UVALDE, Tex. — May 24th started as every day should, with coffee.
Suspended in heartache, Uvalde searches for a way to move forward
Not only were the tiny bodies of children torn apart and the brave souls of teachers extinguished, but the community was repeatedly misled about what happened when the police responded — first being assured that officers had acted quickly and saved lives, only to learn days later they’d waited 77 minutes to confront the gunman. Today many victim families still feel in the dark about what happened to their children.
In the quest to learn more, the threads of friendship, family and neighborhood that have bound Uvalde together for generations have frayed. That tension is where some residents say their city is dangling today — between thoughts and prayers and actions and change.
The fissures that have erupted here look a lot like the divides that have emerged in American cities across the country afflicted by gun violence. Mass killings are numerically rare but devastatingly frequent. Whatever compels shooter after shooter to unleash maximum violence with a big gun is consuming community after community at a debilitating pace. The predictable merry-go-round that follows each tragedy — the politics, the news conferences, the recriminations — is enough to make one feel impotent to stop it.
However normal it feels, gun violence is not normal. But what happens next, the day or year after?
On May 24, 2023, there is unfinished business. Those who buried their loved ones gathered privately at the city cemetery, visiting with their dead. At the plaza, mariachis played lamentations and an assembly led by surviving teacher Arnulfo Reyes carried Uvalde Strong flags in orange, the color of the gun violence prevention movement. Texas and American flags fluttered at half-staff. Police saturated downtown Uvalde — parked under trees, in alleyways and on corners. Churches warned media with signs not to park in their lots. One man sat on the curb of the county courthouse with a sign castigating the former school police chief: Prosecute Pete Arredondo.
Few seemed to know what they were supposed to feel. But maybe if Uvalde can figure out the answer, some reasoned, the rest of the nation can follow. So while Uvalde gathered to remember the day that broke them, some returned to the places where it all started.
Fiestas aren’t the only functions mariachis play. In Mexican American culture, the exquisitely arrayed musical troupes are as essential for lament as they are for mirth.
Anthony Medrano and the Mariachi Campanas de America arrived last year for “la despedida” — to help Uvaldeans say goodbye. But while the grief was palpable, so was the anger. Uvalde was — and has been, Medrano said — in a sort of purgatory ever since.
He’d been uncertain back then if his group’s horns and guitars could help console. He thought about how the word “unimaginable” is used to describe these tragedies. Now, he said, the only thing unimaginable about them is that anyone survives.
When they returned one year later, Medrano said he didn’t expect to see any survivors or victim family members at the town square. But as they began playing at noon, someone yelled, “There’s family here!” Alexandria “Lexi” Rubio’s great-grandparents and Maite Rodriguez’s grandmother were ushered to a spot right in front of Medrano’s musicians.
He said he didn’t know what emotion to feel. So they played. And the elders sobbed.
“Uvalde can’t go back, but they don’t know yet how to go forward,” Medrano said. “They’ve buried their children here, and it will always be filled with angels, but also demons.”
The bell ringer
When the rector at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church asked Willie Edwards if he would ring the bells in honor of Uvalde’s 21, he was tempted to say no.
At 71, there is only so much strength left in his back to yank the rope that tolls. A year ago, he helped sound the bells three times a day for 21 days. What good did it do then? What good will it do now?
Edwards said he never cries. But the night after the shooting, it rained in drought-prone Uvalde. Oddly, it poured. And so did his eyes. He’s angry about the few answers Uvalde has. He’s frustrated by the urging of some to “move on.” To where? And he can’t believe (but he can) the Texas legislature would not debate raising the purchasing age for high-powered rifles on the House floor.
But none of that mattered today: “It’s about trying,” he said. “It’s the one little thing that I can do that hopefully helps this place I love get through this horrible tragedy.”
He pulled on work gloves and clutched a wooden grip attached to a white rope the leads up to the belfry. Then, he waited for his cue. Parishioners gathered at the chapel doors sang and prayed: “We turn to you, O Lord, to whom else can we go?”
