When I was 21 years old, I moved to El Paso, Texas. In January of 2006, I went with a group of education students from Minnesota to complete our student-teaching internship. After three months, I was infatuated with the city. The food, the people, and even the desert. Coming from snowy blizzards and negative temperatures to 60 degrees of sunshine, the hot sandy desert was a welcome change. Even the cactus covered mountains had me enamored.
El Paso is bordered to the north by the Franklin Mountains. At night, you can drive up the mountain to a lookout where your view stretches for miles, not only taking in El Paso’s city lights but also those of Juárez, Chihuahua. The two cities meet at the Rio Grande river.
When I first taught in El Paso’s Ysleta Independent School District, more than 90 percent of the students were from a Mexican background and were fully bilingual. And even though my last name comes from a Mexican heritage, I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, surrounded by English and Anglo-Americans. Even the Mexican side of my family were the “whitest Mexicans” — a phrase we had proudly coined. Our Mexican-American family was distinctly more American, with the tamales served as a side to the turkey, stuffing, and green beans.
My grandparents spoke Spanish, but never to the grandchildren. Even when I studied Spanish in high school, I could not speak it and barely understood a few greeting phrases. And asking my grandparents for help never crossed my mind. Spanish was a course to pass, not a language to communicate.
The difference between El Paso and my Midwest upbringing first met me on the highway. Driving West into El Paso on I-10, billboards advertising law services from Reyes, Rosales, Reyes, and Ortiz greeted me. Then there were the doctors Viarreal, Gonzalez, Alvarez, and Borrego. When I was introduced to the head teachers at the school, I learned to pronounce Becerra, Contreras, Garcia, and Flores. Everywhere I went — from Walmart to the hair salon — I heard Spanish.
For the first time in my 21 years, my brown skin and dark brown hair made me blend in. And my whole height of 5 feet 2 inches didn’t make me the shortest person in line.
El Paso became my first home away from home and taught me the other part of my hyphenated identity. In May of 2006, after completing my student-teaching program, I received my degree in English and instead of moving back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to be near my parents and siblings, I returned to El Paso.
I enrolled in a church internship program, and after the year-program ended, I stayed for three more years as an English teacher at the church’s private school. I volunteered with a Spanish children’s ministry, and with my limited Spanish skills, they accepted me as part of the team.
And being 1,500 miles away from Wisconsin, I was invited to spend holidays with friends’ families. One Thanksgiving, we ate turkey in a chili adobo sauce. It was these small, everyday things that made El Pasoans the perfect blend of the two cultures.
Living on the U.S.-México border for those four years led me to appreciate the mixing of the two cultures that is as normal for El Pasoans as having Chico’s Tacos topped with cheddar cheese.
I felt at home — not only as a Mexican-American, but also because my grandmother Berta Ramirez was born and raised in El Paso. Her parents were born on the México side of the border, but their house later ended up north of the arbitrary line that changes one country to another, and Berta was born a U.S. citizen. Families like hers who were raised on the border have seen the actual country lines merge and shift over generations.
For example, the U.S. Bowie High School my grandmother attended was, at one point, moved into México with the shift of the river. A new building was built north of the new line. The physical border dispute was finally resolved with a concrete channel built to cement the line in place.
When I first moved to El Paso in 2006, however, the border was still fluid. You could walk across the bridge by paying 10 pesos and return by declaring “American” to the border agents. No passport or identification was needed. The two cities were conjoined twins.
Teaching in El Paso meant teaching Mexican nationals who spoke more Spanish than English. The students from Juárez would cross the border in the morning, be picked up by the yellow school bus and dropped off at school. The “border bus” returned the students to the Paso del Norte crossing in the afternoon, and they would finish their English literature homework in México to turn in the next morning.
This is why two days ago, when I started scrolling my Facebook feed, my heart dropped. “Stay safe and don’t go anywhere if you don’t have to.” “My mom is at that Walmart. Please pray for her and everyone who is out there!” “This is a very sad day in the city of El Paso, continue to pray.”
Reading the news of the racially motivated shooting in the Cielo Vista shopping center while finishing dinner at a birthday party in México felt surreal. I no longer live in El Paso — not even in the U.S. — I have opted for the other side of the arbitrary line to make a home.
And I knew before seeing the news confirm it. I knew the mass murder was racially motivated. I knew that this homegrown American terrorist had targeted this city on purpose. I knew — just as the killer knew — that El Paso is a symbol of people who live on both sides of the border in peace. Mexican-Americans and American-Mexicans, and he hated them all.
He drove West on I-10 just as I did so many years ago. But when he saw the Mexican last names and brown-skinned residents, he was filled with fear. When he walked into a Walmart on Saturday morning, he knew he would find families doing their back-to-school shopping. When he opened fire and heard “Dios mío, padre santo, protégenos” he did not hear a prayer. He heard a foreign language from foreign people. His heart was already filled with hate.
El Paso may no longer be my home, but it is part of my heart. From my new vantage point — on the southern side of the border — I hope and pray for peace in my home country. I pray for the school teachers and the police officers and the restaurant workers and the church attenders around the nation, because this is not the first. I hope that this vile racist attack is the last, but I fear it may be just one more in a list of hundreds who have already been killed by white supremacists.
Because as I scrolled Facebook, in the midst of my friends from El Paso posting about the terrorist attack, friends in Minnesota and Tennessee and New York were posting about children’s birthdays and summer vacations. For many, it was only one more news story. Mass gun violence and racist attacks have become a sad normal.
But I will continue to pray for a change not only in the hearts of the people but in the minds of the lawmakers. May we find peace between our nations and acceptance for the immigrant. I pray for you, America.