EL PASO, Texas (El Paso Matters) — Tito Anchondo met with President Donald Trump in the days after his brother and sister-in-law were killed in the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. The president and first lady Melania Trump posed for what became a controversial picture with Tito, his sister Deborah Ontiveros, and Paul, the infant son of the slain Andre and Jordan Anchondo.
Anchondo describes himself and his relatives as conservative Republicans and Trump supporters. But he’s not sure how he’ll vote in this year’s election, troubled by the president’s failure in recent weeks to clearly condemn white supremacist hate groups. Police and prosecutors have alleged the gunman who killed 23 people at the Walmart acted out of white extremist beliefs.
The 29-year-old Anchondo will watch Thursday’s second presidential debate as he weighs his choice.
“I’ve got to see what they’re going to say,” Anchodo said.
Unhappy with both Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Anchondo said he has started researching Libertarian candidate Joe Jorgensen.
He was concerned by the president’s choice of words at the first debate when he told an extremist group to “stand back and stand by.”
“Yeah, I met the president but that doesn’t mean I personally know him. So is the president a racist? That’s something I really don’t know the answer to. What he said in the debate was very suspect as well, in not answering that question correctly. And I think that was very important for him to get votes from the Hispanics and Latinos.”
Anchondo credits the Trump administration’s economic policies for helping the family auto body business thrive. “He’s done great with the economy. Business before COVID was doing great,” he said.
“I’m really undecided at this moment. I’m registered to vote and everything but I don’t know,” he said.
Anchondo belongs to the non-partisan organization Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, which through its Heal the Vote campaign is encouraging people to participate in the election.
“Everybody who is bringing up any kind of racist issue is wrong and all that needs to stop and turn to love and start working together and cure this country. It’s obviously getting to the highest level to the government, our presidency. and it shows where our country is right now,” Anchondo said..
Another El Pasoan who lost a loved one at the Walmart shooting is not as conflicted as Anchondo on the presidential vote. Marta Santiesteban says Trump shares in the responsibility for her father’s death.
Santiesteban’s 90-year-old father was killed in the attack last year. Luis Alfonso Juarez died shielding his wife from bullets and saved her life. “She was saying the shots were so loud. I’m so scared. And he grabbed her hand and said don’t be afraid. No tengas miedo. Those were his final words to her,” Santiesteban said as she was leaving the memorial for her father and the other victims in August marking the anniversary.
She has no doubt President Trump’s rhetoric inspired the then-21-year-old North Texas man accused of the hate crime. “Because if not for hate and division sown for the last few years, very openly, this would not have happened. This young man, how old was he when Trump was elected?” Santiesteban asked.
The alleged gunman posted a manifesto on the Internet shortly before the killing, denouncing the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and used other language that mirrored Trump’s immigration rhetoric.
Anchondo doesn’t blame Trump for the killings or the rhetoric embraced by the alleged gunman and other extremists.
“I think that’s incorrect. I think the rhetoric has always been there,” he said. The 29-year-old faults social media for spreading violent racists messages, not the president.
Cover photo: Tito Anchondo, left, and his family, met with the president and first lady days after Andre and Jordan Anchondo were killed in a mass shooting. Melania Trump is holding Paul Anchondo, who survived the shooting. (White House photo)
This story originally appeared on ElPasoMatters.org.