‘On edge’: Minnesota Latinos wrestle with fear, frustration after El Paso killings

A gunman's racist attack on Latino shoppers at an El Paso, Texas, mall has left many Latino people here angry and worried they may be targets. “We are afraid our community in Minnesota is not safe,” says one local organizer.
Marylu Ramirez (L) chats with a community member at the Fiesta Latina at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) in St. Paul's East Side on Aug. 10, 2019. Kerem Yucel for MPR News

Growing up in a working class Los Angeles neighborhood taught Filiberto Nolasco Gomez to be cautious about his surroundings, a feeling he says he’s been slowly getting over throughout the years. 

 

“It’s taken a lot of work to be an adult and not have that anxiety anymore of just a threat around the corner — a cop or a gang member or something,” he said. 

 

But it came back in full force after he learned about the deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, last weekend. A gunman, who later told police he was targeting Mexicans, killed 22 people, most of them Latinos, and wounded at least two dozen more as they shopped at a local Walmart in the city’s Cielo Vista Mall. 

 

Nolasco Gomez, who has lived in Minneapolis for the past seven years, didn’t know any of the victims personally, but he has personal connections to the area. The fact that the gunman targeted Latinos hit home particularly hard for Nolasco Gomez. 

 

He compared his ensuing grief to when he lost both his parents several years ago. Both of them immigrated from Mexico to the United States.

 

“It feels really similar to that,” he said. “A sense of hopelessness, just not feeling good about walking out of the house. To be just aware of the fact that we’re being targeted as a community by someone really determined to kill Mexicans just brings back all the panic and anxiety and fear.”

 

As much as he misses his parents, Nolasco Gomez said he is glad he didn’t have to explain the shooting massacre to them. 

 

Such is the case as Latino communities in Minnesota and across grapple with not just the El Paso mass shootings, but other recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, Calif. The FBI is investigating the Gilroy and El Paso shootings as domestic terrorism incidents. Federal authorities have said all three shooters were exploring violent ideologies before conducting their massacres.  

 

For Nolasco Gomez’s housemate, Tor Chavarria, the last week has been overwhelming, with constant up and down emotions throughout. Chavarria grew up in El Paso in a neighborhood near Cielo Vista Mall, where the massacre took place. 

 

After finding out about it, Chavarria frantically called family and friends to make sure they were all right. It turns out they were, but waiting to hear from them throughout that Saturday was especially excruciating. One of Chavarria’s best friends from home had planned to shop at the Cielo Vista Mall that same day but decided not to. 

 

“I’ve been thinking about the fact that my friend could have died,” Chavarria said. “I can’t say that I’m OK, because I’m not. I’m sad, really. It’s my people. It affects me.” 

 

Friends and colleagues at work have been supportive, which Chavarria said has been wonderful. But every set of flowers was a reminder of what happened.

Kiahuitl rests before her dance performance at Fiesta Latina at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) in St. Paul on Aug. 10, 2019. Kerem Yucel for MPR News

For Pablo Tapia, a longtime community organizer in the Twin Cities, the El Paso massacre is the latest apex in a racist backlash against immigrants that has been simmering in the country for several decades. He described the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the election of Donald Trump as particular boiling points. The result is increased fear across the community.

 

“Frankly, we are worried,” Tapia said. “We are afraid our community in Minnesota is not safe. Our pastors are concerned, too. We pray that Minneapolis is not the next step for one of these crazy killers.” 

 

Some have been experiencing heightened hostility toward them since the shootings. Judith Marquez Duran, a third-year global studies major at the University of Minnesota, said a woman approached her and a Latina coworker in downtown St. Paul last Tuesday as she was on lunch break from her internship at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

 

“She said, ‘Don’t come near me, go back to Mexico,’” Marquez Duran said, “and then proceeded to say, ‘You wetbacks.’”

 

Marquez Duran, who grew up in Brooklyn Park, said she’s personally experienced “incidents here and there” directed against her community in Minnesota, “but never to that extreme.” 

 

“That was just very shocking, very heartbreaking and very uncomfortable,” she said.

 

Another emotion some are feeling is anger, especially toward Trump. To Ben Ramirez, a community organizer with Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, the massacre is a direct result of Trump’s rhetoric and policies against immigrants.  

 

“This supposed president has been targeting us since before he was president,” Ramirez said. “I don’t have faith in this man. I’ve never really felt hatred in my heart, but with this man, I do. It’s something I’m trying to deal with.” 

 

Along with the anger, Ramirez said he spent the last week with anxiety and had trouble sleeping as a result of the mass shootings. Like Chavarria, Ramirez grew up in El Paso. He’s lived in Minnesota for the past 23 years. All of his family members still living in Texas are safe, he said. 

 

One thing Ramirez has been wrestling with is how the local Latino community should respond to the attacks and increased hostility. He’s not confident lawmakers will do anything to pass strong gun control measures to prevent future attacks and said an urgent solution to keep his community safe is needed.

 

“If that means stationing police outside of Walmart, so be it,” he said. “Should we arm ourselves? Why not. We have the law on our side. I have felt vulnerable in the churches. I have felt vulnerable when I go to Mass.” 

 

La Doña Cervecería, the state’s only Latino-owned brewery, is responding with plans to put all of its employees through active shooter training. It’s something that’s been on the mind of La Doña president and co-owner Sergio Manancero since even before the El Paso mass shooting. 

 

Manancero watched news of the massacre as it unfolded from the brewery in the Harrison neighborhood of Minneapolis.

 

“I was a little on edge the whole time, because there’s nothing I’ve done to prepare for something like that at our establishment,” Manancero said. “If somebody wanted to, they could easily do that.” 

 

La Doña is visibly Latino and a gathering for regular salsa nights, a Spanish/English conversation club and soccer fans. Within the last week, Manancero contracted with a consulting group to begin active shooter training for his staff. 

 

“I can’t control other people,” he said, referring to shooters targeting certain groups. “But I can prepare my employees and my establishment.” 

 

The El Paso shooting massacre didn’t stop St. Paul-based Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) from holding its annual Fiesta Latina event one week later. 

For the event, CLUES shut down a section of East 7th Street near its St. Paul headquarters for five hours. The event featured food, free health information, local art and performances from Latino artists across the region. It ended with a giant dance featuring a salsa band. 

 

Attendance was in the thousands, despite the cloudy weather. Ruby Lee, executive director of CLUES, said she tripled original security plans for the festival in wake of the El Paso shootings. Lee also said she heard from people who had planned to come to the festival but opted to stay home in the wake of the El Paso shooting. 

 

But others, including Marquez Duran, saw Fiesta Latina as a local antidote to the hate directed toward their community. 

 

She spent her time at the event conducting a community survey for CLUES about the local Latino community’s health and living experiences. Being at the event with other Latinos “feels like family,” she said, and it’s important to her that her community don’t live in fear. 

 

“In moments like these when there’s so much fear and so much hate toward my community, it’s also a time where I’ve never felt more proud to be a Latina,” she said. 

Joey Peters is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously served as staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and senior reporter for NM Political Report, both based in New Mexico.

Support Sahan Journal

Now more than ever, we need a newsroom dedicated to telling Minnesota immigrants’ untold stories. We rely on reader support, and your donation to Sahan Journal will help our digital newsroom produce high-quality journalism about our immigrants. No amount is too small.

 

Give today, and join readers like you who believe in our independent nonprofit journalism.

SUPPORT US