A half-century after one movement, ‘Fierce Madres’ in Uvalde call for another

Angie Villescaz, Adela Garza-Bond and Angeli Gomez make protest signs at El Progreso Memorial Library on Monday in Uvalde, Tex.
Angie Villescaz, Adela Garza-Bond and Angeli Gomez make protest signs at El Progreso Memorial Library on Monday in Uvalde, Tex. (Sergio Flores for the Washington Post)
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UVALDE, Tex. — The mothers and grandmothers filed into the school board meeting, a sea of maroon T-shirts with “Fierce Madres” emblazoned on their chests, ready to confront local officials after the shooting at Robb Elementary.

Angeli Gomez was called to speak first. On the day of the attack, she’d been briefly handcuffed by police as she tried to get into the school. The farmworker eventually jumped a fence and snatched her two sons from their classrooms.

“If nothing is done with this council to ensure the safety of our children, perhaps it is time for individuals who are willing to risk their lives for our children to fill your seats,” said Gomez, 30, her braids brushing the words “Hispanic Moms United” on the shirt’s back.

It has been nearly one month since the May 24 mass shooting, when a gunman stormed into an Uvalde, Tex., elementary school and killed 19 children and two teachers while police stood for over an hour outside the classroom where he was shooting.

Now, after a long procession of funerals, the collective grief here is turning into collective rage. Moms and dads, some who lost children in the attack, are showing up at town meetings teary-eyed and angry to demand school police chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo’s firing. A local group calling for gun laws has grown to more than 1,000 members in just a few days — a feat in a Southwest Texas town where hunting tourism remains a large driver of the economy and private gun ownership is commonplace. Protesters are expected to gather at the town square this weekend to demand accountability.

“I am one pissed grandma,” said Estella Martinez, 70, a member of the Fierce Madres, a Latina mom-driven group that formed a week ago.

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Unlike many of the parents who became activists after shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the predominantly Mexican American families here work low-wage, full-time jobs. They don’t have connections with high-profile lawmakers or philanthropists. Many don’t have a Twitter account.

Nonetheless, the residents of this 15,000-person city are not strangers to protest. A half-century ago, families participated in a walkout considered a defining moment in civil rights history after a Latino teacher at Robb Elementary was fired. They say they are drawing from that history in shaping their response to the worst U.S. school shooting in nearly a decade.

“It’s about time we flipped the script,” said Tina Quintanilla, 41, another member of the Fierce Madres. “Collectively, with our older generations, we can do this.”

‘A tough town to live in’

Back in 1970, it wasn’t school violence that spurred Uvalde students and parents into action. It was inequality.

Even though the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling deemed school segregation unlawful across the country, plenty of institutions nonetheless continued separating communities by race — including the Uvalde school district.

Residents who lived here in the 1950s and 60s recall the churches, cemeteries and movie theaters designated for Mexicans. And then there were the schools. In official records, Robb Elementary was described as the “Mexican School” — a legacy of what many in Texas call the “Juan Crow” era.

Robb, named after a White teacher, was built on the overwhelmingly Hispanic southwest side, with bare facilities that longtime residents said were worse maintained than Dalton Elementary, a majority-White school farther east. Most of the teachers were White. Josue “George” Garza was one of the few exceptions, a Latino teacher well liked by Hispanic families. He spoke with parents in Spanish and encouraged children to continue their education. He also had an activist streak and set up voter registration drives in the community.

It didn’t sit well with the principal of Robb Elementary.

“You’re a double crosser,” Garza remembers the school’s leader telling him.

When his contract wasn’t renewed, hundreds of students boycotted Uvalde schools for six weeks in the spring of 1970, putting the small town in the history books for staging one of the longest walkouts of the Chicano civil rights movement. That set into motion more civic action.

Later that year, one parent, Genoveva Morales, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Latino children and their parents, looking to end what she said was illegal segregation in the district. Five years later, an appellate court ruled against the school district and ordered it to desegregate.

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But many families here feel that history is often pushed aside — discussed little in school and left for grandparents to retell. Painted on the walls of the public library and the high school is an image published in a 1957 New York Times article on Uvalde titled “Race Unity Easy for Texas Town.” It shows four boys of different races — one White, one Latino, one Asian and one Black — raising an American flag.

“Uvalde has sort of held on to this moment of when it was a symbol of racial unity and of hope for racial integration,” said Monica Muñoz Martinez, a native of Uvalde and history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

For many in the community, that image is a far cry from reality. In the years after the walkout, more Mexican Americans began to fill school board seats, and redistricting allowed them to gain greater representation on the county court. Garza, the teacher at the center of the controversy, was elected to the school board and then rose to become Uvalde mayor.

Yet while public institutions are more Latino today, White men still lead important organizations, such as the local bank. Parents with higher incomes — typically those who are White — send their kids to private schools or the higher-ranking school district in nearby Knippa.

