EL PASO, Texas (AP) – Inked on the skin and tagged on social media, the words "El Paso Strong,quot; brought city residents together after a mass shooting at Walmart last year.
As COVID-19 took over El Paso, government officials have tried to reuse the catchphrase, like "Don't mess with Texas," originally a catch-all slogan, or "Keep calm and carry on." a little used World War II poster popularized in the internet age. But "El Paso Strong,quot; has not been accepted by the public in the context of the virus, which is challenging community ties in a region that normally transcends borders.
The region's top elected official, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, initially supported playing "El Paso Strong,quot; to gather residents' support for social distancing with the same enthusiasm that they helped each other after the August 3 shooting. But Samaniego says it is difficult to link the shooting and the virus crises when the city asks residents to respond in the opposite way.
"We ask people to join, and then we ask them to be people, right? Come on‘ Stay home, stay home, "said Samaniego.
In some ways, life during the pandemic is no different than the first few weeks after the shooting, when many residents were afraid to leave.
"It's really creepy," says Ricardo Federico, 32, riding a skateboard with friends to a gas station, one of the few places open on a recent night. "It's like when the city closed (in August). No one wanted to go to Walmart, no one wanted to go shopping. Especially because Hispanics like us, we were targets."
Federal prosecutors have said Patrick Crusius carried out the attack to scare Latinos into leaving the United States, a plot they allege he described in a report released online shortly before the shooting. Crusius is incarcerated while awaiting trial on murder charges.
In the days after the shooting, thousands of people, including from neighboring Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where many of the victims lived, took seats at a baseball stadium for a memorial.
"El Paso Strong, it was as if everyone was taking care of each other," says Federico.
The stadium is now closed, and Samaniego is planning the anniversary of the shooting as his team deals with COVID-19.
A former mental health worker, he regrets that the city is no longer able to focus on healing the trauma of the approximately 3,000 people who were inside Walmart. The death toll rose to 23 in April when Guillermo García died after nine months in hospital.
In a service for Garcia in a hospital parking lot, mourners wore T-shirts with "El Paso Strong,quot; and his nickname "Tank,quot; on the other. His widow, Jessica Coco García, comforted her two children with tears and masks as the sky turned orange over the mountains and the nurses changed shifts at the Del Sol Medical Center, where the doctors who treated the shooting victims are now supervising the attention of COVID-19.
Online, the ElPasoStrong hashtag is now primarily used to reopen ads and other commercials. A law firm has the phrase on a billboard. EPStrong.org, created by city officials for the survivors of the shooting, has become a clearinghouse for COVID-19 orders to stay home and testing and reporting information on symptoms.
Rep. Veronica Escobar says "El Paso Strong,quot; may have resonated here last year due to the region's isolation, in a time zone separate from the rest of Texas and more than 600 miles (1,000 km) from Austin. For a long time it has been a cultural and economic island closer to Ciudad Juárez and to the neighbor of the two cities, Las Cruces, in New Mexico.
"If El Paso sneezes, Ciudad Juárez catches a cold and vice versa," says Escobar. "This is a very symbiotic and interconnected relationship."
But the response to the virus has made state and national borders more prominent. Escobar and Samaniego pressured Austin to delay the reopening. The Mayor of Las Cruces asked residents not to visit El Paso. And El Paso leaders are concerned about a relatively uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak in Ciudad Juárez, where testing is limited and hospitals are riotous.
For Escobar, the motto "El Paso Strong,quot; evokes a borderline love and generosity: "All those values I grew up with comfort me and inspire me and ultimately give me strength."
But the virus has found ways to turn that strength into a vulnerability: The more neighbors and family members visit for support, the faster it spreads.