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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Why the kids?’ In close-knit Uvalde, it’s everyone’s loss.

Residents say a prayer with a Texas state trooper at the entrance of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

By Jack Healy and Edgar Sandoval

Xavier Lopez, 10, made the honor roll on the day he was killed.

He was eager to share the news with his three brothers, but Xavier’s grandparents said he decided to stay at Robb Elementary School following an end-of-year ceremony to watch a movie and eat popcorn with another family he cherished: his fourth-grade classmates.

Xavier’s classroom, where a nightmare erupted when a gunman burst in and killed 19 children and two teachers, reflected the close-knit character of Uvalde, a Mexican American ranching town in southern Texas where lives are braided together by generations of friendships and marriage.

There was Xavier and his elementary-school sweetheart, who was also killed in the shooting. There were cousins Jackie Cazares, who had her First Communion two weeks ago, and Annabelle Rodriguez, an honor-roll student. There was Amerie Jo Garza, a grinning 10-year-old whose father said she “talked to everybody” at recess and lunch.

On Wednesday, their deaths united Uvalde in anguish as families began to grapple with the toll of the deadliest school massacre since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, 10 years ago.

“Why? Why him? Why the kids?” Leonard Sandoval, 54, Xavier’s grandfather, said as he stood outside the family’s home, holding one of Xavier’s younger brothers by his side as relatives and friends trickled up the driveway to drop off bottled water and fried chicken.

They remembered Xavier as an exuberant baseball and soccer player who jumped at the chance to help his father do landscaping work or dance around on TikTok videos with his siblings and cousins.

Everyone in Uvalde, a town of about 15,200 about 60 miles from the country’s southern border, seemed to know one of the children who had been gunned down. Or had gone to high school with one of the victims’ parents or grandparents. Or had lost several family members.

“I lost two,” George Rodriguez, 72, said in between sobs as he climbed out of his Domino’s pizza delivery truck to greet a friend Wednesday afternoon. “My grandson and a niece. I lost two.”

“I know, I know,” Rodriguez’s friend, Joe Costilla, replied. “We lost our cousin too.”

The scene replayed itself again and again across the leafy neighborhoods of modest homes surrounding the elementary school, where about 90% of the 500 students are Hispanic.

Rodriguez said he had attended counseling at the civic center early Wednesday, but it offered him little reprieve from the pain. Instead, he said he asked his supervisor at Domino’s if he could pick up a shift.

“I just could not stay home and think about what happened all day,” Rodriguez said. “I had to work and try to distract my mind.”

He pulled a photo from his wallet showing 10-year-old Jose Flores — “my little Josécito” — whom Rodriguez said he had raised as a grandson. The boy wore a rose-colored T-shirt saying, “Tough guys wear pink.” Rodriguez broke down crying.

Costilla said he was a cousin by marriage of Eva Mireles, a beloved teacher at Robb Elementary who befriended children and adults with the same ease. She loved running marathons and teaching her fourth graders, having spent the last 17 years as a teacher, Costilla said. She had a daughter in her 20s and three dogs.

“She was really close to us,” Costilla said. They spent many weekends together barbecuing in his backyard and would have fired up the grill again this upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

“But now she’s gone,” Costilla said.

Until this week, Uvalde was perhaps best known as the hometown of actor Matthew McConaughey and John Nance Garner, a vice president under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1970, it became a center of anti-discrimination protests after Hispanic high school students staged weeks of walkouts.

San Juanita Hernandez, 25, a fifth-generation resident, said her teachers often invoked Uvalde’s history and famous names as they urged her and other students to do great things.

“Any homeroom teacher, football coach, would say, ‘Which one of you is going to bring us fame and put us on the map?’ ” Hernandez said.

Despite the proximity to the border and the presence of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Uvalde, residents and city officials said most people were born in the area and had deep ties to the region’s ranching history. In the neighborhood around Robb Elementary, more than 40% of residents have lived in the same house for at least 30 years, according to census data.

The shared loss reverberating across Uvalde drew people to a 10 a.m. Mass on Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. As they headed into the building, Rebecca and Luis Manuel Acosta said the shooting had taken a crushing toll on a community where it seemed there was no more than a few degrees of separation among families.

“I feel so afraid,” Acosta, 71, said. “I feel so much for those mothers.”

The close connections extended to the 18-year-old gunman, who authorities say carried out the massacre before he was fatally shot by a Border Patrol agent. Ronnie Garza, a county commissioner, said he had known the suspect’s grandmother, who was wounded before the shooting spree at the school. He said one of his grandchildren had also known the suspect, who attended Uvalde High School.

“We are a community of faith, blue collar, agriculture workers,” Garza said.

As in much of Texas, gun ownership is sown deeply into Uvalde’s culture and government. Uvalde County, which includes the city, has elected conservative Democrats but also twice voted for former President Donald Trump. The City Council passed a measure in October allowing city workers to bring a properly registered gun to work with them, and the Uvalde Police Department has handed out free gun locks to try to prevent accidental shootings, according to The Uvalde Leader-News.

Some residents said it was inappropriate to debate the nation’s gun policies when families were still waiting to bury their children. Others said they were infuriated by the slaughter of 19 young children after other recent mass shootings in Texas, including at a church in Sutherland Springs in 2017 and a high school in Santa Fe in 2018.

“All everybody wants to say is we’ll pray for you and we’re sorry for your loss, but that’s not good enough anymore,” said Rogelio M. Muñoz, who served on the City Council for 14 years. “Something needs to change. But what infuriates me is I know nothing is going to happen. Nobody’s going to do a damned thing about it.”

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