Employees of the store were all smiles and full of energy as many showed up for work at the Cielo Vista location for the first time in nearly 16 weeks. Inside the store, Walmart showed off its new renovations to employees in a private ceremony. It also unveiled a new banner on the store’s front reading “#ELPASOSTRONG.”
El Paso native Leticia Portugal said the re-opening was nothing short of a party for her disabled son, Aaron, who has worked at Walmart for 20 years.
“He was counting down the hours since yesterday,” said Portugal of her son. “He was very excited.”
As customers began trickling into the store, employees welcomed them at the entrances with cheers, smiles and hugs. One of the first customers inside the store was Jordan Flores. He described the atmosphere as electric when he walked in.
“The amount of warmth and comfort and friendliness that came from the employees cheering on the customers coming back or coming for the first time — it’s an amazing feeling,” said Flores.
It was a source of relaxation for him, but he said the Aug. 3 mass shooting would forever be engrained in the city.
“Definitely not going to be forgotten,” he said. “We just have to make something positive out of something negative.”
Others described the re-opening of the location as bitter sweet. It was a reminder for Robert Ceballos of how many lives were taken there earlier this year; and how many people are still struggling to get over that day.
“Unfortunately, I know where some of the locations of where the tragedies happened and passing by them...it’s just sad,” said Ceballos. “We’ve moved on, but there are still people recovering and there are still people suffering from this.”
Walmart had been working to renovate the Cielo Vista store for months. The company said the opening would not be a celebratory event, but a chance for it to show employees the changes its made internally and externally to the facility. That includes a new onsite memorial Walmart has planned called “The Grand Candela,” which will honor the victims of the El Paso mass shooting.
The day prior, museum archival officials and volunteers began removing items from a large makeshift memorial on-site. Flower bouquets, signs reading “El Paso strong" and Mexican and American flags were installed at a new temporary memorial at nearby Ponder Park. Remaining portions of the memorial were removed and cataloged for historical purposes.
“As our region continues to heal, we are working to honor the sentiment and wishes behind the items that were brought to the makeshift community memorial,” said Quality of Life Deputy City Manager Tracey Jerome. “Ponder Park became the place where our community gathered in the immediate hours following this horrific act, and we hope the park will continue to be a place where people can go to reflect and heal.”
Brice Burris, an attorney at the Fears Nachawati law firm in Dallas, represents victims and families of the deceased in a lawsuit against Walmart and the shooter, Patrick Crusius. He said the company needed to do much more than renovations and erecting a memorial honoring the victims of the mass shooting.
“Three years ago, they had armed security guards at this location and it’s a bottom dollar decision, it appears. We’re going to pull these security guards to, at the end of the day, make Walmart a little bit more money at the expense of customer protection,” alleged Burris. “These families they just really want answers. They want to know what Walmart knew and what they could have done.”
Walmart has quietly hired off-duty officers at its stores in El Paso, according to a report from the Associated Press.
“We’re covering Walmarts, we’re also covering Sam’s (Club),” El Paso police union President Ron Martin told the publication. “Even the neighborhood Walmarts are being covered. Some of them are being covered by sheriffs deputies, some of them are being covered by our guys. I mean, I have seen some constables working it.”
Security around the store was evident as white poles with cameras and loudspeakers mounted to them were planted throughout the store’s parking lot. Security guards were posted up at entrances and other areas at the location; sheriff’s officers could be seen circling the store’s perimeter every few minutes.
Though for at least one customer, the presence of security and law enforcement didn’t seem like enough to keep him safe.
“I think we need more security at the doors. That’s my opinion,” said Carlos Barraza. “This is my last time here.”
The hope for some, like Flores, is that the Walmart reopening will serve as a fresh start in the lives of those still dealing with the effects of the mass shooting.
“We eventually have to forgive and move on,” said Flores. “We got to remember those we lost and celebrate their lives. And we celebrate that one day, we’re going to see them again in heaven.”