Divisons run deep in Uvalde after school shooting: ‘If you’re not trying you’re complicit’

Gun Rights

Prior to the shooting, the city grappled with police corruption, entrenched gun culture and the lasting wounds of segregation. Now the illusion of ‘Uvalde Strong’ has ruptured as families demand change

by Bekah McNeel for the Trace and Guardian US, with photographs by Christopher Lee

This story was originally published by The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.

It took most of the summer for the Uvalde school district to fire Pete Arredondo, the chief of the district police department whose blunders were largely blamed for the high number of casualties at the horrific mass shooting at Robb elementary school. The families of the victims acknowledged that it was the first real response to community demands for accountability, but parents, grandparents, and siblings have not stopped organizing to oust – by protest or by election – those who were in charge on 24 May. Now, they’re fighting to change gun laws in Texas, a state that prohibits its agencies from enforcing any gun control legislation passed since January 2021.

During sweltering summer protests and the subdued first days of the new school year, Uvaldeans told the Trace and the Guardian US about the various ways the community was coming together and falling apart. A county commissioner remembered school walkouts in the 1960s and said he hoped things go differently this time. A former city employee said she had seen the potential for disaster and grieved her own prophetic words. A pastor lent spiritual support to those demanding change, despite pressure to bless the status quo. A high school student struck a balance between the urgency to bring change and taking things more incrementally alongside her peers.

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At the center of it all were the families of those who were murdered, whose grief superseded any concerns about civic unity or political allegiance. For them, firing the inept, voting out the gun-friendly and changing gun laws are all part of a mission to make Uvalde safer. To make children safer. Resistance to that mission feels personal.

A memorial at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, Texas on 10 November 2022. Photo: Christopher Lee for The Guardian

Speaking at a protest near the Texas Capitol on 27 August, Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old nephew and adopted son Uzaiyah was one of the 21 victims, left no room for equivocation. He was there with hundreds to demand that the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, call a special legislative session to raise the age to buy assault-style weapons from 18 – the age of the Robb elementary mass murderer – to 21.

“Fight with us,” he said. “Because you don’t want to be fighting from this side with a hole in your heart.”

There is no middle ground left in Uvalde. The shared cause of raising the age for buying assault rifles clarifies the two sides of the fight: those who demand change and those who oppose it. While Abbott himself had told Cross he didn’t see guns as the real culprit in Uvalde, to simply accept inaction wasn’t an option. Giving up was inconceivable to families who would have given anything to prevent their children from dying. The families saw no good excuse for those unwilling to join their cause.

“If you’re not trying,” Cross said, “you’re complicit.”

‘We live in Texas’

Uvalde county commissioner Ronnie Garza regularly takes meetings at his local coffee shop, which is more accurately a Stripes gas station on Main Street. On 30 June he walked to a cooler to get a bottle of water and stopped by the coffee station to fill a paper cup. All the other customers seemed to know him, and they were all talking about gun reform.

He gestured over to a group of regulars – older men in relaxed jeans and trucker caps – populating a few of the vinyl and chrome tables.

“I hear it from these guys too,” he said, “Everybody’s talking about it.”

Even some of his more conservative, gun-owning neighbors have wanted to talk about their suggestions for reasonable changes to gun laws that would have made it more difficult for the Robb elementary gunman to get his hands on the assault rifle he bought online and picked up at Oasis Outback, where he also bought ammunition. Garza was hearing a consensus on guns, but he also knew that these were early days. Time would tell whether his neighbors remained supportive and unified, or if cynicism or hostility would creep in.

Ronnie Garza, a county commissioner who was running for re-election, at DeLeon Park, which was named after his grandfather, Gilberto DeLeon Sr, in Uvalde, Texas on 4 November 2022.

A man of deep faith whose family includes more preachers than politicians, Garza turned to his pastor for advice. The pastor told him the coming days would be critical.

“After a loss you either get stronger or you go south,” Garza said. While Garza supports the noncontroversial Uvalde Together Resiliency Center, which used money from Abbott’s office to bring in mental health resources, he doesn’t see therapeutic answers as the only support that survivors and bereaved families need.

