are here today,” she said. “We are here today because some of the highest leaders in this land have fueled hatred for communities of color and have used language to describe immigrants that rips them from their humanity. We will not have reconciliation until we confront that hate and that racism, until we reject it and we remove the power that it has.”

Hispanic people weren’t the only ones injured or killed in the shooting, however. Pastor Michael Grady, a pastor at Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship who retired from the military and moved back to El Paso in 2004, said that shows that all communities of color need to come together in the shooting’s aftermath.

His daughter, Michelle Grady, who is black, was shot three times during Crusius’ rampage. She's gone through 17 surgeries and is recovering, Michael Grady said.

“People often say that the manifesto said he came to kill Mexicans. Michelle is obviously not Mexican but she was in the way,” he said. “She was donating to a soccer team [outside]... Yes, I am angry but we have to work with the powers that be and we have to be a coalition.”

Kianna Long, 25, hid with other shoppers in a shipping container after the shots rang out. She understands the anger and keeps some of it for herself. She hopes it will fade but one year after the massacre, she’s not quite there.

“Everybody has a change of heart eventually,” she said Monday at the memorial. It was her first trip back to the scene since the shooting. “I’ll come to terms with that but right now it’s not my time.”

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