• June 21st, 2024
  • Friday, 07:59:30 PM

This Is Not Us: The Town of Uvalde Navigates Incalculable Grief


Photo: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune A woman prays at a memorial last Friday in honor of the 21 victims killed at a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

 

By Erin Douglas and Jason Beeferman

 

 

In the heart of this Texas town, where U.S. Highway 83 and U.S. Route 90 meet, there’s a courthouse, a city hall, a post office — and 21 white wooden crosses.

 

The intersection of two of the nation’s longest highways gave the town the moniker “The Crossroads of America.” Now, it marks an American tragedy.

 

Photo: Evan L’Roy for The Texas Tribune Alejandro Rodriguez speaks about the tight-knit community in his hometown of Uvalde on Saturday. Rodríguez attended Robb Elementary School as a child in Uvalde, Texas.

The crosses are a few feet tall. They face out in four directions from the pool and fountain in town square. Bouquets are piled high at the foot of each. They stand together, day and night, receiving grieving loved ones and anguished Uvalde residents.

 

“Good times playing baseball with you,” one note in a child’s handwriting said on 10-year-old José Flores’ cross. A baseball was perched on its left branch. A snack bag of Flipz white fudge-covered pretzels sat on top.

 

Blue hearts in the middle of each cross — one for each victim of the May 24th  massacre, when a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School — contain messages from dozens of loved ones.

 

“In our last time together we were happy,” said a note to 11-year-old Maranda Mathis.

 

Uvalde is a predominantly Latino city of about 15,000 people east of the border town Eagle Pass and west of San Antonio, the state’s second-largest city. The Leona River flows through town, and live oak trees dominate the landscape that serves as a gateway between two vastly different regions — storied South Texas and the state’s famed Hill Country.

 

Many residents say they are the descendants of people who were here before Texas was a state — or an independent country.

 

Foto/Photo: Evan L’Roy for The Texas Tribune Kimberly Rodríguez, 33, holds her 5-year-old son in the Nueces River outside of Uvalde on Saturday. Rodríguez took her family to a local swimming hole to step away from the week’s tragedy.

“We’ve been here since it was México, and we stayed here when it became the United States,” Maricela Sánchez, 33, said of her ancestors.

 

The town’s surrounding farms produce onions, melons and more, an industry born by the many streams and rivers that crisscross Uvalde County. It’s onion planting season now, which is why the air smells a bit pungent and sour along the roads outside of town, residents said.

 

And the same cool waters and lush landscape that support the agriculture industry turn many South Texans into frequent vacationers here. They hunt, swim and sit under the stars that shine clear and bright beneath an expansive sky. It’s a blue-collar area where the median income is about $42,000. The population hasn’t dramatically increased the way many Texas cities and suburbs have. Still, residents young and old say there’s been new places to shop and eat pop up along the main thoroughfare through the years.

 

“We didn’t have half the stuff when I was growing up,” said Maribelle Zamora, 28.

 

It’s a good place to raise a family, parents say. It’s a good place to grow up, high school students say. On a typical weekend, laughing teens roam about the 5.47-square-mile town from the backs of pickup trucks. Uvalde is young: About 40% of the households here have one or more children under 18.

 

 

“Anything can happen anywhere at any time, and we never, we never had that feeling [before]. We’re not going to be comfortable sending our kids to school moving forward.”
Kimberly Rodríguez

 

Kimberly Rodríguez, 33, said her family has now had at least six generations in Uvalde that she knows of, and probably more. As a teenager, she wanted to leave and go to a big city. Maybe San Antonio or maybe Austin. She’s always loved Corpus Christi.

 

“As soon as I got pregnant, my complete mentality changed,” she said.

 

She heard stories about the gun violence in larger cities.

 

 

“Then I thought, ‘It’s safe here.’ If it is safe here for my kids, why would I leave?” Rodríguez said. “My biggest fear was exposing my children to any kind of gun violence.”

 

Now, the unfathomable loss and immeasurable grief of so many families feels like an affront to a generations-long sense of familiarity and security, residents said.

 

“This is not us,” said 72-year-old Fidencio Rivera. “This is unbelievable for a little, small community like ours.”

 

The land of trees and honey 

 

Uvalde was originally named Encina, or live oak in Spanish, for the trees that still shade residential streets, rise from the middle of the roadways and ask drivers to swerve around them to get into the parking lot of El Progreso Memorial Library.

