What's Next For El Paso Walmart Where 22 People Were Killed In Shooting

Aug 23, 2019
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The El Paso Walmart where 22 people were killed this month was more than just a big-box store. It was a public space in the community where hundreds would come to gather. Now people there are worried the space will never be the same. Jonathan Levinson from the reporting project Guns & America has more.

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JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: From this little league baseball game in Ponder Park, you can see the intersection where El Paso police arrested the alleged gunman, a 22-year-old man who says he drove 600 miles to, quote, "kill Mexicans." Alex Hernandez is watching his stepson's little league game. He says he'd often meet friends at this Walmart or go with his family just to walk around.

ALEX HERNANDEZ: Because it was so close and just a place to go, I guess, when you were late at night. Oh, let's go to Walmart. Hang out a little bit, walk.

LEVINSON: His favorite aisle?

HERNANDEZ: The toys (laughter).

LEVINSON: El Paso and nearby Ciudad Juarez just across the border were intertwined long before there was a border. Despite walls and vitriolic rhetoric, today the two cities are still thought of as one entity in local imaginations.

The suspect cited a Hispanic invasion of Texas. He targeted the very identity of the city. But the shooting struck at something else, public space.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

LEVINSON: Speaking before thousands of people at a memorial service for the shooting victims, the governor of Mexico's Chihuahua state Javier Corral described the store's social significance.

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JAVIER CORRAL: (Through interpreter) Because we not only share business and commerce or shopping at Walmart, we also share culture, music, gastronomy and especially language and family.

LEVINSON: And the Walmart where the shootings happened epitomized that. Nestled between a movie theater and a mall, it looks like any other shopping center across America, except this was one of the busiest Walmarts in the country. It saw four times as many customers as similar-sized Walmarts. That's due largely to its proximity to the border and the steady flow of shoppers from Juarez.

Now at the Walmart, there's a makeshift memorial to the victims. Flags, candles and signs stretch for more than 1,000 feet. On a Friday afternoon nearly two weeks after the shooting, Adriana Hernandez visited the memorial. She grew up in Juarez.

ADRIANA HERNANDEZ: This Walmart was more than a shopping center. It was more like something that unified, like, El Paso with Juarez.

LEVINSON: Growing up, she used to come here every Sunday with her family to have breakfast with her relatives who lived in El Paso. Other times, she says, it was just a place to go and be together.

HERNANDEZ: Sometimes we don't even shop in this Walmart, but, like, we came here, like, just to see, like, family that leaves here in El Paso like my aunts, my uncles, like, my cousins.

LEVINSON: Isabella Murphy-Zubia is sitting with her dog under a tree near the memorial. She'd go to Walmart with her friends late at night when there was nothing else to do. It was a safe place where they could go and have fun. She says rebuilding that community space is important to her.

ISABELLA MURPHY-ZUBIA: Regardless of what happened, this is my home. And I'm not going to let an outsider come and bring that fear into me.

LEVINSON: And Walmart is trying to make El Pasoans feel safe. The company has added extra security at all of its stores in the area, but the one where the shootings happened remains closed. Adriana Hernandez, whose family used to meet there every Sunday, worries it may be impossible to replace this space.

HERNANDEZ: I guess we're going to, like, heal as a community. But I think it's going to be, like, super, super hard to find another place that brings us together.

LEVINSON: This week, Walmart said it will reopen the store in a few months after many requests by its employees. In announcing the decision, the company also said it will establish a memorial to honor the victims, recognize the bi-national relationship of its customers and celebrate the strength of the community.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Levinson in El Paso, Texas.

CHANG: That story comes to us from Guns & America, a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRK MAASSEN'S "SINAAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.