A son was lost, a daughter saved
By Edgar Sandoval
Jose Flores and Andrea Herrera, inseparable siblings both in the fourth grade, rode the bus together to Robb Elementary School last Tuesday as they did most mornings. They said their cheerful goodbyes. He headed into Room 111, she into Room 104.
Just a few hours later — just after Jose had been celebrated in a ceremony for his good grades — the boy was shot dead by a gunman who had slipped into the building through an open door. His sister escaped through a window.
“She survived, he didn’t,” said Cynthia Herrera, referring to her daughter and the stepson she had raised since he was 3.
In the agonizing days and nights that have followed, Jose and Andrea’s family has been left with nearly unbearable tasks large and small: helping Andrea recover, physically and emotionally; choosing the T-shirt and basketball shorts Jose will wear in his small coffin; holding together their young family.
Grief can take many forms after a mass shooting. In Uvalde, where 19 young children and two teachers were shot dead, families are mourning Jackie Cazares and Annabelle Rodriguez, cousins killed in the same classroom. They are grieving the loss of Irma Garcia, a fourth grade teacher, as well as her husband, Joe, who died of a heart attack two days after her death. They are missing children with dreams of becoming marine biologists and veterinarians, girls who hoped to be softball stars.
The family of Andrea and Jose — who was called Josecito and Baby Jose by those who loved him — are engulfed in a particular anguish, grieving one child and holding close the one who escaped.
Herrera and Jose Manuel Flores Sr. have replayed the tragedy over and over again in their minds. What if a mere second had changed the girl’s fate? What if Andrea had not made it through that window quickly enough? What if instead of planning one funeral, they were planning two?
“I can’t even imagine a world in which both could have died,” Herrera said. “Losing Josecito is painful enough. We will never be the same.”
Flores and Herrera met when they were both young themselves: a 20-year-old single father with a son, a 23-year-old single mother with a daughter. An encounter at the gas station where Herrera worked turned into dates. The chemistry was so strong that Flores got a tattoo of her that covers most of his left arm.
“He was in love at first sight,” Herrera joked last week, a rare moment of levity in recent days.
They had two sons together: Jayden Alexander Flores, now 5, and Jayce Axel Flores, 7 months. Josecito, at 10, was the oldest child in the blended family, followed by Andrea, who is 9.
Josecito had struggled in school, at least for a while. He was held back one year, uninterested in reading and math, and his younger sister had caught up to him in the fourth grade. “His main point of school was friends, lunch and recess,” Herrera said with a bittersweet smile.
His parents urged him to focus, and in recent months the message seemed to take hold. If he was going to become a police officer as he hoped, they told him, he needed to significantly improve his grades. “We told him, you better hurry because you are going to stay in the same grade again,” Herrera said.
He read more. He mastered multiplication, and Tuesday he was among the students recognized for making the honor roll at a ceremony Herrera attended.
“You could tell by his smile,” she said. “He was happy.”
The gunman attacked Josecito’s room first, then an adjoining one. His bullets also spread near Andrea’s classroom, where she told her grandparents she saw a teacher get shot moments before she fled, climbing through a window. A local newspaper photographer captured a haunting image of Andrea, wearing a pink T-shirt and black shorts, running across the lawn of the school, her face frozen in horror.
When Flores and Herrera got the news, it was bewildering and terrifying.
“They told us, pick up your children at the civic center, so I rushed there,” Flores recalled.
He stood back, riddled with anxiety. Andrea had come out alive. Surely Josecito would come out running, looking for us, too, Flores told himself. But hours went by, and his heart sank. “I was waiting and waiting,” he said. “He wasn’t showing up.”
One of the other parents leaned on him and whispered, “You might want to go check at the hospital, because his teacher got shot,” he said.
He drove to the hospital and sprinted to the lobby. A doctor broke the unfathomable news.
Josecito had been shot three times, including once on the side of the head. Officials were able to quickly identify him because his clothes — blue T-shirt, gray basketball shorts and gray Jordan sneakers — matched the outfit he was wearing in the awards photo he had taken just hours earlier.
The doctor told Flores he would take him to see the boy, but a police officer intervened. He was a father, too. You should not see your child in this state, he told Flores. And so Flores turned back.
The officer’s kindness, though, has not kept the family from imagining the scene. “Just imagine what a bullet of that caliber can do to such tender flesh and bones?” Martin Herrera, the boy’s grandfather, said in Spanish.
In the days since the shooting, Flores, an equipment operator at a nearby ranch, has created a shrine to the son who was always by his side, like a “chicle” — a piece of gum attached to the sole of a shoe — he said with a smile.
Inside the house, Josecito’s room is as he left it. The sight takes his father’s breath away. The twin bed to the right, next to a window facing the backyard, is covered in a bedsheet paying homage to basketball players. There is a decorative pillow with a poop emoji, another with an angry green robot. “He had crazy humor,” Flores said.
His younger brother Jayden usually slept on the bed next to his. But the boy developed a fever after Josecito’s death and is staying with other relatives now, too upset to sleep at home. Flores said he is ready to do the same. This house, he said, has too many painful memories.
“It’s going to be hard to be here and not see him,” he said.
Andrea, too, has found it painful to be at home. In the days since the shooting, she has become withdrawn and fearful. “That first night, she told us everything,” said Beatriz Herrera, her grandmother. “But ever since, she has been quiet, by herself. She’s still scared that the bad man may still come back and find her.”
And she misses her older brother desperately. They played together and talked about school. He was older, but she was taller. Closer in age than the younger two, they were protective of each other.
“Each time they left the house we told him, take care of your little sister,” Martin Herrera said. “And we would tell her, you have to take care of your brother, too.”