And at 12:49 p.m. — the moment officers ended the gunman’s rampage — Edwards pulled the rope hard down to the floor, gasping for breath and closing his eyes. Dong. Dong. His arms relaxed as the rope lifted him up slightly and flexed again as he pulled. Dong. Dong.
It rang 12 times. He rejoined the assembly, looked up at the sky and sang: “All shall be well.”
Marcela Cabralez could not imagine working on a day like this. She had tried to avoid most of the news reports, the documentaries and the acrimony. She didn’t know what to believe and had four grandchildren to raise — one of them a Robb Elementary survivor.
But on Wednesday, she decided she would confront it all. She and the children designed maroon-colored T-shirts — a nod to Uvalde schools’ signature hue — dedicated to the “ones we lost.” She got the kids up early and for the first time in a year, Cabralez walked the three blocks from her home to the school. They planned to go downtown to the soda fountain for burgers and milkshakes, then walk by the giant murals depicting each of the 21 victims.
One year ago, Cabralez, a Christian pastor, ministered to trembling children and crying teachers pulled out of their classrooms through windows. She had to be strong for them in that moment. But she has had little time or strength to tend to her own hurt. Standing before the white crosses still placed in front of the school a year later, she wept.
“I guess I was looking for closure,” she mused during lunch as her grandchildren scarfed down fries. “But I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel.”
Whatever she was looking for, Cabralez said she doesn’t think she found it. She wondered if she or Uvalde can turn a page when so much feels uncertain. With the gunman dead and investigations into the response unresolved, will anyone face charges? Will Uvalde’s children have a chance to heal or face yet more gun violence? Can there be closure without a sense of justice?
“It feels undone,” she said.
Father Mike Marsh has been thinking a lot about what’s next for Uvalde. He spent Wednesday morning where he did that day a year ago — at the hospital. Back then, he was there to comfort those waiting for news about their children. A year later, he was ministering to the nurses and doctors who saw what happened to them.
What’s next? He paused. His eyes scrunched and he folded his arms across his chest.
“I have a two-word answer,” he said. “Action and change.”
While navigating his own sorrow, he’s also led a parish of disoriented mourners. There was lots of love and donations and hugs and generosity in the shooting’s immediate aftermath. But when that faded, conflict arose. There were competing narratives from officials, visits from politicians looking for votes and a divisive debate around gun control. It left many here downcast.
The wounded healers of Uvalde went to work. They donated money, books and anything else needed. The parish rector testified in front of lawmakers. The church opened up a space for the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas to provide counseling to children and parents.
But helping Uvalde heal doesn’t mean returning the city to what it was. Yearning to return to the old, comfortable, familiar Uvalde equilibrium is understandable, if unrealistic. Because something did change.
“Anger is part of grief,” Marsh said. “It can start something but it can’t sustain it.”
A year ago, Marsh’s homily drew from the Bible. He compared the town to Rachel, a matriarch of the nation of Israel, who metaphorically grieves her descendants, a people broken by great loss and traumatized by exile. As he began his Wednesday homily, he told parishioners that Uvalde is like Rachel still today, shrouded in the shadow of death so thick that restoration feels remote. But the city doesn’t have to be defined by what happened, he said. They can be light in darkness.
Uvalde could be that shining light, the reverend told his parishioners, for a nation desperate to break from the cycle of violence.
“If we don’t begin to align our actions and work with our thoughts and prayers, then they are hollow and faithless,” he said. “I don’t want to go on with what we’ve been doing.”
Marsh ended the service anointing the hands of those committing to do something and rebuild their community. The reverend wiped away his tears as he blessed and traced the sign of the cross on each worshipper’s hands.
May 24th ended as every day should, in fellowship.
Hundreds of Uvaldeans sat together in the open-air amphitheater adjacent to the civic center where a year earlier parents screamed after learning from Texas Rangers why their kids were not on school buses that had evacuated students from Robb Elementary.
There were songs, butterflies, teddy bears, words and candlelight. It was somber, quiet and peaceful. The victims, survivors and families held seats of honor.
It felt like the city had taken a step forward, one resident said. But to where, no one knows.