Everyone in Uvalde, a town of around 15,200 about 60 miles from the country’s southern border, seemed to know one of the children who had been shot. Or had gone to high school with one of the victims’ parents or grandparents. Or had lost several members of his family.
“I lost two,” said George Rodriguez, 72, between sobs as he got out of his Domino pizza delivery truck to greet a friend on Wednesday afternoon. “My grandson and a niece. I lost two.”
“I know, I know,” replied Mr. Rodriguez’s friend, Joe Costilla. “We also lost our cousin.”
The scene was repeated over and over in the leafy neighborhoods of modest homes surrounding the elementary school where about 90 percent of the 500 students are Hispanic.
Cousins, aunts and uncles stopped in vans. Crying friends shared long hugs on families’ lawns. Mourners went house to house and phone after phone call, gathering an unofficial list of the dead before law enforcement officials publicly identified the victims.
“If you drive through town you can already feel it’s different,” said Liza Cazares, whose husband lost two 10-year-old cousins in the attack. “These are 21 lives that we cannot recover”
Mr. Rodriguez said he attended counseling sessions at the civic center early Wednesday, but it offered him little respite from the pain. Instead, he said he asked his supervisor at Domino’s if he could take a shift.
“I just couldn’t stay home and think about what happened all day,” Rodriguez said. “I had to work and try to distract my mind.”
He pulled out a picture from his wallet showing 10-year-old Jose Flores – “my little Josécito – who Mr Rodriguez said he raised as a grandson. The boy wore a pink T-shirt that said, “Tough guys wear pink.” Mr. Rodriguez broke down crying.
Mr. Costilla said he was a step-cousin of Eva Mireles, a beloved teacher at Robb Elementary who befriended children and adults with equal ease. She enjoyed running marathons and teaching her fourth graders, having spent the past 17 years as a teacher, Costilla said. She had a daughter in her twenties and three dogs.
“She was really close to us,” Mr. Costilla said. They spent many weekends together barbecuing in his backyard and reportedly fired up the grill again this Memorial Day weekend.
“But now she’s gone,” Mr Costilla said.
Until this week, Uvalde was perhaps best known as the hometown of actor Matthew McConaughey and John Nance Garner, vice president to 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 invoke Uvalde’s history and famous names as they urge her and other students to do great things .
“Any head teacher, football coach, would say, ‘Which one of you is going to bring us fame and put us on the map? “, Ms. Hernandez said.
Despite the proximity to the border and the presence of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Uvalde, residents and town officials said most people were born in the area and had deep ties. with the breeding history of the region. In the neighborhood around Robb Elementary, more than 40% of residents have lived in the same home for at least 30 years, according to census data.
The shared loss that rippled through Uvalde drew people to a 10 a.m. mass on Wednesday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. As they made their way to the building, Rebecca and Luis Manuel Acosta said the shooting had taken its toll on a community where it appeared there was no more than a few degrees of separation between families.
“I’m so scared,” said Ms Acosta, 71. “I feel so much for these mothers.”