Written by Simon Romero, Caitlin Dickerson, Miriam Jordan and Patricia Mazzei
After 22 people were shot to death at a Walmart in El Paso over the weekend, a Florida retiree found herself imagining how her grandchildren could be killed. A daughter of Ecuadorean immigrants cried alone in her car. A Texas lawyer bought a gun to defend his family.
For a number of Latinos across the United States, the shooting attack in El Paso felt like a turning point, calling into question everything they thought they knew about their place in American society. Whether they are liberal or conservative, speakers of English or Spanish, recent immigrants or descendants of pioneers who put down stakes in the Southwest 400 years ago, many Latinos in interviews this week said they felt deeply shaken at the idea that radicalized white nationalism seemed to have placed them — at least for one bloody weekend — in its crosshairs.
“At least for Latinos, in some way, it’s the death of the American dream,” Dario Aguirre, 64, a Mexican American lawyer in Denver and a registered Republican, said about the impact of the killings on him and those around him.
Aguirre moved to San Diego from Tijuana when he was 5, and was raised by his grandmother in poor Mexican neighborhoods. He enlisted in the Air Force, and later became an immigration lawyer — a classic American success story.
“Many clients tell me, ‘We’re the new Jews, we’re just like the Jews,’ ” Aguirre said. “It’s quite a transition from being invisible to being visible in a lethal way. It’s something new to my community. We are used to the basic darkness of racism, not this.”
There are now about 56.5 million Latinos in the United States, accounting for 18% of the population — nearly 1 in 5 people in the country. That’s up from 14.8 million in 1980, or just 6.5% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly two-thirds of Latinos were born in the United States.
From Miami to Los Angeles, many said in interviews that evidence of racism had become much more prevalent since President Donald Trump was elected pledging to end what he called “an invasion” across the southern border of people he often characterizes as violent criminals. But the seeds of anti-Hispanic sentiment have been apparent in the country for years, they said.
Daniel Alvarez, 66, who was born in Cuba but has lived in the United States since he was 13, said that talking about the shooting took him back to when he was in high school and he tapped a young woman, another student, on the shoulder. He had not yet learned that some people in the United States can be uncomfortable with being touched unexpectedly.
“The woman turned around and said, ‘Get your dirty hand off me, you goddamn spic,’ ” recalled Alvarez, now a senior instructor in religious studies at Florida International University.
His voice caught and he paused as he choked back tears. “I was totally paralyzed, because I could not fathom what had just happened,” he said. “I could not figure out why somebody would refer to me in such ugly language, and I’m 66 and this happened so long ago, and it still gets me.”
Here in El Paso, a border city of about 680,000 that is about 80% Hispanic, the massacre has felt uniquely personal. Chris Grant, 50, a witness to the El Paso attack who was wounded by the gunman, told The El Paso Times that he had seen the gunman allowing white and African American shoppers out of the Walmart but was spraying Latinos with bullets. In an online post, the attacker complained about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Residents now talk about how it feels dangerous to go out to eat or to the movies. Gun shops in the city are bustling with customers, many of them Latino.
“It’s basically out of the instinct of not wanting to be a victim,” said Zachary Zuñiga, 32, a lawyer in El Paso who signed up for a shooting course and is planning to buy his first gun.
“I want to be able to protect my family if people like this are going to come here thinking they can shoot up places where my family and friends go,” said Zuñiga, who grew up in a home where his parents never had guns.
G. Cristina Mora, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in immigration and race politics, said the attack was likely to have generated a deep sense of unease for Hispanic Americans no matter how long they or their families have lived in the country.
“This has impact beyond the first generation, the immigrant generation,” Mora said. “It reverberates. It doesn’t have to be you who crossed the border. It just has to be you who are not Anglo.”
Suzanna Bobadilla, 28, learned about the shooting while she was on vacation in Connecticut with friends from college. She tried to avoid reading about the episode in detail for the first couple of days because it was too devastating, but could not avoid the story any longer when it surfaced on her social media accounts.
Bobadilla’s father came to the United States from Mexico as a graduate student in the 1980s and married her white American mother. Since open hostility toward Latinos has grown more common over the past few years, she said she spent a lot of time avoiding the news in order to look out for her own mental health.
She either reads or listens to the president’s statements, but avoids watching him on TV because it is too upsetting, and even scary, to see crowds of people chanting behind him when he talks about immigrants.
“As a child of the ’90s, I was taught that if we just share and come together and be collaborative, we’ll have this harmonious society,” said Bobadilla, who has worked for Google in San Francisco since she graduated from Harvard University.
But lately, she said, that has begun to feel like “really hard work that is exhausting.”
In Los Angeles, Kenia Peralta, 18, has been glued to Twitter and news sources reading about the shooting. It has prompted her to question her own identity as an American.
“If this is what America is supposed to be, only white, then I guess I am not American,” said Peralta, the daughter of immigrant parents from El Salvador. She and her 15-year-old brother live with their parents in a one-bedroom apartment near downtown Los Angeles.
“I will always be seen first as Hispanic, no matter if I was born here,” said Peralta, who will enroll at the University of California, Irvine, this fall.
Bertha Rodriguez, a 73-year-old retiree who was born in Cuba and grew up in the Midwest and in Mexico, where her father worked as a jockey, said she had a hard time talking about the El Paso shooting without breaking into tears.
“I live in this terror for my grandkids,” said Rodriguez, who now lives with her mother in Century Village, a large retirement community in Pembroke Pines, Florida. She said two of her grandchildren happened to be at a Walmart in Louisiana when the El Paso massacre unfolded. “This is not the United States that I grew up in,” she said.
In Connecticut, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, 30, said she felt physically sick when she learned that the gunman in El Paso had seemed to have targeted Latinos. She and her parents came to the United States from Ecuador without papers when Cornejo Villavicencio was 5. She is temporarily protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and is applying for a green card through her spouse, but her parents are still undocumented.
Now finishing up a Ph.D. at Yale in American Studies, Cornejo Villavicencio was out to dinner with her partner when she heard the news about the attack in El Paso. She briefly cried in the car but then stopped herself. Crying is considered a sign of weakness in her family and she was scolded for doing it as a child.
To her, the shooting felt like the culmination of a lifetime of fear, one that used to be about her parents getting deported, but now included the possibility that they could be targeted in a terror attack.
“It’s really hard to be alive as an immigrant right now and to not be sick and exhausted,” she said. “It feels like being hunted.”