President Trump visited El Paso on Wednesday to console victims of the mass shooting there, and he was greeted with protests about his immigration policies and tepid denunciations of white supremacy.
This is not a surprise. Few places along the shared international boundary between the United States and Mexico are as dynamic as El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The historic isolation from other cities and their intense proximity to each other have long created fellowship and friction between the cities’ residents. Now, the cities are mourning together the loss of life in the El Paso shooting, showing that death, walls and vindictive asylum policies cannot break the deep economic and cultural ties that bind these two international cities together.
The fates of these cities have been intertwined since the border split them in the 19th century, and families continue to cross daily for work, shopping and to be together. Few places are more reflective of the transnational links between the cities than the Cielo Vista Mall, where the Walmart at which the massacre took place is located.
When the mall opened in 1974, it was all but guaranteed that juarenses would visit and shop there regularly. And they did. The commercial center draws residents from West Texas, New Mexico, Chihuahua and other nearby Mexican states. Tax-free weekends and back-to-school supply lists incentivize visitors and shopping trips. Increased wait-times at international crossings, paired with the region’s scorching summers, lead shoppers to cross the border early or stay in El Paso for a weekend.
The flourishing of commercial activity here is rooted in history. In 1851, only three years after the end of hostilities between Mexico and the United States, a pro-free trade movement in northern Mexico emerged, threatening to establish a separate, independent republic if the federal government didn’t loosen trade laws. Mexico City relented and encouraged greater trade across the border, fueling the region’s dynamic economic and strong transnational ties. Over the following decades and into the 20th century, questions over trade and tariffs loomed over the region, while merchants on both sides of the border vied for the pesos and dollars of residents.
For example, the Popular Dry Goods Co. in downtown El Paso targeted Mexican people on both sides of the border by running ads in El Paso’s El Continental and Juárez’s El Fronterizo newspapers. Founded in 1902 by Adolph Schwartz, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant whose retail career had begun in downtown Juárez, Popular became a border retail institution, drawing shoppers from both cities. During a presidential visit by Miguel Alemán to Juárez after World War II, the Popular displayed a picture of Mexico’s first civilian president, a welcome sign and the flags of the two nations.
Ciudad Juárez attracted its fair share of El Pasoan consumers, too. The city was renowned for bootlegging and south-of-the-border adventures during Prohibition. Apocryphal stories placed Al Capone in the city’s famous Kentucky Bar, rumored to be the place of origin of the margarita.
Alongside these famous border-crossings, a more mundane drum of regular exchange existed, creating a transnational tapestry of families, social clubs and businesses.
During World War II, El Paso residents trekked south to purchase rationed items and foodstuffs in higher quantities and at lower prices. The U.S. Office of Price Administration even made rationing cards available to Juárez residents. After the war, African American residents and GIs stationed at Fort Bliss frequented Juárez’s central district, where they found respite from El Paso’s formal and de facto segregation.
Despite the commercial and consumer exchange that enriched both places, El Paso eventually came to dominate the region economically. Hence, in the 1960s, the Mexican government invested 149 million pesos to develop the commercial infrastructure of Ciudad Juárez so that it could compete for consumers as well. The Programa Nacional Fronterizo, or PRONAF, provided the money to build the Plaza de las Américas mall, which former Juárez mayor Rene Mascareñas hoped could compete with El Paso’s Bassett Place, Morningside Mall and Fox Plaza.
PRONAF produced mixed results. Although it provided Juárez merchants with retail space, getting products from central Mexico to the border proved costly. Moreover, beginning in the 1970s, the flow of pedestrian crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez flipped, as more Mexicans visited El Paso than ever before. Historian Oscar Martínez has shown that by 1970 Juárez residents spent twice as much money in El Paso as they had in 1965, while El Pasoans and foreigners began to spend less in Juárez.
The disparity in wealth and power between the United States and Mexico exacerbated the imbalance between the sister cities. As El Paso came to rank among the safest cities in the United States, boasting remarkably low homicide rates prior to this week’s massacre, it evaded the violence that turned Ciudad Juárez into the deadliest city in the world nearly a decade ago. Despite the tragic drug-related violence, transnational life along the border continued as juarenses resettled in El Paso, reopening restaurants and retail shops that had shuttered south-of-the-border, and El Paso’s economy remained reliant on the maquiladora industry.
When gunfire broke out in this commercial center over the weekend, it sent ripples through a community that transcends the border between El Paso and Juárez. Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, confirmed eight Mexican nationals died and as many as seven more were injured. The foreign minister called the shooting an “act of barbarism.” Mexican President López Obrador also took to Twitter to offer his condolences in a video mentioning the “fraternal” relationship between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
In Juárez people organized a candlelight vigil at el punto, the place where Pope Francis delivered a sermon in 2016. On Sunday, during the inaugural game of Juárez’s recently promoted soccer team to Mexico’s top league, the stadium held a moment of silence while the team’s flag flew at half-mast. The funeral home Perches from Ciudad Juárez, with locations in both cities, will offer free funeral services.
When the gunman entered this space, he may not have understood the complexity and richness of transnational borderlands, the meaning of shared retail spaces in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and the deep connections between the sister cities. Yet this violence, which police say came at the hands of a white man who railed against a “Hispanic invasion,” has crossed the border and touched the lives of many El Pasoans and juarenses who now grieve together. As their reaction to Trump’s visit demonstrated, they are using their grief to make a powerful statement: divisive rhetoric and action cannot destroy places of encounter and exchange.