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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A plea to celebrate life as Uvalde faces many days of mourning

Aaliyah Banda, 11, visits a makeshift memorial following a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, which left 19 children and two adults dead, in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.

By Rick Rojas

Amerie Jo Garza, 10, a jokester who made the honor roll. Tuesday, 2 p.m.

Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, 10, who excelled in school and learned how to sew from YouTube videos. Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Irma Garcia, 48, and Joe Garcia, 50, the parents of Lyliana, Alysandra, Cristian and Jose. Wednesday, 10 a.m.

Jose Manuel Flores Jr., 10, called Josecito and Baby Jose, who collected toy trucks and played Little League. Wednesday, 2 p.m.

A week after a gunman stormed into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, funerals began Tuesday for the 19 young students and two teachers killed — as well as the husband of a victim whose fatal heart attack was attributed by his relatives to his overwhelming grief. Stretching into mid-June, the coming days will be packed with services, visitations, rosaries and burials, memorializing each of the victims whose deaths are the sum of a community’s agonizing loss.

The Rev. Eduardo Morales will preside over several funerals, each one requiring him to sit down with relatives and craft sermons that celebrate the young lives cut short. On some days, parents will bury children and also mourn their classmates and friends.

“We are not here to celebrate her death,” Morales, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, told the mourners who filled the simple church Tuesday for Amerie Jo Garza’s funeral Mass, expressing a sentiment that he said he would repeat at every funeral in the coming days, including one Wednesday, another Friday and one next Monday, if not more. “We are here to celebrate her life.”

“Do not allow her death and this tragedy to define who she is,” he said.

Uvalde has been grieving for days, with neighbors hugging and lighting candles at public vigils and memorials — gripped by anguish after so much loss and the sense that the attack has altered the trajectory of an entire community.

Now, the mourning has evolved into something more individualized.

It has come with constant reminders of the squandered potential: the small coffins, one with a dinosaur on it, another with a Superman logo, a third with pink handles and a picture of a child doing a TikTok dance.

Many of the remembrances have acknowledged young lives with lofty ambitions: Maite Rodriguez wanted to go to Texas A&M University’s campus in Corpus Christi and study to become a marine biologist. Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, known as Lexi, told her parents she wanted to be a lawyer.

The aftermath of mass violence has a kind of bleak rhythm, one that plays out across the country after deadly attacks. In Texas alone, there have been mass shootings in recent years at a church in Sutherland Springs, a small town on the other side of San Antonio; a Walmart in El Paso; and a high school in Santa Fe, near Houston.

Already, there has been a shift in Uvalde, a city of 15,000 people in a scrubby, windblown stretch west of San Antonio.

Soon after the shooting, while Uvalde was still in the clutches of shock, the city was packed with law enforcement agencies, elected officials and journalists representing news organizations from around the world.

The attention brought its own hassles and hardships. But it also brought a surge of support. One online fundraiser for the children of Irma Garcia and her husband collected more than $2.7 million — far eclipsing the original goal of $10,000.

For some, the notice has also been reassuring in less tangible ways.

“This is a little town — it’s a city, but it’s little,” Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio said of Uvalde, which is part of his diocese. He said it was a source of comfort for residents to know that people far from Uvalde knew of their community’s plight and had sympathy for them. “The eyes of the world were on their home,” he added.

The community is still grappling with the immediate aftermath: Gov. Greg Abbott, who was among the officials to visit, said Tuesday that he had issued a disaster declaration for Uvalde, which mobilizes more state and local resources for the city.

And as state law enforcement officials continued their investigation into why police officers had delayed entering a classroom where the gunman was locked in with students, they said Tuesday that the chief of the school district’s Police Department, Pete Arredondo, had not made himself available for a follow-up interview by investigators.

Still, a week after the shooting, the outside attention has started to diminish. The memorials have become less crowded. On the streets, there are fewer reporters, cameras and vehicles emblazoned with the logos of news outlets.

Some are already contemplating the arduous road ahead, unsure of what kind of support Uvalde will ultimately need and for how long, particularly the children who are now growing up in the shadow of devastation.

Sacred Heart, the parish that has been an anchor for Uvalde’s Catholic community for generations, has been a gathering place in the days since the attack, holding special Masses and vigils, as well as providing counseling services.

On Tuesday, the church was filled again as a choir sang a hymn based on the prayer of St. Francis — “make me a channel of your peace.” Many attending Amerie’s funeral dressed in shades of lilac and lavender. Others wore work uniforms, stepping away from their jobs to take time to pray and cry.

Her death had compounded a string of loss for a family that had relatives die from the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Morales — a native of Uvalde who returned six years ago to lead Sacred Heart — encouraged those who mourned her to make a choice, however tough it might be: Celebrate her life. Take to heart that her spirit and her legacy endure. “Allow her to be with us,” he said.

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