Robert Gehrke: All of us, including Utah leaders, need to play a part in denouncing hate and unifying our community

(Evan Vucci | AP Photo) President Donald Trump speaks to first responders as he visits the El Paso Regional Communications Center after meeting with people affected by the El Paso mass shooting, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

The horrific massacre at a Walmart in El Paso claimed 22 lives over the weekend — and 900 miles away, it nearly took one more.

In the aftermath, a Utah Latino attempted suicide, an action Teresa Molina, a therapist and co-founder of Latino Behavioral Health Services, said was tied to the relentless animosity targeted at the community, punctuated by the rampage against Mexican migrants in the border town.

“Here we learn about people who attempt suicide because they feel the hatred, just like it happens within the LGBT community, and it is regardless of education or citizenship status,” Molina said.

Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a group advocating for Latino Utahns, said what happened in El Paso and the targeting of the Latino community has sparked discussions here at home. “It really resonates with people not feeling safe just because of their identity being Latino,” he said.

Robert Gehrke

It’s a feeling that has existed for years, but has been growing, fueled in large part by toxic rhetoric from President Donald Trump, no matter how much he tries to deny it.

He cannot, in good faith, demonize a group of people as racists and murders, equivocate when it comes to white supremacists rallying in Charleston, refer to an immigrant “invasion” infesting our country, smugly smirk and joke when a supporter suggests shooting people crossing the border or reference how other countries put machine guns on the border to stop migrants — and then fly to El Paso to wash his hands of responsibility while a grieving community is washing blood off the walls.

Even before El Paso, his words damaged our country. They degraded and disparaged fellow human beings based on the color of their skin, subjecting citizens and immigrants alike to ostracism and exclusion.

The outcomes are predictable. Just two weeks ago, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee that the majority of domestic terrorism cases investigated by his unit are the result of white supremacist violence. This year alone there have already been 100 domestic terror-related arrests, more than in all of last year.

But the toxic climate has taken a toll on our community in other ways, generating a sense of fear and isolation that those of us who happen to be white don’t fully see and can’t really appreciate.

“What is happening locally is people go back to their homes and they only want to leave to go to work,” said Molina. “[The fear] causes children to miss class and causes people not to go to stores. It causes a lot of discomfort and mental health conditions in the populations, and we are witnessing that.”

Enrique Romo, who is vice president in charge of diversity programs at Weber State University, grew up in Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. He said it is a strong, safe, tight-knit community that has been shattered by the violence.

It is a resilient community and it will recover, Romo said, but he sees a troubling trend.

“The rhetoric that is happening at the national level, I think, is impacting the way messages are being heard by people, and they use it as an excuse and marching orders, if you will, to do the things like what happened over the weekend,” said Romo (who emphasized he is not speaking for the university).

Several months ago, racist stickers were posted around Weber State, as they were at the University of Utah, by a white supremacist group, which he said made students he talked to uneasy and is symptomatic of the intolerance.

Facing that kind of marginalization every day takes a toll. The university encourages discussions, he said, through clubs and counseling services to make sure students are taken care of and have an outlet.

Molina said she encourages people experiencing distress to focus on their resiliency, to look to their family and community connections for support, to stay in school, to listen to their loved ones and show their strength, and to get professional help.

Ultimately, however, it will be up to all of us — especially those of us fortunate enough to not be marginalized — to change the corrosive climate, to reject white supremacy and dehumanizing rhetoric.

Back in March, Utah business and community leaders gathered to reaffirm the values of the Utah Compact, first signed in 2009, including the importance of unified families and a fundamental human dignity.

We need more of that from our leaders. It is essential, Garza said, for elected officials to “denounce hate in all of its forms” and “to call out things by name for what they are.”

But beyond denouncing hate, our leaders and all of us — through words and actions — need to address the underlying problem, to work to unite the community and ensure all people feel like they are valued members of our increasingly diverse family.

Latino Behavioral Health Services is a nonprofit created to alleviate mental health disparities among the Latino community. If you need help, find out more at https://latinobehavioral.org or by calling (801) 935-4447. And if you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.