So Garza has been one of the few elected officials to take up the community’s cause of tightening the assault-rifle regulations. He’s popular in his largely Democratic precinct, which includes Robb elementary, and has not shied away from controversy in the past. He was the only one of the county’s four commissioners to vote for the removal of a monument to former Confederate president Jefferson Davis in front of the county courthouse.

He presented a resolution in July that would marshal the commissioner’s court and city council to put their official stamp on the community’s demand for the special legislative session to raise the age to buy assault weapons. He presented another resolution in September asking the speaker of Texas’s state house of representatives, Dade Phelan, to meet with the families of the victims.

“I’m being realistic,” Garza said. “We live in Texas.”

Ronnie Garza on the last day of early voting for the 2022 midterm elections in Uvalde, Texas.

The families, too, are grounded in that reality. Jazmin Cazares, who lost her 10-year-old sister Jackie at Robb elementary, acknowledged that they were ready to compromise in the name of progress. While some, Cazares included, would support an assault weapons ban, they chose raising the age from 18 to 21 as a sign of good faith.

But in 2021 the state legislature passed a permitless carry law, allowing anyone over the age of 21 to carry a gun in public without a permit. While the Republicans’ complete dominance of state politics has driven some of this, not all Texas Democrats are pushing gun reform either. Tracy King, the state representative for Uvalde, was one of eight Democrats to vote “yes” to permitless carry.

How ordinary citizens feel about guns is, of course, more nuanced than what is reflected in the laws passed in Austin. While the share of Texans who own guns is only about 36%, because of its size, the state leads the country in gun sales. Political leaders play into the potent myth of the “wild west,” where a gun in a holster is nearly as standard as a cowboy hat. Guns are even more culturally ingrained in sprawling rural west Texas. It’s more conservative than the urban hubs, populated by both hunters and hobbyists.

Ronnie Garza explains who’s on the ballot to voters in Uvalde, Texas on 4 November 2022.

Billboards and roadside signs advertising gun sales line the 80 miles between San Antonio and Uvalde along US Highway 90, and over the summer in the tiny town of D’Hanis, 33 miles from Uvalde, a booster organization posted on Facebook that it would raffle off guns, including semi-automatic and AR-556 rifles, as a fundraiser for the D’Hanis independent school district. The post was taken down after Facebook users expressed outrage at the insensitivity, but it’s unclear whether the raffle proceeded, and whether D’Hanis’s district – which claimed it had not been consulted about the raffle – accepted money from it.

After the Uvalde shooting, Republican congressman Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde, supported the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a bill that includes model red flag laws, mental health and school safety funding, restrictions for those convicted of domestic abuse, and enhanced background checks for people under 21. Iy was co-authored by Texas US Senator John Cornyn, a fellow Republican. Gonzalez took some heat for that, political observers said. Cornyn’s approval rating also suffered. But their willingness to stand on principle didn’t escape notice.

“If it was possible in the (US) Senate, it’s possible in the Texas legislature,” said Nicole Golden, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. The activism of those affected by gun violence is a vital part of the equation, not only because of their passion, but for their longevity in the fight.

None of these conditions are lost on Garza. He sees them as similar to the heat he feels as he drives around in his truck without air conditioning. It’s hot here, and elected leaders are pro-gun. That’s life.

The scene outside Willie de Leon Civic Center during the last day of early voting for the 2022 midterm elections in Uvalde, Texas.

Even with all of the protests targeted directly at Abbott, the Republican easily won re-election on 8 November, with 60% of Uvalde county voting for him.

But Garza also knows that, unlike the Texas heat, social and political realities can be fought, and challenging the injustices others take for granted is his family’s legacy.

Old wounds

Garza’s life in community activism began at Robb elementary. What happened at Robb and in Uvalde in the 1960s and 70s has numerous parallels to what’s happening today, with some of the pain tracing along scars that never properly healed, and could easily open again.

Garza’s father, George, was a teacher at Robb elementary when it was known locally as “the Mexican school”. School facilities were lacking, and parents with concerns were ignored or dismissed. The young teacher, one of a few Latinos on staff, became their advocate, and raised money to improve the facilities.

Then in the spring of 1970, the district chose not to renew George Garza’s teaching contract, which infuriated the Mexican-American community. It was a story of an aggrieved Latino community and the predominantly white leadership refusing to meet their demands. They decided to stage a walkout, inspired by what was happening across the American south-west as the Mexican American Youth Organization called attention to educational injustice.

