#ElPasoStrong: Walmart near border reopens three months after mass shooting

Walmart associates return to work at the Cielo Vista Walmart three months after a gunman massacred 22 people and wounded 24 others. Both customers and associates were happy to return and show that El Paso will overcome the tragedy. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

Old Glory flies over a #elpasostrong banner adorning the El Paso Walmart where 22 people were killed and 24 wounded. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/ Cronkite News)

Associates of the Cielo Vista Walmart greet shoppers for the first time in three months. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/ Cronkite News)

EL PASO, Texas – Authorities say Patrick Crusius loaded his guns into his car on Aug. 3 and drove more than 650 miles from a Dallas suburb to El Paso, on a mission to stop what he called a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Targeting Latinos, Crusius killed 22 people and injured 24 more when he opened fire in a Walmart shopping center that day, according to murder charges filed against Crusius.

On Thursday, the Cielo Vista Walmart reopened its doors for the first time since the mass shooting.

7:50 a.m.

A few yards outside the main entrance, blue-uniformed Walmart employees huddle beneath a banner reading “#elpasostrong.” After a quick team meeting, they make their way inside the store. Some hug one another and grab hands as they walk. Roughly 20 people are sprawled across the parking lot, looking at the building while carrying out small talk with each other and the reporters stationed out front.

9 a.m.

As planned, security guards begin ushering the first group of a dozen or so customers through the entrance of the Walmart. “Welcome back!” cheers erupt as employees line the entrance, clapping and encouraging those walking through the doors for the first time in three months. Fists pump overhead, and 30 to 40 people – some wearing #elpasostrong T-shirts – get out of their cars and make their way into the building.

9:40 a.m.

Inside the store, each checkout counter has an employee stationed at the end, standing with their hands behind their back, looking stoic yet somehow friendly. Clearly, Walmart executives wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be understaffed today. The atmosphere is light but watchful, with security guards running back and forth. Clapping erupts every other minute from the front of the store as another customer enters or exits for the first time since August.

As the morning continues outside, the air continues to buzz with a feeling of oneness. Shoppers walk through the tower of cheering employees on either side of the store as they exit hugging and screaming “Welcome to Walmart!” and “Thank you for coming back!”

9:50 a.m.

Lifetime El Paso resident Alec Berdeja, 18, looks on as one of his friends is interviewed by local news media in the parking lot. “My favorite part about being from El Paso is the border. You can go every day if you want,” Berdeja said, adding that El Paso is one of the most accepting cities in the nation because of its relationship with Mexico. “A lot of people here travel back and forth from Mexico. The border doesn’t really divide us.”

Mexico and New Mexico border El Paso, which is nearly 80% Hispanic.

Elvia Vega, who was among the shoppers returning to the Cielo Vista Walmart on Thursday, she says she looks forward to better times for El Paso. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

The shooting took place less than 3 miles north of the border, at a shopping center frequented by Americans and Mexicans. Coupled with the accused shooter’s racist manifesto, residents believe they were specifically targeted and victimized for the very thing that makes them proud to be from El Paso.

10:10 a.m.

For some residents, the tragedy has served as a reminder of the values El Paso holds dear. Alecia Mckinney, who has lived in El Paso 14 years, said that there’s no place like it.

“It’s important that people know you can push us, but you can’t knock us down. And if you do, we’re going to get back up,” she said outside the Walmart.

“It’s always been an accepting community, we don’t look at race, gender, religion,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. You’re one of the family once you move here. I’m so glad to see that Walmart is back where they belong. It was a nut from another city with an agenda. It’s a tragedy for the families that lost loved ones, but this community came together and supported them and we will always support each other.”

For others, though, the massacre is too deep and fresh a wound to revisit so soon.

11:50 a.m.

Sylvia Saucedo and her mother, Silvestra Saucedo, choose not to attend the reopening this morning. The two sit in their El Paso living room beneath a painting of the famous Mexican-American artist Frida Kahlo.

They remember Aug. 3, when they hid under a table at the McDonald’s inside the Walmart when the shooter entered the store and opened fire.

“He saw us. Now that I look at the footage from Walmart, I realize he saw us,” Sylvia said. The footage shows the shooter looking in the direction of the McDonald’s, she said, but for whatever reason, he fired in the other direction.

Silvestra Saucedo, left, and her daughter Sylvia were shopping at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso when the shots rang out Aug. 3. They hid beneath tables at the McDonald’s inside the store. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

According to authorities, Crusius posted a racist, anti-immigration “manifesto” titled “The Inconvenient Truth” on an online message board just 20 minutes before carrying out the violence. In it, he urged immigrants to return to their “home countries” and claimed that Democrats are pushing for “open borders” causing a “hispanic invasion” of the U.S.

For some El Paso residents, the shooting seems to echo the political tension of the nation.

“We’re so lucky he didn’t kill us,” Sylvia Saucedo said. “I think he wanted to kill the people that were running so they wouldn’t get away. We were praying the whole time. I honestly know that He protected us.”

Mother and daughter say they didn’t leave home for weeks after the shooting. Sylvia used to work out daily but hasn’t since the incident.

“It’s been bad. After that, there’s been so many other shootings in El Paso. And that’s not like El Paso,” she said.

Sylvia said she hasn’t been able to sleep, and has started going to therapy to try and be able to leave the house without fear again.

“I attended the court where he (the accused shooter) pled not guilty, and when I saw him, I pictured myself under the table again. That feeling from under the table, it’s there all of the time. I get scared by a small noise or someone knocking on the door, or someone staring at me. I think, ‘What if that guy has a gun?'”

Sylvia said she hopes that the shooter receives a fair trial, and that the government begins enforcing background checks for guns.

“He better hope God is more merciful than he was,” Sylvia said of Crusius. “He deserves the death penalty.”

Social Justice Reporter, Phoenix