 

Mendell Morgan, the town’s 81-year-old library director, has been in Uvalde since the age of 4. He said the layout of the library and its parking lot is “so cattywampus” because the man who donated the land for the library told them: “Don’t touch a single tree,” so they built around them.

 

Encina was renamed in 1856 when the county was organized; the new namesake was for the 1778 governor of Coahuila Juan de Ugalde (white settlers wrongly knew him as Uvalde).

 

In the 1800s on the Western frontier, skirmishes between the army, settlers and Indigenous people were common as white colonizers sought to take the land for farming and ranching.

Eventually, a railroad brought more settlers and more colonization.

 

The city was incorporated in 1888. Its economy historically relied on agriculture and ranching. In 1905, it was honored at the World’s Fair as the “honey capital of the world.” It’s known for its mild, light-colored huajillo honey, made from a desert bush native to Southwestern Texas and Northern México.

 

Virginia Davis, an 88-year-old archivist at the town’s library, said Uvalde residents are proud of their history.

 

“And they try to keep it intact,” she said as she gestured to several books on local history in the library. Davis moved here in 1948.

 

She and other Uvalde residents lived during times of racial segregation that endured through the 1960s. When Davis was a child in Uvalde, the town was divided by the railroad. Latino residents generally lived on the west side, and white residents on the east, Davis said.

 

Morgan, who is white, agreed.

 

“You had your place in society, and everyone knew what your place was, and you stayed in it,” said Morgan, who moved to Uvalde in 1944.

 

There’s a strong conservative bent among many residents in Uvalde. In the GOP gubernatorial primary in March, Uvalde’s fourth-term Mayor Don McLaughlin endorsed Don Huffines, a candidate who ran to the right of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

 

Residents boast about the town’s family values and faith. There are several churches, and most people are religious, residents said. Most people living in Uvalde also own firearms, residents say. Davis carries a .22-caliber revolver when she leaves the house. The library’s modest $412,000 budget is in part funded through “the fun shoot,” a community fundraiser in which residents go shoot skeet at a gun range. The library raises thousands of dollars that way, Davis said.

 

The gunman, an 18-year-old Latino Uvalde resident, bought two AR platform rifles just days after reaching legal age to do so. Within days, he’d shoot his grandmother in the face, wreck her truck and walk armed toward Robb Elementary in the middle of one of the last school days before summer break.

 

A family town 

 

Today, the young people of Uvalde — like students in many American cities — grew up practicing the morbidly familiar drill of lockdowns throughout their lives to prepare for an active shooter. But for Jeyden Gonzales, 17, the lockdown drills felt like they were for situations that happened in other places, not in Uvalde. It’s a family town, he said. He knows his friends’ siblings, aunts, uncles and all his neighbors.

 

“[The lockdown drills] would last like five minutes, and we didn’t really know how to stay quiet and all that stuff,” Gonzales said. “There wasn’t a thought in my mind to be afraid like this.”

 

It was a sentiment felt across Uvalde.

 

“You always think, ‘Nah, something like that, that ain’t gonna happen here,’” said Rivera, who went to Robb and moved to Uvalde from México at age 9. “A lot of people say that, [but] Columbine, Colorado, in Florida. It’s all over, man.”

 

On May 24th, Rodríguez, the 33-year-old member of a longtime Uvalde family, got a call from her father who was pouring concrete about a block from Robb Elementary and heard gunshots. She was nearby, so she immediately went to the school. None of her three children go there, but she began calling and texting every friend she could think of with young children who might.

 

As news spread through town, area schools went on lockdown. Parents and students weren’t clear which campus was under attack, they said. Rodríguez and Sánchez coordinated as many friends as possible to be outside as many schools as they could cover. If parents couldn’t get there fast enough to recognize kids as they were cleared to leave, at least Rodríguez and Sánchez could pass along relieving news to the parents of kids they recognized.

 

“But not all our friends’ kids ran out,” Sanchez said. “And that’s what hurts.”

 

“He hurt his people”

 

In the neighborhoods of Uvalde this week, cats lounged on sidewalks, dogs yelped behind fences at passersby and roosters crowed at all hours of the day. Grandmothers took their young children for walks and mom-and-pop drive-thru’s served up tacos and shaved ice.

