Unanswered questions prolong Uvalde’s healing
Residents struggle to unify as a new school year starts
UVALDE, Texas—In the center of town, there is little to hear except the traffic rushing by—and sobs. A woman in a maroon T-shirt, the signature color of the grieving town, kneels in front of one of the 22 crosses that encircle a silent fountain.
A group of friends and family gather around the grieving aunt. Someone places a large, stuffed lion next to the memorial. “Happy Birthday!” is written in blue letters on a green ribbon draped across a pile of flowers. The wind rustles red, yellow, and turquoise balloons tied to the top of the cross. “Miss You!” is written across two of them. The names of the 21 victims are printed on the back of a well-wisher’s T-shirt.
Uziya Garcia would have turned 11 on Aug. 13. He lived with his aunt and uncle, Nikki and Brett Cross. He was one of the 19 children gunned down, along with their two teachers, by 18-year-old Salvador Ramos at Robb Elementary School on May 24.
Almost three months ago, the town center was a frenzy of activity as reporters filmed stand-ups and well-wishers from miles away offered everything from prayer to free snow cones. Now, the area is quiet except for the small group of mourners. The town of about 15,000 residents is struggling to remain unified as it begins to reckon with its loss and prepare to send the children back to school.
Manuel Rizo and his wife, Julissa, stood by the crosses to support the family mourning Uziya’s birthday. The Rizos lost a niece, Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares. She was 9.
Manuel has seen unanswered questions lead to anger. Law enforcement did not enter the classroom where the shooter held the children—some of them still alive and in need of medical attention—for over an hour. Other reports revealed failures on the part of the school district to follow proper procedure and secure the building. Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo has been placed on administrative leave.
“[Residents] are frustrated and confused because every time they turn around there is something that comes out that the families didn’t know about,” Manuel said.
His brother, Jesse Rizo, is asking some of those questions at city council meetings and before the school board. I spoke with Jesse on the front porch of his brother’s terra-cotta colored house in Batesville, another tiny Texas town of about 1,700. He wore jeans and a maroon shirt with a “21” in white surrounded by a halo and angel wings. He wants the school district to commission an independent analysis to determine whether it systematically failed to follow procedure.
“You can build me a fence. You can show me a bag full of money. You build the best cafeteria. You can hire all these troopers. But you haven’t convinced me that you’ve learned anything,” he said. The district is installing fences at some schools. Thirty-three Texas Department of Public Safety officers will be deployed across the school district throughout the year.
Three weeks before the shooting, Jesse gathered here with a large group of extended family to celebrate Jackie’s first communion: “She was the one who brought us together.” After the ceremony at St. Patrick’s—a small, western-style Catholic church—they ate brisket and potato salad. Jesse turned on the radio and a country song came on. He asked Jackie if she wanted to dance and taught her how to two-step. She twirled in her white lace dress. He told her she looked beautiful.
“It’s the last time we got to see her as a group like that … as a whole family.”
On the day of the shooting, Jesse texted Jackie’s mom, Gloria Cazares, to find out if she was okay. He received a one-word reply: “no.”
He showed me around the now quiet home as long-hoped-for rain pounded the ground outside. His laptop was open—he was writing his speech for that evening’s school board meeting. “I’m having a hard time writing this,” he said. He feels the tension between allowing things to settle and holding those in authority accountable. “It almost seems like I shouldn’t even bring it up anymore … but these are questions that need to be asked if you want to restore faith in the community,” he said.
At a Uvalde CISD school board meeting on Aug. 15—the day school was supposed to start—a few residents voiced their frustration during an open forum. Town members and other attendees crammed into rows of metal chairs with red padding. Mark Tews, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, opened the meeting with prayer.
A woman held two white signs with “[email protected] School is liable” and “Fire them now” written in black letters. Several people in the group clapped and cheered when the speakers decried the lack of security and accountability on the part of the school district.
Jesse stepped up to the podium to address the board members who sat at a long wooden desk in black leather chairs. Superintendent Hal Harrell sat in the middle. A woman in the back of the room held a picture of Jackie with angel wings against a pink background.
Jesse is also helping to put together a committee that will decide on a permanent memorial. He said outside intervention has stalled the healing process. Outsiders who film themselves giving speeches and shouting at officials during city council meetings reopen fresh wounds for family members: “That raw emotion just comes and resurfaces … you can see it in their eyes.”
The town is numb and angry. Families and friends still need to process what happened. The community has struggled to maintain unity and move forward amid the flood of out-of-town sympathizers and national media attention.
“We’ve been inundated with well-wishers,” Pastor Tony Gruben said with a slight Texas twang. “Basically overwhelmed. It’s gotten to the point where … it’s too much.” He pastors Baptist Temple Church, a congregation of about 60 that meets on East Main Street.
The best thing outsiders can do is pray, Gruben said. More specifically, pray for wisdom, strength, and peace. In less than three weeks, Uvalde’s children will go back to school. He is asking Baptist churches across Texas to pray on Sunday, Sept. 4—two days before school starts.
The children won’t be going back to Robb Elementary. For now, they will attend nearby schools or do their classes online. The street by the school is no longer a media hub guarded by yellow tape. A lone Texas state trooper is parked outside. It is difficult to see the school’s sign through the piles of flowers, stuffed animals, toys, and crosses.
In the meantime, the community is finding its own ways to support one another. About 20 miles from the school, family members and local supporters gathered in La Pryor at a festival hosted by a local entertainment group, Gutierrez Productions. Proceeds from the event will go to the families of the victims. Residents of La Pryor and surrounding towns often drive to Uvalde to take advantage of the city’s Walmart and HEB grocery store. They share the city’s pain.
Several different bands took turns playing under a large pavilion. A red food truck served tacos. Other vendors served shaved ice, fajitas, and chicharrones con chiles. Couples two-stepped in a circle to the music. D.J. Steven Garcia, also known as Freestyle Steve—a swaggering entertainer with a firm handshake—closed the event. He lost his daughter, Eliahna, in the shooting.
As Uvalde and the surrounding communities come to terms with their new normal, Gruben believes true healing will happen as community members continue to do life alongside each other—like playing golf and praying with the grandfather of a victim or standing beside a family as they mourn a would-be birthday. “That everyday-ness walking alongside people is the most powerful healing there is.”
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