EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Patricia Benavides met her future husband, Arturo, when she was 8 and he was 7. She remembers how his first advance was to ask her at a family party if she wanted an extra slice of cake, and she promptly and emphatically said, “No!”

They kept in touch as they grew up because he was the nephew of her father’s best friend. They started going out when he returned from a deployment with the U.S. Army to Grenada. Arturo Benavides served his country for 25 years and the couple stayed together well past his retirement from the service.

“He was a good man. He had a booming laugh that even the neighbors could hear. He was a very responsible man who made sure the bills got paid before we went out to a restaurant” or shopping, the El Paso resident said.

One of those shopping trips took them to the Walmart near Cielo Vista Mall on the morning of Aug. 3, 2019. She was near the store’s restrooms when the shots rang out.

“There was a young couple inside. They were holding each other’s hands and shaking,” Pat Benavides said. “I think God, Jesus or the Virgin Mary made me walk to the restrooms. Somebody guided me there.”

Arturo Benavides, the Army veteran, and 22 other people were killed that morning during one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history. On Thursday, community activists honored the victims on the fourth anniversary of the event and warned that the politics of fearmongering and the anti-immigrant rhetoric that led to the 2019 shooting could precipitate another tragedy.

Community activists and some of the relatives of the victims participate in a memorial ceremony at Ponder Park in El Paso, Texas, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of a racially-motivated mass shooting that rocked El Paso on Aug. 3, 2019. (Border Report photo)

“This will always be a difficult day for the families of the victims and also for the community because this was an attack against what El Paso, what this border region represents,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, which sponsored Thursday’s memorial event. “It was not a fortuitous attack. It did not materialize out of thin air. At the time, we had a president that fostered hate against immigrants and racism against Latinos and people of color.”

Donald Trump in 2016 made border security and a halt to illegal immigration one of the pillars of his political campaign. The man who was recently sentenced to 90 consecutive terms of life in prison for the hate-related killings in El Paso allegedly posted an online manifesto hours before the attack decrying the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.

Garcia said the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from the White House at the time of the El Paso mass shooting is being replicated in Texas conservative political circles and could foster new attacks against border communities or Latinos.

“At the time of the shooting, politicians came to El Paso to say they were going to do something about white supremacism and (access to) firearms,” Garcia said. “Four years later, they have done nothing. In fact, Texas is more dangerous now for people of color because of open-carry (firearm) laws and we have a governor who sees migrants as invaders.”

Jackeline Richard, El Paso Branch President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), concurs that the political discourse against migrants of color is getting worse than four years ago. But she said the tragedy led to a more united community.

“We stand here united against hate, against racism that fuels the very kind of hate that led to that tragic day,” Richard said. “We have seen the power of unity and solidarity as people from all walks of life have come together to support one another and deflect divisive forces that want to keep us apart. The El Paso community’s commitment to combating hate is stronger than ever.”

As in past commemorations, community activists gathered at Ponder Park for a procession carrying large crosses with the names of the mass shooting victims. They marched to the edge of the Walmart before coming back, laying wreaths and releasing white doves in honor of the victims.

Patricia Benavides wore a red-white-and-blue cowboy hat and a white T-shirt with the photograph of her husband on the front. She said the memorial made her feel a bit less lonely.

When asked what she would tell the shooter about her husband, who was not a migrant but someone who served and defended the United States for 25 years, she struggled for words.

“I have mixed feelings (about talking to him). It seems he still thinks he did the right thing,” she said. “He’s serving 90 life terms. He’s never getting out, I hope.”

The City of El Paso renamed one of its transit stations in honor of Arturo Benavides, who also was a retired bus driver.