At a coffee shop near the University of Texas at El Paso, a middle-age man finds a random laptop sitting on a chair. It probably belongs to one of the thousands of college students in this city.
Instead of ignoring it or taking it for himself, the man, dressed in shorts and wearing a baseball cap, politely interrupts the cashier and says, “Miss, someone forgot their laptop here.”
Random acts of kindness like these are the ethos that runs through this city’s veins because the people here are incredibly good.
And although the mood is somber, residents here are looking out for one another with reverence after what happened on Saturday.
At the memorial site behind the Walmart, mourners gaze upon the 22 white crosses with the names of the victims written on them in black Sharpie marker.
The air smells of floral and wax burning from the hundreds of rosary candles placed there by grieving members of the community.
Dozens of displays of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe are scribbled with prayers and perched between the bouquets of flowers and artwork.
News tents, vans, and satellites surround the memorial as dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of journalists descend upon the city after the tragedy. The locals talk to reporters to tell them about what happened to their city.
Sheriffs huddle in front of the Hooters at Cielo Vista under the shade and appear to be in a chipper mood despite the tears streaming down the cheeks of those mourning the loss of life.
“El Paso Strong” is everywhere. The shooting comes up frequently in most of the conversations at coffee shops and restaurants, but there’s still cheer.
I had a knot in my throat all day as I followed the news on Twitter and Facebook from Dallas that Saturday morning.
I’d lived in El Paso for 21 years before moving to Dallas and I can tell you, no one thought something like this would ever happen here.
I was on a flight home Monday morning, anxious to check on my family who still lives there. They are all OK.
El Paso has always flown under the radar, undetected. And it seemed blissfully immune to events or politics that occurred outside of it.
Crimes of this magnitude happen to other cities, but not our city. “Not the 915 [area code].”
It’s notorious for being one of the safest places in America despite its proximity to one of the most dangerous — Ciudad Juarez.
And that’s why the effects from Saturday’s mass shooting were exceptionally devastating.
Residents here are interconnected in a distinct and meaningful way that’s atypical of most densely populated areas.
And despite the tragedy that turned the world’s attention toward El Paso over the weekend, the response of this tight-knit community shines brighter than the darkness that befell it.
The bond El Pasoans share was already exemplary but now the world gets to witness it albeit under heartbreaking circumstances.
Some of the kindest and caring people you’ll ever meet call this place home.
While agonizing details emerged, heroic ones did, too — and that tells the story of the city’s moral fiber.
As victim and hero Christopher Grant lay in a hospital bed recovering from his injuries, he continuously asked God why he didn’t take him instead of the little girl he saw get killed.
“If I could trade my life for that little girl’s life that I saw killed, I would do it in a second … I’m 50 years old, my life’s almost over. So, I would have traded that life for my life any day of the week,” he told CNN.
Right after the shooting, a viral interview of a man by the name of Glendon Oakley started circulating on the internet.
He was an off-duty Army soldier who selflessly rushed to protect the frantic children inside the Cielo Vista Mall during the shooting.
And then there was Gilbert Serna, a Walmart employee, who directed frightened customers to follow him to safety to the back of the Walmart after a “code brown” (code for shooting) was issued. He said he wasn’t even thinking about his safety while he hid 100 people in hot metal shipping containers behind the Walmart.
He even returned with water for the elderly who were having trouble breathing inside of them as they hid from the gunman.
“Vamos, vamos, vamos,” cried Adria Gonzalez as she waved her pink hat to signal to other shoppers to hide in a storage area in the meat section until the gunshots stopped.
And then there were the school children who were at the Walmart fundraising for their sports team who, because of their principal’s proactive approach to school safety, knew what to do when they heard the gunshots.
And then there were the blood donors who were lined out the door Saturday afternoon in the hot El Paso heat who were being handed waters by a man from his truck and given pizza by volunteers eager to aide their brethren.
In the subsequent days, we began hearing about the victims who paid the ultimate price by sacrificing their lives for their relatives during the shooting.
Car decals, T-shirts, and billboards that say “El Paso Strong” now pollinate the city and people are eager to find one for themselves to show off the pride they have for their city.
But now they know that the proceeds are going to the victims.
Although many of the residents in El Paso weren’t directly connected to the victims, they take this horrific act personally.
The bond the residents here share is the Crown Jewel of this city; it’s what makes it exceptional.
The killer would have been embraced by the majority Hispanic population here, but he chose to hate instead.
During an interview with Fox News, El Paso’s Republican mayor, Dee Margo, told Chris Wallace that he knew the killer wasn’t from El Paso because it’s “not our nature” or “our culture.”
Having been acquainted with the city for over two decades now provided me an assurance that the monster who did this had to have been an outsider – and he was.
While politicians and media pundits politicize El Paso for political gain, a sixth-grader named Ruben Martinez of El Paso started the #ElPasoChallenge “to honor the people who got killed in our city.”
The challenge is to do 22 random acts of kindness for others to honor the 22 lives lost in the massacre.
Then, on Sunday, El Pasoans packed the church pews seeking a message of hope and strength before their lives carry on in the subsequent days and weeks.
During what was one of the most critical sermons he’s ever delivered on a Sunday morning, Pastor Charles Nieman of Abundant Living Faith Center made two immediately applicable pleas: one for love and one for civility.
Just like the city’s prized star radiates each day on the South Side of the Franklin Mountains, so does the city’s vivacity.
As I waited for an order of red chicken enchiladas at the Las Palmas restaurant on the East Side of the city, a young waiter broke several glasses shattering pieces everywhere.
The concerned waiters and waitresses asked me several times if I was OK when they noticed I was standing close by and wearing sandals.
The pieces were small so, of course, I was fine, but their genuine concern for a stranger was how I knew I was home.
This heinous act will never define El Paso because the zeal of the people here won’t let it.
And that is what makes El Paso Strong.