The racial dynamics of both the walkouts and community activism after the Robb elementary shooting are complex. The ethnic distinction between the communities – Hispanic and non-Hispanic for those with Spanish-speaking heritage, or Latino and non-Latino for those whose families are from Latin America – allows for racial overlap, as there are white Hispanics and non-white Hispanics, white Latinos and non-white Latinos. But the community identifying itself as Latino or Mexican-American in Uvalde differentiates itself from what used to be called the “Anglo” community – now referred to mostly as simply “white,” based less on specific ancestry or ethnicity, and more on how they have been racialized: empowered or marginalized on the basis of their last name, skin color, culture or language.

In Uvalde, there may be white people with Spanish surnames, and families with blended Latin American and Northern European ancestry. But everyone there seems to know who is white and who is Latino, and what that means.

Though the shooting wasn’t explicitly racist, and the shooter was Latino himself, the Latino community bore the brunt of the loss. When they took their demands to the mayor, Don McLaughlin, Superintendent Hal Harrell, and Abbott, it was hard not to notice that decisions rested in white hands, and those hands have been slow to move.

A memorial at the town square in Uvalde, Texas on 10 November 2022.

The ongoing fight is equally nuanced. The majority of those calling for gun reform in Uvalde are Latino, but not all Latinos want gun reform, and some are eager to see the emotions toned down.

Back in 1970 there were Latinos displeased with the confrontational nature of the walkouts too, Ronnie Garza recalled. Not because some Mexican-Americans thought the education system was just, but because keeping the peace with white Uvaldeans was a matter of survival.

Both father and son said they remembered the six-week walkout as a time of both intense unity among the protesters and those who supported them, and perhaps even more intense animosity from those who opposed them. While the protesters got support from students, helicopters circled low above them, and the Texas Rangers stationed snipers on the buildings. George Garza remembers nasty slurs whispered at city council meetings, and political strategies to paint the protesters as radicals with political agendas.

Accusations of interference from more broadly progressive outside groups – political parties and MoveOn, for instance – are muddying the gun-reform debate as well. And it’s true that many rallies and online groups tend to attract a wide range of interests aligned with their own ostensible purpose. But the Uvalde rallies and online groups have stayed smaller, and laser focused. It’s about guns. While it’s clear the crowd in Austin would have been friendly to something more ambitious like a total assault weapon ban, the speakers generally stuck to their initial proposal, and so did the crowd.

Grief and anger are clarifying their view of politicians. And no matter what happened in the November elections, Garza knew progress would be slow. It was and is slow on integration too, but Garza sees more cooperation and ease between the white and Latino communities in Uvalde now, even beyond the schools. Some churches, notorious for entrenched segregation, are integrated. He sees his father’s sacrifices bearing fruit.

But something nags at him. “You know what never gets said?” he asked, “‘We’re sorry.’”

In refusing to take responsibility for the ravages of segregation, the white leaders placed a burden on the Latino community all those decades ago. The burden of moving on without amends. Now, they are being asked to move on again.

‘We’re very divided’

George Garza never got his teaching job back, but instead ended up in politics, registering voters and eventually running successfully for local office himself. During his tenure as mayor of Uvalde, Audrey Garcia, who at that time worked as director of human resources for the city, called him “one of the good ones”.

Audrey Garcia, who previously worked as the director of human resources and city secretary for Uvalde, with her daughters Alexandra (right) and Gabby Garza (left), in San Antonio, Texas on 5 November 2022.

In Garcia’s mind, that means fighting the status quo, the so-called good ol’ boys, who, in her opinion, had set the community up for tragedy. Her daughter Gabby, who has Down’s syndrome, was in Eva Mireles’s class years ago. Garcia remembers the teacher, who was killed in the shooting, as one of the few who helped her fight to have Gabby included in a general education classroom.

She was shocked when she heard about the shooting, but another part of her had known that if such a crisis ever occurred, Uvalde would not be ready for it.

Garcia was horrified by the way budgets and personnel matters were handled by the Uvalde police department. Promotions were political, budgets were padded, and bad behavior went unaddressed. She remembered taking her concerns to the city manager, but, she said, “nothing would ever get resolved.”