The city is 81 percent Hispanic, according to the Census, but local experts estimate that only 10 to 15 percent of the area’s wealth is owned by Hispanics. Only 17 percent of local residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“Uvalde is a tough town to live in,” said Alfredo Santos, 70, who lived in Uvalde as a child and now runs the Austin-based bilingual newspaper La Voz. “A lot of people have over the years left because they refuse to walk with their heads down. Others have stayed, trapped by poverty. Others have stayed because they have a safe job and make sure they don’t stir the pot.”

Fierce Madres

As the Fierce Madres gathered in Uvalde’s public library on a recent morning, they pulled out books recounting their town’s history for inspiration — tomes by Olga Rodriguez, a renowned activist in the community in the 1970s, and Juan Sanchez, a former Uvaldean and historian who laid out the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the community.

Some, like Gomez, who was handcuffed outside the school, have children at Robb and are now dealing with the traumatic aftermath of the shooting. They stood along the perimeter of the school that day, hoping and praying that their children, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren would come out alive. Others are Uvalde natives who felt pressed to do something.

Angie Villescaz, 55, is one of the group’s leaders and its founder. She used to work at a shelter for survivors of child abuse in Austin and ran and lost in a Democratic primary for state representative in March. After the shooting, she began talking with friends and family in her hometown about what could be done. Little by little, mothers and grandmothers began connecting.

Soon, they had a name, paying homage to the hard-charging determination with which they were raised — and are now raising their children.

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“You may not know much about our culture, but you don’t mess with our kids,” Villescaz said. “We have to stay laser-focused on what Hispanic moms are trying to do because they never have really been given this kind of space.”

She and others in the group see themselves as the Latina version of Moms Demand Action, the gun control group led by mothers that arose after the Sandy Hook school massacre. Just as the women’s rights movement often failed to address the rights of women of color, Villescaz said the gun control and school safety conversation needs diverse voices to ensure their needs are met, too.

The Fierce Madres don’t yet know how to raise money, or from where. But they are steadily putting together a list of demands. First, they want school police chief Pedro “Pete” Arredondo fired. After that, they intend to host voter registration drives this fall in the hopes of overturning leadership — at pretty much all levels, from the local mayor to state governor, all of whom they feel didn’t do enough to protect their children.

“So far as I can see, they’ve done nothing,” said Estella Martinez, a Fierce Madres member who grew up in a migrant farm-working family and worked as a waitress while she raised her children, often relying on food stamps to get by. Her close friend’s daughter died in the shooting, as well as one of her cousin’s granddaughters.

“They’re just trying to say, ‘Okay, let’s give them time and they’ll forget.’ But I swore the day that these children got killed I was never going to let them forget.”

Grief and mistrust

In the weeks since the shooting, many have tried to focus on healing and coming together in this town where, as many like to say, everyone knows everyone. But it has also stirred long-simmering feelings of mistrust — particularly toward law enforcement officials, who are accused of dawdling and waiting for a key to enter the classroom door and kill the gunman.

At one point during their meeting, Quintanilla posed the fellow women a question: “So what if that class was full of White kids?”

Villescaz immediately responded: “Oh, they wouldn’t have been shooting the breeze, sitting around in their cars.”

“They would’ve gone in there instantly. I guarantee it. I know it,” Gomez said.

The rest of the room nodded.

Michael Luis Ortiz, a resident of Uvalde and professor at Sul Ross State University, accused leaders of protecting themselves at the expense of the public by not holding public meetings to talk to residents about what happened that day. He also said the lack of mental health resources and other social services in Uvalde ultimately set up an environment where an 18-year-old with violent thoughts and access to weaponry could slip through the cracks.

But he also believes a lack of civic action is to blame.

“We don’t have opportunities here because people are not able or willing to fight for them,” he said. “I think a lot of it just comes from not knowing how to do that, not knowing how to advocate for your rights.”

The Fierce Madres’ first foray into demanding change at the school board meeting gave them a hint that the road ahead could be long and bumpy. Angry parents and siblings were asked to speak in groups and given three minutes each. No immediate action was taken against the school district’s embattled police chief. And there was no response from school board members to the tearful testimonies of victim families.

By the end of the night, Villescaz’s feet were swollen after she held up her sign for over an hour: “Enough is enough.” The women were tired and upset. Many rushed straight to their cars when it was over, too flustered to speak.

On Wednesday, the school district announced Arredondo had been put on administrative leave. The Fierce Madres said they want more. They helped circulate an online petition that quickly gathered thousands of signatures calling for his firing. Thinking of their neighbors and family members who protested decades before, they vowed to press on.

“They moved the needle, but it’s up to us to finish it,” Martinez said, her voice shaking. “We’re like a big, giant tiger, and they have awoken us.”