TMourning is evident around almost every corner in Uvalde, Texas: in the faces of school-age children who are no longer in the classroom and the sad messages on the backs of vehicles: “Annabell Rodriguez, Dad misses you.”
Three days after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, a loss and a sense of deep confusion hangs like a shadow over this small ranching town. “I’m feeling a big, heavy cloud right now,” said Jose Cazares, Jackie Cazares’ uncle, who died in the shooting. “It’s not the same.”
The killings have touched nearly everyone in the largely Latino community of 16,000, and residents are struggling to process what happened and support their grieving friends and neighbors.
“What are you saying? How are you?” Justin Hill said, thinking of a friend who lost his daughter in the shooting. “There are not enough words.”
Uvalde is more active than ever, with large vigils and memorials honoring the dead and journalists from around the world on seemingly every street, but life here, residents say, feels almost motionless.
‘It’s just quiet,’ said Hill, standing in the Local Fix, a café in Uvalde. “We have a lot of people coming into town; companies are busy. But for the general population, everything is different. It’s just waiting and watching.”
The small southwest town is usually busy at this time of year, with high school graduations and summer activities. All have been moved. The area has had recent rains, which would normally send people to the river, Hill said, but no one seems interested in water recreation.
The local Walmart was unusually empty after the shooting, Hill added, and local stores were closing early or closing altogether. “The people in this community are so close. They are willing to drop whatever they can to help.”
People return to the Walmart to pick up free bouquets of flowers to leave next to the 21 crosses that surround the town square. In the store, children fiddle around with toys and adults greet their neighbors with soft voices. In the sympathy card aisle, under the bereaved parents section, there are no more cards.
Even for those not directly connected to the school, the loss feels personal. “It feels like it’s our child, like it’s our kids or our nieces or nephews,” said Alex Covarrubias.
Countless people have visited the memorial erected around the town square, some from San Antonio, Lubbock and Laredo, others from down the street.
PJ Talavera arrived at the memorial with his daughter and wife, and soon they were embracing grieving friends. “I’ve hugged no fewer than maybe 200 or 300 people in the last 24 hours,” he said. “One thing I can tell you for sure is that there is a tremendous amount of love.”
“You can still feel it in the air”
Talavera, who runs a local martial arts studio, is familiar with many of the names on the crosses that line the fountain in the plaza – he mentored and taught some of them at an after-school program at Robb Elementary School. “There are too many,” he said, looking at the crosses. “They’re just innocent babies.”
His martial arts school has been open since the tragedy, if not for classes then only to provide his students with a normal routine. “You must do something. You’re just here and it’s just too much. We have to protect them.”
Covarrubias said he was tired of sitting at home watching the news, so on Wednesday he walked down to the town square and held up a sign that read “prayers for the families.”
“I’m kind of glad I don’t have a job because right now I just couldn’t imagine going to work every day,” he said. “You can still feel it in the air.”
Elisa Gonzalez, who used to live in the area, came to pay her respects and was encouraged to see the residents take care of each other. “They’re still together as always,” she said.
Also at the memorial were family members of the deceased, such as Jose Cazares, who stood under the trees and commemorated his niece, Jackie, the “little firecracker.”
“She was motivated, she was loving. Full of love. There was a twinkle in her eyes the whole time,” he said. “She loved taekwondo, singing and dancing. She liked going to the river, shopping with her tia [aunt].”
Whenever Cazares came to visit the city, she always offered to give up her room so that he would stay nearby instead of in a hotel. Jackie greeted everyone with a big hug and a big heart, her aunt added. The family comforted each other and received support from their friends like Talavera.
But they also expressed frustration as questions mounted about how the shooter was able to continue his killing spree for nearly an hour. “What did it take you 45 minutes to do? Nothing,” Cazares said of the police officers who responded to the scene. “I heard the governor say he supports half a billion dollars for school safety. Why wasn’t this school safe? They must be held accountable – the school, the PD, the governor.”