After shootings, El Paso and Latino groups amp up action against gun violence, white supremacy

“Everybody has to start being an activist, ” said Veronica Saenz, a retired teacher who attended a recent town hall to hold legislators accountable.
Image: 22 Dead And 26 Injured In Mass Shooting At Shopping Center In El Paso
A woman touches a cross at a makeshift memorial for victims outside the scene of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 6, 2019. Mario Tama / Getty Images file

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By Suzanne Gamboa

EL PASO, Texas — Thrust into the national conscience, El Paso is becoming a rallying point against gun violence and white supremacy.

The city had mostly been in the spotlight for issues of immigration and cross-border commerce — until the Aug. 3 massacre at a Walmart, when it became a place of broken lives, shattered spirits and wailing hearts.

Residents are being urge to channel their grief by taking action after a gunman targeting Latinos left 22 people dead and dozens injured. And that action is taking many forms: The League of United Latin American Citizens held a march and rally in the city's downtown. Lawmakers are sitting with state officials to come up with a policy roadmap. Benefit and healing concerts are scheduled.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!,” former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said to residents at a town hall in El Paso last week, urging them to join her in pushing for stricter gun laws. The event was the first of a campaign dubbed "¡Ya Basta! Latinos Rise Against Gun Violence and Hate."

Giffords knows about gun violence firsthand. She suffered a severe brain injury in 2011 when a gunman opened fire on her and others in Tucson, Arizona, killing six and wounding 18.

From center, former Congresswoman and gun violence victim Gabby Giffords is joined by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., from left, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, and other fellow democrats during a rally on the East Front steps of the U.S. House of Representatives on Oct. 4, 2017.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Giffords is doing the campaign in conjunction with Latino Victory, a liberal group focused on electing more Latinos and organizing Latinos around political issues. The inaugural event in El Paso is to be followed by more in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

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Veronica Saenz, 60, a retired teacher who said she was married to a “responsible” gun owner, was among those who attended the recent town hall. She said the shootings have made her and her husband feel they need to be more politically involved.

“Everybody has to start being an activist, ” Saenz said. “This hurt us, our community. … People should start mobilizing and taking action and writing to our legislators … and holding them accountable, because enough is enough.”

High-profile artists rally

Singer-songwriter Khalid, who considers El Paso home, is using a break in his ongoing tour to stage a benefit concert Sunday in El Paso. Billboard reported Monday that proceeds will go to the El Paso Shooting Victims’ Fund and the El Paso Community Foundation.

“I was devastated. I wanted to immediately give back, raise money, raise awareness and help any way I could,” Khalid told Billboard.

A network of immigration advocacy groups and a list of high-profile artists, including the Grammy winning band La Santa Cecilia and the Grammy and Latin Grammy winner Residente, are helping spearhead a music festival and rally on Sept. 7 in the city.

The event dubbed #ElPasoFirme, is being promoted as potentially the biggest gathering in El Paso against white supremacy since the shooting. In Spanish, the words #ElPasoFirme have two meanings — El Paso Strong, but it also means "firm footing."

One of he rally and music festival's organizers is the Border Network for Human Rights, whose executive director, Fernando Garcia, said in a statement that the shooting shattered a peace-loving, hardworking community connecting people across the border.

“Instead of retreating we are presenting an alternative to the hate spewed by a president who every day solidified his support among these same white supremacists who want to harm us," Garcia said.

The network launched "El Paso Firme" along with other groups to unite after the attack and organize events in response. The music fest kicks off a series of national events that will be announced next week.

In 2013, La Santa Cecilia produced a video and song “El Hielo” (ICE) to spotlight the effects of deportations. The idea then was to use art and music to try to bring change. The fear felt then — including for a band member who was undocumented — has grown and now takes on the new type of family separation that was wrought by the gunman, said Miguel “Oso” Ramirez, the band’s percussionist.

“We wrote it with the highest hope things would improve and bring awareness. Sometimes I feel it hasn’t, but I always meet people who say how important the song is to them. All I can do is continue to do that,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez told NBC News that even though he’s not an immigrant, “I’m scared.”

“But at the same time we cannot allow this fear to paralyze us and stop us from standing up for our community and protecting each other,” he said.

“Our family unit and our feeling of family, culturally, is our strongest point we have and that’s what they are going after,” Ramirez said. “They are trying to destroy our family unit. That is the heart and soul of our community.”

Ingrid Giese contributed.