‘It shouldn’t have happened here.' Before Texas shooting, Uvalde was a place for families, friendship

  • A school shooting took the lives of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, which proudly boasts that it is the Honey Capital of the World.
  • Neftali Barboza, the pastor of a small bilingual Baptist church in Uvalde, said the town is like a family, and a place where faith is important.
  • “We’re just trying to cope with everything," Joe Garza, 42, said. "Our community feels torn. It’s torn. It doesn’t feel the same. We started out the day like normal and now it isn’t."

UVALDE, Texas – In this tight-knit Texas community  of 16,000 hurting souls, parents on the sidelines of soccer games often cheer for both teams to win.

Barbecues draw friends and neighbors to sporting events at the Honey Bowl Stadium, even when the 100-degree heat seems hotter than the spices in the carne asada.

This is not a formal place. Chickens often run free, and majestic live oaks can sprout up in the middle of a paved road. But it is also a place with pride. Most homes, though small and modest, have their patio furniture arranged just so.

This is small-town America at its core. And the community values embraced by the mostly Hispanic residents of working-class Uvalde will be integral to processing one of the worst shootings in state and national history, one that left 19 elementary school children and two adults dead at Robb Elementary School.

Flags fly at half-staff outside the Uvalde Event Center following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The shooting killed 19 children and two adults.

Recovering will not be easy.

“It just seemed like the air was so thick, it didn’t feel comfortable, it didn’t feel safe anymore," Carrie Perez, 56, said Wednesday, standing in the hot sun outside A Child’s Day day care and after-school program, waving her usual goodbyes to kids carrying "Frozen" blankets and stuffed animals.

Since Tuesday's shooting, she started something new: locking the door.

"It felt like I was back in Laredo, never knowing what was going happen next,” said Perez, who three years ago moved, following her parents, from the larger Texas city to get away from the noise and traffic.

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"We’re kind of just basically still in a dream. It seems like it shouldn’t have happened here," she says. "But we’re now part of the school shooting statistics. And that is something we don’t want to be known for.”

Visiting Uvalde a day after the killings is to visit a community wracked by unfathomable grief, a place where, before Tuesday afternoon, police activity often amounted to car chases associated with the Border Patrol agents who mostly spend their time in Eagle Pass, about 60 miles west.

It's not uncommon for Texans to be unfamiliar with the city. Residents say people simply assume they’re from “the Valley,” or the Rio Grande Valley, when they say they are from Uvalde. 

Justice of the Peace Eulalio Diaz said that this time of year people would usually be getting ready for a Memorial Day weekend, hanging out or swimming at the Nueces and Frio rivers that pass near town.

Constable David Valdez embraces Uvalde Justice of the Peace Eulalio Diaz as Diaz breaks down recounting having to identify the bodies of 19 children after they were shot by a gunman at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas.

But that joyful spirit is gone for now. Diaz himself is weary; he spent much of Tuesday identifying the 21 bodies, because the city has no medical examiner. 

“We know everybody,” Diaz said, reflecting on how his own children in eighth and 12th grades will be marked by the tragedy. “We know children who were there. As soon as we heard about the shooter, we were also fielding calls from our families.”

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If Uvalde was known for anything, it was movie star Matthew McConaughey, who grew up here, and its annual Honey Festival in June.

McConaughey spoke out on the tragedy Tuesday, calling on Americans to take a “longer and deeper look in the mirror." As for the Honey Festival, it is now canceled. 

'The last place something like this would happen'

Felix Castillo, a longtime area resident, said his city was the last place he thought something like this would happen. People are friendly and welcoming, he said, and the sense of togetherness makes it the kind of place where you’d want to raise a family.

“It’s a close, united community,” said Castillo, 57, eating lunch with a friend at a local taqueria. “In soccer season, you see all these parents and kids come together, cheering for each other’s teams. The rivalry doesn’t exist. They want each other’s teams to win.”

Weekends are filled with school football games and track meets and parking-lot barbecues at Honey Bowl Stadium, aptly named as the city proudly boasts that it is the Honey Capital of the World.

MaryAnn Garza, 37, completes a sign showing community support in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, outside the Sno-Ink restaurant she owns with her husband.

The title dates back to the 1905 World's Fair, when the Texas Hill Country town was honored with that title for the abundance of natural honey found by settlers in the late 1800s, before commercial beekeepers took over. 

“We’re typical Texans,” daycare worker Perez said. “Carne asadas outside all the time, even when it’s 100 degrees out, you’ll find us at the barbecue pit.”

Elia Salinas, 61, works at Antiques on the Square on the main business thoroughfare. She said visitors come from San Antonio and as far afield as California to visit and peruse the downtown shops.

