As Walmart reopens, El Pasoans are still grappling with mass shooting's aftermath

The store where a gunman killed nearly two dozen people and shot dozens more in August opened its doors Thursday, setting off a wave of mixed emotions in a community still grieving.

Flanked by security, workers at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso prepare for the store to reopen Thursday.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with details from the store's opening Thursday.

EL PASO — The poster boards with messages of support for this border community have been removed from the parking lot gate near this Walmart store — the site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in Texas history. Gone, too, are the candles, photographs and rosary beads that for months memorialized the 22 victims of the Aug. 3 attack.

The store reopened its doors Thursday, creating a wave of mixed emotions in a community still grieving from the racially motivated attack by a gunman who allegedly said in an online manifesto that he targeted people who looked “Mexican” in his attempt to ward off what he called an invasion of the country.

For people like Edgar Ceniceros, who went to high school a few blocks away and used to eat lunch at the Walmart McDonald’s, the store’s reopening was inevitable. He hopes returning to the normal hustle-and-bustle at one of the city’s busiest retail centers will mark a return to normalcy. But he knows that it won’t be easy at first.

“This is a place where a lot of people died. It’s going to be hard,” he said from the parking lot of the nearby Sam’s store. “Maybe I am going to cry, but we need to keep going, we need to be strong.”

Megan Markley, a bartender and trainer at the local Hooter’s restaurant, agrees. The eatery and sports bar shares a parking lot with the Walmart, and the day of the shooting, it served as a place where first responders were offered a brief respite from the summer heat.

The memorial that stood for months was visible from the store’s south side window. The city of El Paso moved the memorial to nearby Ponder Park, which was the site of a vigil the day after the shooting. Walmart has started building a permanent memorial on the south end of the store parking lot. It should be completed later this month.

The city of El Paso has constructed a temporary memorial at Ponder Park.

“As an employee, it was hard to come to work every day and look at [the site],” Markley said. “I think everybody, in general, needs to move on and kind of put it behind us. We’re still together as a community, and we support each other.”

The store opened at about 8:45 a.m. local time, and applause and shouts of "welcome back" could be heard outside as the automatic doors swung open and Walmart employees greeted the first shoppers. By 9:30, cars waiting to enter the store's parking lot were backed up on the north side entrance as security guards guided shoppers in anticipation of a busy day.

"I'm glad they're back," said Beverly Stevens, who has been going to the store for nine years. Stevens said she had mixed emotions about revisiting the store, but she was also eager to regain a sense of normalcy.

"It is kind of sad at the same time," she said. "But why let someone stop me from going somewhere? It's my Walmart."

Before the store opened, the U.S. flag that had flown at half-staff since the August shooting was raised, and a banner with the #ElPasoStrong logo was unfurled next to the flag post.

In a statement, Mayor Dee Margo said he was emotional during his visit to the store but reiterated his belief that the city will continue to heal.

"I applaud the Associates for their strength and the example they are setting for all of us — love will overcome hate. This tragedy will not define us,” Margo said.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, tweeted shortly after the store opened, "My heart is with the Cielo Vista Walmart staff and El Pasoans today. We will forever honor the memory of the 22 lives that were taken, continue to care for the survivors, and never stop giving each other the love and strength needed to heal."

Some of the items at the original memorial have been relocated to the park; others have been warehoused until the city decides where they should be placed. It was at the new memorial site where Jay Elmore, a former truck driver who used to deliver merchandise to the Walmart while working for Bimbo Bakeries, said he understood why some El Pasoans think the store should be torn down.

The reopening of the Cielo Vista Walmart was an emotional moment for many in attendance — including employees.

“For some of the [employees], it’s too traumatic,” he said. "I guess it depends on the people. Where I stand, maybe they should tear it down.”

Several El Pasoans at the nearby bus station or the Sam’s parking lot declined to be interviewed and said it was still too difficult to speak about.

State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, represents the east-central side of town where the Walmart stands. He’s acknowledged that he’s as torn as his constituents about the store’s reopening, which he used to frequent before the massacre.

“Part of me says we should not allow this white supremacist to create fear in our community, which is why it’s important that the Walmart continue to be open,” he said. “Why should we live in fear? The other side of me is sympathetic — people were killed there. It’s conflicting, and I think that conflict within me is within many El Pasoans, especially many that live in that area.”

In the weeks after the shooting, Democratic lawmakers urged immediate action from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Many pushed for a special session of the Legislature to address the state’s gun laws, which are some of the least restrictive in the country.

Those calls were amplified after it was revealed that a day before the shooting, Abbott’s campaign distributed a fundraising flyer to supporters calling for Texans to defend the state against illegal immigration and “take matters into [their] own hands.” A shooting in Midland-Odessa on Aug. 31 that ended with seven dead added to the Democrats’ urgency.

Abbott waited for days to address the campaign mailer, and when he did, he drew new criticism for saying that “mistakes were made” instead of offering a direct apology.

“I did get the chance to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand that mistakes were made and course correction has been made,” he said at the time. “We will make sure that we work collaboratively in unification.”

On Tuesday, the Texas Democratic Party said in an email that 100 days after the El Paso shooting, Abbott and the state’s GOP had done nothing substantial to address gun violence.

“Texans are demanding action to end gun violence and stop the spread of hatred at the hands of white supremacist terrorists. What have Texas Republicans like Greg Abbott done? Nothing,” the email stated.

When asked about the the Democratic Party's accusations, Abbott spokesperson John Wittman responded, “I will point you to the Executive Orders the Governor issued that will close the reporting loopholes that had a direct impact on this shooting as well as his formation of the Domestic Terrorism Task Force.”

The eight executive orders, announced in September, focus on bolstering law enforcement response to shootings and prevention of future shootings by strengthening reporting channels. They also seek to stop communication gaps if law enforcement agencies or members of the public think someone might become violent.

The task force was formed to “analyze and provide advice on strategies to maximize law enforcement’s ability to protect against acts of domestic terrorism,” according to a statement issued after its creation in August. The governor also formed the Texas Safety Commission to address gun violence.

Blanco, a member of the commission, said the meetings it held were helpful but that lawmakers shouldn’t wait until the next legislative session in 2021 to consider making changes to Texas’ gun laws.

“These shootings are going to continue to happen if we don’t take action,” he said. “My position is that these [meetings] have been productive and informative. But let’s not wait until 2021 to take action, let’s take action as soon as we conclude [the meetings] in January.”

Meanwhile, Becca, who who works at the Sam’s store across from the Walmart and asked to only be identified by her first name, said El Pasoans will move on regardless of what politicians decide to do. She said the passage of time has helped her. She hopes it stays that way.

“I don’t think we should live in fear,” she said. “When the Sam’s first reopened, I was scared, I had anxiety, but when you start going day after day, you slowly start healing.”

Disclosure: Walmart has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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