 

Last Thursday, lifelong friends Alejandro Rodríguez, 72, and Rivera sat in a front lawn in black chairs, each nursing a cold glass bottle of Bud Light. Alejandro Rodríguez said he grew up with the gunman’s grandfather and knew his grandmother well. When they were younger, he said, they went to the same parties.

 

From Alejandro Rodríguez’s yard, he and Rivera could see Robb Elementary, roped off by caution tape. And at the corner of their street, state troopers stood under a tent blocking anyone from coming within a block of the school’s property.

 

“We went to that school right there, man,” Alejandro Rodríguez said. “Graduated and everything.”

 

“I can’t understand why,” Rivera said.

 

Alejandro Rodríguez is a Vietnam veteran and a trained welder. Rivera has been a truck driver since the ’70s.

 

Their generation worked hard, for so many decades, to make progress for Uvalde’s Latino community: In the 1970s, they recalled, they were punished in school for speaking Spanish. They went to school during Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s (UCISD) desegregation. Still, they stuck through school and made careers for themselves working long hours and earning decent pay.

 

Around the time they graduated UCISD, tensions between white school leaders and Latino students were running high. On April 14, 1970, between 500 and 600 Mexican American students walked out in protest of the school district’s refusal to renew a contract for a Latino teacher and the racist treatment of Mexican American students.

 

In subsequent decades, though, Rodríguez and Rivera had seen Latinos rise in the town. There are Latino county leaders. Latino lawyers and doctors. Latino police officers. Latino teachers. It wasn’t given to them; they had to work for it, the two said. And still, they face occasional prejudice from U.S. Border Patrol or older white residents, they said.

 

But now, it seemed like the massacre had torn through the fabric of Uvalde’s Latino community’s history and future.

 

“He hurt himself. He hurt his people,” Alejandro Rodríguez said of the gunman.

 

Popcorn and soda to share

 

In the days after the massacre, residents did anything they could think of to help. Zamora donated blood. She’s blood type O negative, which can be used for people of any blood type.

 

She grew up in Uvalde, but had moved to San Antonio. After giving birth to her daughter, though, she began to think country life would be better, safer. She moved back to Uvalde just a week before May 24.

 

“A lot of friends’ kids were in there,” Zamora said. She was second in line at a blood drive for the victims on May 25. In the two days after the shooting, Kimberly Rodríguez, the 33-year-old mother of three, woke up between 5 and 6 a.m. to go to the store, buy donuts and deliver breakfast for as many mourning families as she could.

 

Eliahna Torres, 10, and Rojelio Torres, 10, both killed in the shooting, were the children of two of Kimberly Rodríguez’s cousins. Rodríguez’s daughter was also close with Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio, 10, who was killed.

 

Last Thursday, she helped prepare and deliver eight platters of tuna sandwiches. But by Friday morning, she saw how her worry and grief took a toll on her 5-year-old son.

 

“It’s not fair to him that I’m so consumed. Mom’s worried about everything and not doing anything with him.” So, they went to the park and fed the ducks and turtles. They went to the movies.

 

But even as she sat down in the theater seats with a popcorn and a soda to share, her thoughts began to tumble: She remembered reports of a gunman killing children at a theater in Colorado a decade ago this year. How would she try to protect her son if that happened here?

 

She used to feel that her children were safe in Uvalde. She’s not sure that’s true anymore.

 

“Anything can happen anywhere at any time, and we never, we never had that feeling [before],” she said. “We’re not going to be comfortable sending our kids to school moving forward.”

 

On Saturday afternoon, Kimberly Rodríguez and Sánchez took their children about 30 miles northwest of Uvalde to a swimming hole on the Nueces River where Sánchez’s husband went fishing while growing up. While he was at the grill, his 13-year-old daughter caught minnows. This weekend, the parents said, they and the community needed a moment.

 

Not to move on, but for a moment of peace.

 

“The rest of the world will forget, and they’ll move on,” Sánchez said days earlier. “But we’re not. We’re going to be 90 years old and we’re going to do a balloon release every year. Because how are we going to forget?”

 

 

Erin Douglas is the environment reporter for The Texas Tribune. Jason Beeferman is a spring reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune and a junior at Northwestern University where he studies Journalism, International Studies and Latin American Studies. Evan L’Roy contributed to this story.

 

Read More Cover Features at: ELSEMANARIO.US