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“It’s a town of good people, hardworking people,” she said. “There’s not a lot of crime here. It’s a shock.”

The antique store is filled with items from lamps to typewriters to a painting of a Century plant. But not many people were out the day after the shooting.

Nearby, live oaks shaded a grassy plaza. A few residents gathered with signs that read “Uvalde Strong.”

Neftali Barboza, pastor of a small bilingual Baptist church in Uvalde, said the town is like a family and a place where faith is important. On Wednesday morning, he joined several other pastors and church leaders from the area to pray and discuss how to support one another and their respective congregations.

“We all understand that we need God’s help, even though might not go to the same church,” Barboza said.

Barboza was raised in Uvalde, attending schools in the district just like his own children do now. Even though his Iglesia Nueva Jerico is small, its 80 or so mostly young Latino congregants are deeply mourning those lost at the school. Everyone seems to know someone affected, he said.

Rose Conner, a substitute teacher in Uvalde, Texas, hugs a woman outside Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde before a morning Mass.

Barboza said that when he first heard news of the shooting, he had just picked up his youngest son, a fourth grader, from Robb Elementary so they could go to the store. “I just remember, I looked at him, and I was grateful that he was with me,” he said.

Gloria Jimenez, 54, said she hugged her grandson extra tight Tuesday night after he returned from school. A first grader at a different school, the boy and his classmates were held for hours in the cafeteria over fears there might be other attacks on schools, she said.

“I hugged and told him I love him. I sure did,” said Jimenez, who cares for the boy full time.

'This hit us bad, knowing they were starting their lives'

The statistics Uvalde is now synonymous with are grim.

In the past decades, 169 people have died in 14 shootings connected to U.S. schools and colleges, including the massacres at Columbine High School in Colorado, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, according to a database compiled by USA TODAY, The Associated Press and Northeastern University in Boston.

For residents here, it is hard to look at children in Uvalde and not be overcome with emotions. Sadness. Grief.

Janish Patel lowers the flag to half staff Tuesday, May 24, 2022, at his Uvalde, Texas, hotel hours after a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and killed multiple children and adults.

Javier Rangel, 57, stood in his yard Wednesday glancing across the street at a brown house. He remembered the girl who used to play out front. Rangel lives a few blocks from Robb Elementary, where the little girl was a student. He said her father posted to Facebook Tuesday night that she was among the dead. 

“This has hit us bad, knowing they were young kids just starting their lives,” said Rangel, a truck driver. “We never thought it would happen in this little town. I was used to seeing her riding her bike, playing with her sisters. That poor little girl.”

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Tuesday's tragedy is likely to make it just a little bit harder to smile in Uvalde. At least for a while. 

At the Sno-Ink restaurant a few blocks from the school, owners Joe and MaryAnn Garza spent the afternoon putting up a "United We Stand' sign but remained closed. They have several friends and family members whose children died Tuesday.

“We’re just trying to cope with everything," said Joe Garza, 42. "Our community feels torn. It’s torn. It doesn’t feel the same. We started out the day like normal, and now it isn’t. And it won’t be for a while.”

Billy and Lisa Wagner pray at the downtown plaza in Uvalde, Texas, following the shooting at Robb Elementary School, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The shooting killed 19 children and two adults.

The couple planned to deliver food to victims' families later in the day. Both were born and raised in Uvalde, and despite moving away a few times, "we always end up coming back," Joe Garza said.

Why? MaryAnn Garza, 37, chimed in immediately.

“When something goes wrong, we are all here for each other. If somebody’s stuck we all get together to help," she said. "And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? We are all in this together.”

Laura Donalson, a Bible class teacher at Crossroads Community Church, moved here 26 years ago because she wanted the peace and quiet of a small town. Until this week, she said, it had mostly stayed that way. 

Donalson knows her small community will change as a result of the shooting.

"It's something that will be with us for a long time," she said. But, she says, a sense of togetherness will help the town overcome. "It's a bigger place than people think, but you know the faces," she said, "It's still just a small community that comes together when things go wrong,"

Community members gather in prayer at a downtown plaza after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. The shooting killed 19 children and two adults.

Nancy Rangel, a clerk for justice of the peace Diaz, was at Robb Elementary School on Tuesday morning to see her grandson receive an award. He came home after the ceremony and did not witness the shooting.

By then evil was stalking a classroom at his school. The town's axis has shifted.

If before many Texans didn't know much about the warm community Rangel and her grandson called home, now, tragically, the whole world does.

“Uvalde is just a small town in Southwest Texas,” Diaz said. “It wasn’t on the map.”