Crosses bearing the names of the victims of the Walmart shooting formed a backdrop on Aug. 3, 2021 at Ponder Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

A somber procession of El Pasoans carried 23 black crosses, each stenciled with the names of people lost two years ago. Balloons were released as each of the victims’ names were read out. There were prayers, hugs and a tear-jerking rendition of border hero Juan Gabriel’s composition, “Amor Eterno.”

But strong currents of anger and frustration also flowed Tuesday during a ceremony at Ponder Park that marked the two-year anniversary of the Aug. 3 shooting. The park is just blocks away from the Walmart shopping center where 23 people were killed in what authorities say was a racially motivated attack.

“It’s really difficult, we want to be able to move on and be able to celebrate the lives of the folks who passed away but it just makes it more difficult because nothing’s been done,” said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout. “In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

Volunteers release balloons as the name of each victim is called out during the second-anniversary commemoration of the Walmart shooting at Ponder Park. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The two-year mark comes as an increase in apprehensions of undocumented immigrants on the state’s southern border has led to Texas Republicans to again refer to migrants as “invaders” and paint the entire asylum-seeking community as criminals who should be barred from entering the United States.

“We’ve been saying that the attack in El Paso, at the Walmart, the killings didn’t happen out of the blue. They were conditioned by a narrative,” said Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an advocacy group that organized the event. “We believe that (former president) Donald Trump was responsible for that.”

Two years later, Garcia said, the rhetoric hasn’t changed. But its source is closer to home.

“We have a governor that actually continues saying that, saying there is an invasion, that we need to build a wall that we need to stop vehicles and search them,” Garcia said, referring to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “Plus, anyone can carry weapons without permits. That’s a very dangerous combination.”

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Abbott recently launched a state-funded effort to build a border barrier and last week issued an executive order barring anyone outside of law enforcement from transporting migrants to shelters or other locations. (The legality of the order is currently being considered by a federal judge in El Paso.) The Texas Legislature also passed a constitutional carry bill that allows Texans to carry handguns without training or a license.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, pulled no punches Tuesday and focused squarely on Republican leadership.

“We all have to work hard to ensure that we bring an end to the horror. We cannot let our kids inherit the kind of hate that drove to El Paso that day,” she said. “We have to call it out by name. Greg Abbott, I am calling out your name. There will be blood on your hands if you continue with this hateful, xenophobic, racist rhetoric and policies that put people in danger.”

Rep. Veronica Escobar, right, speaks with poet Gris Muñoz at an event commemorating the second anniversary of the Walmart shooting. Escobar spoke forcefully about gun violence and racist rhetoric. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

When asked to respond to the criticisms lobbed at the governor Tuesday, Abbott’s office instead  referred to a statement released earlier acknowledging the anniversary. 

“Two years ago today, a heinous and senseless act of violence destroyed countless lives in the El Paso community. As we dealt with the aftermath of the horrific violence and overwhelming grief, we also saw the true spirit of what it means to be a Texan,” he said.

Separate events throughout the city Tuesday look to  be less politically charged. In the evening, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and the county commissioners will unveil a healing garden on the city’s south side that “will act as a beacon of El Paso’s culture, strength, and unity,” according to a press release. And later, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser will read the names of the 23 people lost as the city’s iconic mountain star flashes 23 times in their honor.

El Pasoans gathered at Ponder Park on Tuesday to mark the second anniversary of the Walmart shooting. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

It was clear Tuesday morning however, that frustration will linger on in the Sun City. 

State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, is a former state representative whose district in 2019 included the Walmart and Cielo Vista neighborhood. He reminded the crowd that MacArthur Middle School, which he attended, was set up as a make-shift family reunification center in the hours after the shooting.

“(We) went in there to provide some sort of comfort to the families who were waiting to hear the fate of whether their loved ones were killed or injured or alive,” he said. “We will never be made whole again and I say that because I want elected officials to look deep in their hearts and in their souls that his type of tragedy should not continue in our country, that we have the ability to make change, that we can defeat the gun lobby, that we can defeat the politics of this. Because people are dying, and they don’t have to die.”

Cover photo: Crosses bearing the names of the victims of the Walmart shooting formed a backdrop Tuesday morning at Ponder Park as local activists and elected officials spoke against the continuation of racist rhetoric like that which motivated the 2019 massacre. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Julián Aguilar is editor of El Paso Matters and a longtime border journalist.