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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Uvalde, families found purpose in grief

Kimberly Rubio sat next to her husband Felix as she testified before the House Select Committee on Community Safety at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas, on April 18, 2023

By Tamir Kalifa

Alexandria Rubio’s mother and sister approached her grave one morning, the dark ink still fresh on their skin.

“My Lexi-roo, we got a tattoo for you!” Kalisa Barboza, 18, shouted, facing the headstone. They were visiting the Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery, as the family has done nearly every day in the year since their 10-year-old, known as Lexi, was killed along with 18 other students and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

Barboza and her mother, Kimberly Rubio, raised their upper arms. “Destination Lexi,” the matching tattoos said in elegant cursive, a reminder of the women’s belief that their family will eventually be reunited.

The families of the 21 people who were killed have spent the last year working their way through a wilderness of grief, anger, despair, frustration and confusion — searching, if not for peace, then at least for purpose.

The cemetery, where most of the victims are buried, has become an anchor for many of the families, as has the bond forged among them. The families decorate the graves and meticulously maintain the area surrounding the headstones; and together, they gather at the cemetery to celebrate birthdays and holidays.

Mass shootings have continued to occur across the country since the Uvalde massacre, and the process of recovery in the months since has been slow, moving season by season.

“Time doesn’t heal,” said Ana Rodriguez, whose daughter Maite was among the dead. “It shows us how to learn to live with the pain.”

Summer of outrage

In the wake of the tragedy, most of the families were drawn to the cemetery. In early June, mounds of dirt rose above the fresh graves of nearly a dozen 9- and 10-year-olds in the northern section, a constellation of anguish. Half of the victims were buried there. The others occupied places beside relatives elsewhere in the cemetery. A few were cremated.

In Uvalde, the small, mainly blue-collar and mainly Latino town not far from San Antonio, people run into each other at school activities and the town’s only supermarket. Now, these families are also connected through grief and, for many, a new sense of purpose: They want accountability for the well-documented law enforcement failures of May 24, 2022, and changes in law that they hope will prevent other families from experiencing the same fate.

They packed school board and city meetings and held rallies, many relatives calling for stricter gun laws. Like the cemetery, the halls of power in Austin and Washington, D.C., became familiar places.

“I feel like her chapter closed and mine opened,” Rubio said of her daughter. “I feel this responsibility to her to share her story and to make change for her.”

Early on, the families began supporting one another and managing the logistics of their interwoven lives using a private message group they called “21 Angels.”

The evening before the first day of school in September, some of the parents expressed their anxiety and dread to the group. “Anyone up for a quick visit to the plaza?” Gloria Cazares, whose daughter Jacklyn, known as Jackie, was killed, wrote in response.

A little over an hour later, nine sets of parents formed a circle near the crosses still standing in the town plaza. They held hands and prayed.

A new purpose

By November, the swollen dirt above the graves had settled, and lush grass was starting to take hold. Nearly all the families gathered at the cemetery to observe Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday when people commune with loved ones who have died. They set up ofrendas, and took turns visiting altars for the children and teachers.

“I like to think that we’re not bonded by just the tragedy, but by shared memories of our children,” Rubio said. “It’s almost like this puzzle that none of us have access to unless we’re together.”

The day before, a group from Uvalde traveled to Austin, where they carried a Day of the Dead altar from the state Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion nearby. They were demonstrating in favor of tighter gun regulations, including raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle to 21 from 18. The gunman, who was 18, legally purchased the assault rifle used in the shooting.

Back home, the pain of experiencing the first of many cycles of milestones without lost family members was unrelenting.

At 6 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving, Gloria Cazares and her husband, Javier, were the first to arrive at a Uvalde banquet hall for “Luv Ya Uvalde,” a Thanksgiving lunch that the family holds annually for the community. In the dim light, surrounded by empty tables, the couple held each other, wiping away tears. Each member of the family had a role in organizing the lunch and serving food during the event, which was a favorite of Jackie’s.

“We’re now realizing she was not just a little part of our family,” Gloria Cazares said. “She was probably the biggest part of our family.”

Cazares got to work to distract herself. Then her older sister approached her and asked, “Who’s in charge of dessert?”

Cazares paused. “Jackie was.”

A quiet holiday

Xavier Lopez, known as X.J., loved the holiday season. In late November, his family attended his favorite event, Uvalde’s annual Christmas extravaganza.

As his parents, Abel Lopez and Felicha Martinez, and his siblings walked through the elaborate trail of lights and decorations to a soundtrack of a children’s choir, a loud blast pierced the air. An overloaded transformer had burst, cutting the power briefly. Martinez had a panic attack and collapsed on the grass.

“These days are supposed to be happy,” she said later that evening, “but they are just reminders that our lives are torn apart.”

Other reminders are more subtle.

Before her death, Tess Mata made a lot of noise at home. When the 10-year-old wasn’t singing along with TikTok videos or talking to her older sister on the phone, she was roller skating around the living room, the pink wheels making a distinct click clack over the tiled floor.

“When Tess was quiet, you worried,” said Veronica Mata, her mother.

“It’s just the AC — that’s how quiet it is,” her father, Jerry Mata, said. “That’s our new normal now.”

Small victories

In the spring, the Rubios, along with several Uvalde families, returned to Austin to testify before the House Select Committee on Community Safety in favor of the “Raise the Age” bill. They arrived at 7:30 a.m. wearing T-shirts with images of their lost loved ones.

After waiting 13 hours, Rubio was the first to testify.

“Did you think we would go home?” she asked the committee members.

A few weeks later, the families crammed into a fluorescent-lit committee room for a vote on the bill. Two Republicans broke with their party, ensuring the bill would pass out of committee. The room erupted in applause and tears.

In the end, the bill did not reach the floor, because of Republican opposition. Still, the families said they felt they had shown that progress toward gun legislation could be made in Texas.

Kimberly Rubio and her husband, Felix, drove straight to Uvalde, arriving at the cemetery just after sundown. All Kimberly Rubio wanted to do, she said, was lie on top of Lexi’s grave. The ground in front of the headstone was wet from the sprinkler, but she lay down anyway, letting the cool water soak into her yellow shirt that read “Lexi’s mom.”

“We did it,” she whispered. “You did it.”

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