Social justice, racism and hate crimes have become hot-button issues on the presidential campaign trail and debate stage. Voters in predominantly Latino El Paso are paying attention. They know the horror and heartache caused by a hate crime. This August marked one year since a gunman from North Texas traveled to the border city and went on a shooting rampage inside a Walmart.
Marta Santiesteban’s 90-year-old father was among the 23 victims. Luis Alfonso Juarez died while shielding his wife from the bullets and saved her life.
“She was saying the shots were so loud. I’m so scared and he grabbed her hand and said ‘Don’t be afraid.’ No tengas miedo. Those were his final words to her,” Santiesteban said after a memorial this summer marking the anniversary.
She had no doubt President Trump’s rhetoric inspired the then-21-year-old man accused of the hate crime.
“Because if not for hate and division sown for the last few years, very openly, this would not have happened. This young man, how old was he when Trump was elected?” she asked. “The gunman told police when he was taken into custody he came to “kill Mexicans.”
Racism and the rise of hate groups weighs on the minds of many voters in El Paso. At a busy shopping center, people who said they planned to vote early said it was among issues they care about along with health care, the economy – and of course COVID-19. All expressed concerns about President Trump’s response to racist hate groups.
“I do think people really do look up to him. I think it’s a delicate subject and maybe he should approach it a different way or use different words,” said Carlos Caraveo as he left a smoothie shop. He’s a risk analyst for a bank.
The president’s choice not to denounce a white supremacist group, instead telling them to “stand back and standby” during his first debate with Joe Biden, deeply disturbed 20-year-old college student Andrea Saenz.
“That’s not what we need in a leader. We need someone who is not afraid to say ‘I condemn this kind of behavior,’ rather than brushing it aside. That’s something I personally don’t like from a president,” she said.
Her mother, Marta Saenz, a health care worker, was stunned by the president’s response.
“I was in disbelief. I cannot understand how the leader of our nation can behave like that,” she said.
The mother and daughter were walking out of a store carrying bags of Halloween decorations.
Nearby, Veronica Aguilera stood outside a family barbershop with her 4-year-old grandson waiting for his haircut. She believes the president is encouraging racists.
“Whatever he says and how he acts I think that’s the big problem,” said Aguilera.
But some of President Trump’s supporters don’t see it that way.
“I think that’s incorrect; I think the rhetoric has always been there,” said Tito Anchondo.
The 29-year-old blames social media for spreading violent racists messages, not the president. Anchondo’s brother and sister-in-law were killed in the Walmart attack. The couple’s infant son, Paul, survived. The Anchondo family is now raising him.
“We’re hanging in there and trying to be optimistic for the children. I have a little daughter myself who is a month younger than baby Paul,” he said.
Anchondo says his relatives are conservative Republicans and Trump supporters. They credit the Trump administration’s economic policies for helping their auto body shop business thrive.
“He’s done great with economy. Business before COVID was doing great,” Anchondo said.
Tito Anchondo met with President Donald Trump in the days after his brother and sister-in-law were killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. The president and first lady Melania Trump posed for what became a viral picture with Tito, his sister and Paul, the infant son of the slain Andre and Jordan Anchondo.
“I met the president but that doesn’t mean I personally know him. So is the president a racist? That’s something I really don’t know the answer to. What he said on the debate was very suspect as well, in not answering that question correctly. And I think that was very important for him to get votes from the Hispanics and Latinos,” he said.
Anchondo has grown concerned about President Trump’s recent response to the rise of racists groups promoting hate. He’s not sure he will be backing president Trump again but is determined to vote.
“I’m really undecided at this moment. I’m registered to vote and everything but I don’t know,” he said.
Anchondo belongs to the non-partisan organization Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which, through its Heal the Vote campaign, is encouraging people to participate in the election.
“Everybody who is bringing up any kind of racist issue is wrong and all that needs to stop and turn to love and start working together and cure this country. It’s obviously getting to the highest level of the government, our presidency. And it shows where our country is right now,” Anchondo said.
Anchondo plans to watch Thursday’s final presidential debate closely as he weighs his choices.
“I’ve got to see what they’re going to say,” said Anchondo.
So far, he’s unhappy with both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and has started researching the third party Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen.