Nation & World

El Paso is a city ‘on edge’ as survivors, families cope with trauma of mass shooting

For many Hispanic residents, Saturday’s shooting was an extension of a fear they say they face because of a national conversation about immigration converging on their city.

El Paso was in the national spotlight in February, when President Donald Trump visited for a rally and promised a wall on the border to combat what he has called the “invasion of illegals.”

“People already felt they were targeted, and now are we going to be targeted when we go out?” said trauma therapist Fabiola Ekleberry. “Is there going to be another guy that drives down to El Paso?”

The location of the shooting hit home for El Paso and its 80 percent Hispanic population. As other malls in the country are failing, Cielo Vista has thrived as a destination. People from Juarez take family trips to the shopping center and load their cars with bags.

At a memorial Monday, Araceli Alvarez led a prayer with fellow members of El Buen Pastor Catholic Church.

Alvarez, who is from Mexico and has lived in El Paso for 25 years, said Hispanics don’t feel safe anymore.

“We feel like they are chasing us, like they are looking for Hispanic people specifically,” she said.

The death toll of the shooting rose to 22 on Monday, when two more victims died, according to police.

It was especially hurtful that someone came from outside the city to target Hispanic people, she said.

“It’s more sad that somebody came to your place and did that to us,” she said.

However, Alvarez said El Paso is going to become stronger because of the shooting. She’s seen the city pull together in the past few days, whether it was her pastor helping victims’ families or police officers dropping off water at the blood bank.

‘He was on a rampage’

Joe Soto said he was at the McDonald’s inside the Walmart store when the shooting began. He said he and six others ran through the kitchen and up a stairway. The six minutes of shooting felt like six hours, he said.

Soto, his wife, Vanessa Alvarez, and their four children stood together Monday at a memorial outside the Walmart. Alvarez was on the phone with her husband when the first shots rang out. They didn’t stop, she said.

“He let that gun go. He was on a rampage,” Alvarez said.

When the police got to the Walmart, Soto said, he led the people out a fire escape door. After telling his wife that he made it out, Soto said he started helping the wounded in the parking lot.

“I guess I was there for a reason, huh?” he said.

Effects of trauma

Those who were inside the Walmart when the shooting happened should seek a support system and reach out to someone trained in trauma therapy, Ekleberry said.

Immediately after the shooting, mental health groups like El Paso Mental Health (where Ekleberry works) prepared for the trauma they knew would follow.

Law enforcement officials said the shooting was isolated to Walmart and the parking lot, but many people who were inside the nearby shopping mall may experience trauma because they thought they were in danger, Ekleberry said.

David Garcia, an El Paso firefighter and Marine Corps veteran, said first responders will need to process what they saw.

“It’s going to be in their minds for a long time — showing up on scene and bodies everywhere,” he said. “Things are going to be different in the city. The city is going to be on edge for a while.”

Alvarez said she thought her husband was going to die inside Walmart.

“I almost lost him. It’s a hurt that is never going to go away,” she said. “When he got home, everything changed.”

For both of them, the shooting made them want to hold onto the moments they have.

Soto said his kids have been wanting a trampoline. On Sunday, he bought one.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.