‘This is not us’: Tight-knit Uvalde, rooted in Texas history, navigates incalculable grief

Community members attend a vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex on Wednesday in Uvalde. (Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune, Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune)

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UVALDE — 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.

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 Jose 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 Tuesday's 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.

The town of Uvalde, a predominantly Latino city of about 15,000 people west of San Antonio, has seen generations of families grow up there. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

A woman prays at a memorial in honor of the 21 victims killed at a school shooting in Uvalde, on May 27, 2022.

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

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.

“We’ve been here since it was Mexico, and we stayed here when it became the United States,” Maricela Sanchez, 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.

Kimberly Rodriguez, 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?” Rodriguez 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 Mexico.

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

A tree in the middle of the street near El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

A live oak tree grows in the middle of the street near El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Virginia Davis, an archivist, and Mendell D. Morgan, the director at the El Progreso Memorial Library, display collected newspapers with headlines from the day of the recent mass shooting in Uvalde, on May 27, 2022.

Virginia Davis, an archivist, and Mendell Morgan, the director at the El Progreso Memorial Library, display collected newspapers with headlines from the day of the recent mass shooting in Uvalde on Friday. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

“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 Mexico at age 9. “A lot of people say that, [but] Columbine, Colorado, in Florida. It’s all over, man.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Rodriguez, 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. Rodriguez and Sanchez 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 Rodriguez and Sanchez 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-thrus served up tacos and shaved ice.

On Thursday afternoon, lifelong friends Alejandro Rodriguez, 72, and Rivera sat in a front lawn in black chairs, each nursing a cold glass bottle of Bud Light. Alejandro Rodriguez 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 Rodriguez’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 Rodriguez said. “Graduated and everything.”

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

Alejandro Rodriguez 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 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.

Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, one day after a gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers at the school. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Alejandro Rodriguez in his home in Uvalde, on May 28, 2022.

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

In subsequent decades, though, Rodriguez 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 Rodriguez 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 Tuesday.

“A lot of friends’ kids were in there,” Zamora said. She was second in line at a blood drive for the victims on Wednesday morning.

In the two days after the shooting, Kimberly Rodriguez, 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 Rodriguez’s cousins. Rodriguez’s daughter was also close with Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio, 10, who was killed.

On 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.”

Kimberly Rodriguez, 33, holds her son Jeremy Medina, 5, alongside the shore of the Nueces River outside of Uvalde, on May 28, 2022.

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

Mourners attend a memorial for the recent school shooting at the city square in Uvalde, on May 27, 2022.

Uvalde's town square as mourners attended a nearby memorial Friday night for the recent school shooting. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

On Saturday afternoon, Kimberly Rodriguez and Sanchez took their children about 30 miles northwest of Uvalde to a swimming hole on the Nueces River where Sanchez’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,” Sanchez 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?”

Evan L’Roy contributed to this story.