The nine-hour drive from Fort Worth to El Paso can be desolate.
The journey moves west from Fort Worth along Interstate 20 and then Interstate 10. The 600 miles include long stretches of open West Texas, with spotty cell service and no news or music for those without satellite radio.
Ceci Mendez knows the journey well. It’s one the longtime Benbrook resident takes to visit family in the border city where she was born and raised.
“This is home, but El Paso is still home in a different sense,” Mendez said. “El Paso is the home of my heart and the Fort Worth area is my home where I live, where I raised my daughter.”
El Paso is more than 600 miles from Dallas-Fort Worth, but the regions are forever linked by a gunman. The suspect is a 21-year-old from the Dallas suburb of Allen. He is charged in shooting deaths of 22 people inside a Walmart in on Aug. 3.
A manifesto believed to be written by the suspected shooter said the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Authorities are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime and said the shooter specifically targeted Hispanic people.
Texans with deep ties to El Paso are trying to heal as they come to terms with why their home of more than 800,000 was attacked. Whether they live on the border or miles away in North Texas, people with El Paso ties said they worry that Hispanics are a target.
At a memorial Monday, Araceli 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.
That fear is echoed by many Hispanics in Texas.
“The fact that a white supremacist hopped in his car from the Metroplex and went to a Walmart that specifically targets Latinos — that changes everything,” said Texas A&M associate professor of history Felipe Hinojosa. “We’re sending our kids to a school or are in towns wondering, How do people see us? What do they think of us?”
A Southern Ellis Island
Hinojosa, who grew up in Brownsville, said border cities like El Paso have a unique place in the United States.
El Paso was the “Ellis Island” of the southern United States. Families across Texas, California and the Midwest can trace their lineage back four generations to El Paso, he said.
Maricela Sánchez Chibli, a long-time resident of Colleyville, is from the El Paso area. Her father, Rogelio Sánchez, served on the El Paso County Commissioners Court. At the time of his death in 2006, her father was described as the longest serving county commissioner in El Paso history.
Chibli said her family roots in El Paso started when her grandfather, who was also named Rogelio Sánchez, moved his family from the Torreón region of Mexico in the early 1900s. The family’s oral history tells of how her grandfather’s hardware store was a stopping point for the famous Mexican revolutionary, Pancho Villa.
When Mendez talks about growing up in El Paso, her ties with Ciudad Juarez run as deep as family.
“If it wasn’t for the river and bridges, you wouldn’t even know you are in two different countries,” said Mendez, a retired state employee.
Mendez grew up in an era before drug cartel wars and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It was natural to cross back and forth between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. On Sundays, people went to church and then to Mexico. People were drawn to Mexico for shopping, food and music.
Mendez said their community was “bi-national.” She said some of that culture was on display when El Paso came under attack. Back-to-school shopping draws people from Mexico, and they were at the Walmart when the shots were fired.
In the United States, El Paso sits far away from major U.S. metropolitan areas. Dallas-Fort Worth is often a draw for jobs.
The University of Texas at El Paso has alumni all over the United States, said Maribel Villalva, assistant vice president for alumni relations in El Paso. She said the UTEP Dallas-Fort Worth Alumni Network is one of the largest groups with about 5,000 members.
“There‘s a lot of ties back to El Paso, wherever you go, and those ties are everlasting,” Villalva said, adding that for those who watched the tragedy unfold outside of El Paso, the heartbreak was understandable.
“You know the street. You know where this happened. You may know people affected,” she said.
North Texans with El Paso ties said the city stays dear to them because of the community’s welcoming spirit and strong family connections.
“The family ties are very strong. I love my city. It’s a beautiful city,” said Mendez, who lived for many years in Benbrook, but now lives in a rural area outside of that city.
A talking point for politicians
While El Paso is cherished by many, it has become center to the nation’s immigration debate.
For much of the country — and Tarrant County — border cities have become a talking point for politicians. President Donald Trump visited El Paso in February after falsely claiming the city had high rates of violent crime before the erection of a border wall.
Mendez said her blood boils when she sees her hometown’s border culture used for political rhetoric. She grows angry when Hispanics are stereotyped by politicians, including Trump.
“You cannot pigeon-hole the Texas border,” Mendez said, adding that Hispanics shouldn’t be belittled because of their ethnicity.
Bob Peña, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party, said Trump has drawn attention to a problem in El Paso.
Peña said he sees evidence of it constantly when he drives to and from Juarez. Hundreds of people line up each day in Juarez to cross into the U.S. Many are from Central American countries and are overwhelming facilities in Juarez and El Paso, he said.
“We have an invasion. Call it what it is,” he said.
The El Paso region saw a 547% increase in migrant apprehensions in the first half of fiscal 2019 compared with the first half of fiscal 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.
Others say immigration has long been a part of El Paso’s identity.
“Building walls has never been a solution for El Paso,” said Brittany Perry, a political science professor at Texas A&M.
Changing demographics in DFW
Mendez said she knows the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall. It comes in her sights as she arrives to El Paso on Interstate 10. She gets angry thinking about how the gunman drove through long miles alone with the aim to hurt.
“I’m in pain for my city. I hurt,” Mendez said. “I don’t think El Paso will ever be the same again. It’s like a cancer has arrived.”
Many wonder why the gunman drove so far to target Hispanics since they live and work in every part of Texas.
Tarrant County, for example, has seen the most Hispanic growth of any Texas county since 2010, according to data gathered by the Texas Tribune. That growth can make some people feel threatened.
When changing demographics and national rhetoric — especially that which dehumanizes a group of people —combines, some people may react with extremism, Perry said.
“When the changes in local demographics coupled with national rhetoric come together, that’s when you see the most hostile reactions to immigration,” she said. She noted Trump’s tweets that use phrases such as “invasion” and “infestation,” saying this kind of language can dehumanize Hispanics.
However, Perry also pointed out there is no direct evidence that this kind of language directly caused the shooting in El Paso.
That rhetoric was not born in El Paso, but it has taken root in the rest of Texas, Perry said.
Texas’ history is rooted in Latinx culture — after all, the state was part of Mexico until 1836. But while El Paso has always been mostly Hispanic, the rest of the state has seen an influx in Hispanic residents, and that growth can cause tension in other demographic groups, Perry said.
Hinojosa said this kind of thinking is not new in the U.S. — it has just become more mainstream in the past few years.
“History is coming out of its grave,” Hinojosa said. “White America needs to self assess and analyze what it is that is driving this fear and paranoia that if you have a demographic shift, somehow Latinos are going to take power away.”
Others say focusing on rhetoric in El Paso is unnecessarily divisive.
“We haven’t even buried our dead here in El Paso, and we’ve had two politicians throwing gasoline on the fire,” Peña said, referring to Rep. Veronica Escobar and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke.
El Paso resident Eduardo Rojas, who left posters for visitors to sign at a memorial for shooting victims, said the country should focus on healing.
“We should be able to stop the rhetoric that is going on within Republicans and Democrats and be able to come together as a nation,” he said. “If this doesn’t bring us together, I don’t know what will.”