She also remembered butting heads with Arredondo when he was Uvalde’s assistant chief of police. While there’s no question he screwed up at Robb elementary, she said, he wasn’t an anomaly.

Audrey Garcia, whose daughters were taught by Eva Mireles, one of the victims during the shooting, holds a keepsake from her old job in her home in San Antonio, Texas.

“He’s a product of the way things were done,” Garcia said. The massacre was a wake-up call. The low-level corruption and incompetence was sort of an open secret before, Garcia said, but the community isn’t standing for it any more.

Parents of the slain children continued to pressure the school district even after Arredondo was fired, demanding that the entire district police department be suspended and subject to review. When district administrators refused to meet with them, they staged a protest, beginning 27 September and stretching for 10 days, sitting in the parking lot outside district headquarters. On 7 October, the district complied with their request, but attributed the decision to information uncovered during an external review. Then, on 10 October, Harrell announced his retirement.

Garcia knows that lasting change will take more than a single push. As the parent of a student with a learning difference, she knows what it means to challenge an entrenched system. In a tragic coincidence, Mireles, an ally in that fight, was inspiring a new one.

Civic participation is indeed at an all-time high, Garza said. All summer parents flooded school board and city council meetings, demanding to know who will be receiving contracts for school security updates and what options will be available for parents who don’t feel safe sending their kids back to school. They wanted those in charge that day to be fired; they wanted poor performance to have consequences.

Audrey Garcia and her daughters in their home in San Antonio, Texas on 6 November 2022.

The local activism and demands for accountability are tied to their desire to see gun reform, Garcia said. A city that feels betrayed by the good ol’ boys sees the Texas state capitol and the National Rifle Association as part of the problem.

The problems of ineptitude and gun reform came together in a gut-wrenching way when the community questioned why the police officers had waited 77 minutes to confront the gunman.

Before the shooting, Garcia said, gun culture, like so many other things in Uvalde, was just assumed to be ubiquitous. It was easier to go along and get along. Garcia now lives in San Antonio, but she talks to friends and colleagues from Uvalde – and the vast majority, she said, are talking about gun reform.

A Día de Muertos alter honoring family members along with Eva Mireles at Audrey Garcia’s home.

When they aren’t behind a desk, many elected leaders and police officers are seated in pews, next to their neighbors. Here, in theory, they are equal before God. But Uvaldeans say they often hear the same message from the pulpit as they do from the political dais: don’t question authority.

Preaching from a roadside cafe on the outskirts of Uvalde, primarily to an online audience, pastor Daniel Myers’ military-style crew cut and stories about grandchildren reveal a man in his second act.

He has been outspoken online, in public meetings, and in the media – asking not just for prayers, but for action. For changes in gun laws and assurance that law enforcement will take steps to prevent another bungled crisis.

Fellow Uvaldeans, Myers said from an empty cafe after a Sunday service in August, have accused him of “spreading hate and division”.

He has felt pressured to focus attention toward the gunman as the lone bad guy, and away from city leadership, but Myers said he can’t do that in good conscience. Not when he thinks about Adam Martinez, whose eight-year-old son Zayon was inside Robb during the shooting.

Daniel Myers, a pastor at Tabernacle of Worship Church, in Uvalde, Texas on 6 November 2022.

“How can I turn my back on him?” Myers asked.

“You see all these signs that say ‘Uvalde Strong,’ but that’s not true,” Myers said. “We’re very divided.” Murals go up on the walls of local businesses, and football games are won in honor of the victims. But the illusion of unity ruptured when families demanded change.

‘We’re not marchers or protesters’

In Uvalde, someone’s perception of unity or division can depend on who, and where, they are. To Guadalupe Torres, who grew up in Uvalde, community includes his neighbors – not elected leaders or powerful landowners in the rural county surrounding his city.

“The Mexican majority is not represented” in local government, he said. For a long time, he said, “nobody cared about power disparities and gun culture. Now they do, and they are united.”

On the surface, Torres seems to contradict those like Myers and Garza who see the divisions running throughout Uvalde. But for Torres, who had never seen his neighbors rally around a common cause like this, the unity of the resistance was more striking than any division. From where he stood, the Latino community was galvanizing to demand changes to a system led by white politicians.

