William Englisbee embodies the quiet strength of the city he calls home.
“Every day’s a struggle,” Englisbee said at Evergreen Cemetery East, where he was paying respects to his mother. Angelina Maria Silva de Englisbee was among 23 people shot and killed at an El Paso Walmart a year ago. She was 86.
He visits his mother’s final resting place multiple times a week. A man of few words, Englisbee’s eyes reflect his deep sorrow. The father of four relies on his faith and family to cope with profound loss. “That carries me through everything,” he said.
He’s had to cope with more than the tragic death of his mother this past year. A manager tasked with reopening several restaurants in El Paso and elsewhere in Texas, he tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of July..
“Yeah, I was sick. I was sick for about a week. A lot of the flu-like symptoms, stuff like that,” he said.
After taking time off, he’s recovered and is not one to complain.
El Paso’s cycle of crisis
El Pasoans’ resilience has been tested time and time again the past few years. The Aug. 3 mass shooting, the largest attack on Latinos in modern U.S. history, was sandwiched between a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of migrant families arrived at the border seeking asylum and the COVID-19 pandemic’s health risks and economic downturn.
“I get pretty punchy dealing with it,” Mayor Dee Margo said.
The mayor looks to the border city’s long history for inspiration that El Paso can withstand a series of potentially soul-crushing traumatic events.
“You know, we’ve been here for over 350 years. We’ve been here 100 years before the United States was ever founded. And we’ve seen revolutions and wars. And we’ve survived it all. And I think we have a unique embedding in our DNA that’s part of the multi-generational culture we have here, that allows us to survive and not be vindictive and able to move forward. That’s all I can put my arms around,” he said.
The mass shooting was a hate crime. The accused gunman told police, as he was being taken into custody, that he came “to kill Mexicans.” Minutes before the attack, he also allegedly posted an online diatribe saying he wanted to “stop the Hispanic Invasion of Texas.”
A welcoming community
El Pasoans tell you they know they were targeted because of who they are and where they live — the border. Who they are and where they live also is a source of strength.
“I think of the literally tens upon tens of thousands of refugees, immigrants that come into the Juarez-El Paso border area and thousands of people stepped forward to volunteer. And that really is part and parcel of the character of what this community is like,” said Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, a non-profit organization that provides temporary shelter and care for migrants and refugees.
El Pasoans responded to the humanitarian crisis by volunteering to provide meals and offering their churches as temporary shelters. The hate-filled Aug. 3 attack created unimaginable heartache. But Garcia said the now 22-year-old suspect from the Dallas area could not break El Paso’s spirit.
“This young man tried to snuff that out and I think El Paso’s response was, that isn’t going to happen. That’s not who we are. We are a people who will come back. We are, the word you use, is resilient.”
Celeste Nevarez sees El Paso’s resilience on display daily. She’s a mental health counselor and chief of clinical services at Emergence Health Network.
“As a region, as an area, we have been really pushed to test our limits, what we can take emotionally, financially, physically, our health,” Nevarez said.
The impact has been felt individually and collectively on both sides of the border
“As a community, the fact that we have stood the test of time with all of these major individual traumas and now they’ve been compounded in the space that we’re currently in, and yet we continue to care for our neighbors, we continue to check on one another, we continue to love one another and look for a brighter future, only speaks to who we are as a region,” Nevarez said.
A model for the nation
That’s a lesson for the rest of the country, said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso.
“We protected one another. And that is who we are, not just as El Pasoans, but that is who America should be. As a country we have lived through incredible turmoil since that day. More shootings, through the brutality of the death of George Floyd and others. We really are facing a reckoning as a country,” she said.
As El Paso marks the first anniversary of the attack, Englisbee is focused on honoring his mother’s memory and the family’s proud legacy.
“Her dad in World War II fought in the Philippines. She had three brothers who were in the military. My grandfather, her father Marcelino Silva, was born in Lamy, New Mexico, before New Mexico became a state in 1912,” Englisbee said.
In the midst of the heartache, current economic hardship and health crisis, he’s also remembering El Pasoans’ response following the attack.
“That was amazing during the time when all that happened. I was just in awe. El Paso pulled together.”
Cover photo: A girl stands at a makeshift memorial outside the Walmart in El Paso, days after the mass shooting there on Aug. 3, 2019. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)