The awakening had some folks rattled, Garza said. By 10 July, it had been about six weeks since the massacre, and emotions were exceptionally raw, grief beginning to turn into anger. In the days leading up to the Unheard Voices rally and march that day, people in city hall and the county courthouse had approached him, nervous, he said. The Brown Berets, a formerly militant Chicano civil rights group, were helping the families organize, raising the specter of massive marches and unrest during the Trump presidency and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

A Sunday service at Tabernacle of Worship Church, in Uvalde, Texas on 6 November 2022.

Those movements didn’t bring out large crowds in Uvalde. “We’re not marchers or protesters,” Garza said.

When they have demonstrated in the past, law enforcement has been right on top of them. Literally. In 2020, a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter circled above the 50 people who showed up for a Black Lives Matter event.

Police and sheriff’s deputies came to the Unheard Voices rally, but their presence was not overbearing. Parents and victims marched from the school on a 107-degree day, and spoke out to call for accountability and gun reform as they memorialized their children, siblings, and parents. There were still more tears than chants, but the chants had begun.

The only indication that greater organizing efforts were percolating in the community was the presence of David Hogg and Sam Fuentes, survivors of the 2018 school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland, Florida, and organizers with March for Our Lives.

They had been contacted by Guadalupe Torres’s teenage daughters, Sofia and Aracely Torres, who were with their parents, wearing March For Our Lives T-shirts. Sofia, a petite power-lifting champion with a wide smile, would return to Midland University in Nebraska, leaving Aracely, a junior at Uvalde high school, to continue the organizing efforts.

‘Nobody will ever forget about what happened’

Aracely Torres is taking the long view on organizing. The 17-year-old and her peers want to be involved in the larger push for gun reform, but they also had to get through the tough days ahead, including the first day of school.

As 16 August approached, security updates were still incomplete on Uvalde’s campuses, so the district delayed the first day of school until 6 September. That day, students and teachers across Texas wore maroon in a show of solidarity.

It was a long, hectic return for Torres. First days are always a little bumpy with freshmen learning their way around, with new teachers, new course loads. But this year, the new emotional landscape marred any excitement.

Flags in the town square in Uvalde, Texas on 10 November 2022.

“I don’t think the buzz was there. It was just weird being back,” she said, “Something tragic happens and you can sense that there’s something different about this year.”

The shooting was a silent backdrop – not because it had become distant, but because it was still so present, she said. “I really don’t hear people talking about it. It’s out of respect – some of the siblings go to the high school.”

Those who did talk, did so in cautious groups, making sure not to upset each other. Mostly they talked about how “surreal” it was to be there, she said. There were explicit reminders of how much had changed: therapy dogs, security cameras and state troopers were visible everywhere. The teens share in the community anger at law enforcement, making it difficult to see cops around every corner. Torres counted five or six.

“There’s a lot of police presence now,” Torres said, “They said that they weren’t there (at Robb) when it happened, but I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”

The dogs, a friendlier presence, are still a reminder that they, as a student body, as a town, as families, as friends, are not OK.

A memorial mural near the town square in Uvalde, Texas on 10 November 2022.

Teachers quietly offered support, and Torres was grateful. The teens seem to have a greater awareness of their own fragility. That extends to organizing too, Torres said. Most of them are primarily focused on supporting their friends. They are keenly aware of what the adults are doing, and are sharing information about it on social media. But if they want to have the stamina they need to change gun laws in this stubborn, stuck state, they have to be healthy. They have to be there for each other.

Standing in the football stadium during the Uvalde Coyotes’ first home game this season, Torres said the cheering was unlike anything she’d heard before. The team had dedicated its season to the victims, and the community seemed to pour its passion and resolve into that goal. If the towering dome of the state capitol, the background to so many protests, symbolized everything aligned against them, the cheering stadium represented everyone around them, behind them, for them.

From where Torres stands, losing momentum seems impossible. She said: “Nobody will ever forget about what happened” on 24 May.

The thought that school will ever feel normal again sounds like a vague possibility, but for Torres and many of her friends, she said, part of their life trajectory is set.

They don’t have a choice but to fight for gun reform.

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