On an April afternoon in 2009, I crossed the U.S. 83 bridge over the railroad tracks into Uvalde and saw Bottle ’n Bag Liquor ’n Guns, a big, beige block of a building with a flecked-paint sign covering its side wall. Grain silos stood behind it, a bleak juxtaposition of urban and rural in the city that would be my home. Though Uvalde was new to me, South Texas wasn’t—I grew up on the edge of San Antonio’s South Side and later in Castroville before moving to Austin to earn my doctorate in mathematics at the University of Texas. Now I was back to teach at Sul Ross State University’s Uvalde campus. I drove first to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is shaded by palms on a backstreet, and went inside. Visiting local churches is a habit of mine when trying to find the tenor of a place. Sacred Heart has pink and white tile floors; on the wall over the altar is a crucifix with fluorescent lights behind it. People prayed in the pews. The church was (and remains) clean, quiet, modest, unlovely, redolent of melted wax.
Sul Ross rents its Uvalde space from the local community college. “Campus” is a generous term for a single building that’s located between a welding shop and rodeo grounds at the town’s edge. Before offering me the job, the faculty took me to lunch at Oasis Outback, a big hunting and fishing outfitter with a barbecue restaurant overlooked by trophies. The department chair said he wanted to hire me because I’d grown up in the region and would be more likely to stay. At the end of the interview, he warned me that the students wouldn’t be like the ones I was used to in Austin. He meant that they’d be less academically gifted, perhaps less rewarding to work with. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Many work full-time and support children or parents, but they know the value of education and make sacrifices to attain it. Though tied to Uvalde because it’s where their families are, they are the equals of any students anywhere.
I found a rickety old house from 1901 to live in. Someone told me it once belonged to Dolph Briscoe’s ranch foreman. It overlooks the grave of King Fisher, a gunfighter turned lawman whose gang terrorized locals on both sides of the border and who once boasted of having killed 37 men, “not counting Mexicans.”
I’ve lived in Uvalde for thirteen years now, and it is my home. Our community is overwhelmingly Latino, friendly, and tight-knit. If I get my house repaired, people I’ve never met will stop me in public to say they love what I’ve done. Over and over again, I am humbled by the gratitude shown for the work my Sul Ross colleagues and I do in teaching future teachers. We are all in this together: that is the attitude here. My fellow faculty members are educators who have themselves worked in the Uvalde public schools. Sacrificial love for students is a job requirement here. Uvalde is a little city with big-city problems: poverty, substance abuse, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, violence, incarceration. Parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Life is hard but full. Extended family makes up for what the state fails to provide.
The mayor, the county judge, and the superintendent of schools are all white, which is unusual in these parts. Uvalde County Judge Bill Mitchell has been in office since 1987; the superintendent, Hal Harrell, is the son of a former superintendent. These things are not talked about. It’s just the landscape. Social awareness dawned slowly in me, but one day I realized that Uvalde has a quiet, disproportionately non-Hispanic white elite of businessmen and ranchers and farmers. This is the accepted order.
As an outsider (true Uvaldeans are born) who is also autistic, I find things out through faux pas. Once, for instance, a family of old name—landed gentry—bought a house next to mine to use as their “town house.” The criminal element scared them, though, so they sought an exception from the zoning board to erect an eight-foot-high security fence. The contractor emphasized his clients’ clout at the hearing: “You all know them,” he said. “You know who they are.” I opposed the fence. The contractor was livid: “How long have you lived in Uvalde? Don’t you think that they have a better idea of what they need than you do?” The board approved the exception unanimously.
Now and then I come across stories of old Uvalde. One of these is the Nueces Massacre of 1862, when Confederate militiamen in nearby Kinney County slaughtered German settlers trying to escape to Mexico. This prompted Uvalde’s Unionist town founder, a Quaker named Reading W. Black, to flee across the border until the war was over. Later, he helped ratify the Reconstruction Amendments and was murdered by a friend for betraying the South. I’ve also learned about how racism has long shaped this landscape. That history includes state-sanctioned violence by the Texas Rangers during the Mexican Border War, as well as the Ku Klux Klan’s presence, a legacy of violence that ended with the local Klan chapter’s donation of its meeting place as land for Uvalde Memorial Hospital. Waves of Mexican immigrants during the Mexican Revolution and the Bracero program era were forced to settle to the south and west by deed restrictions forbidding sale of property to nonwhites. In 1970, Uvalde high school and middle school students staged a six-week walkout to protest segregation; a lawsuit eventually forced the district to integrate. Some allege that the effects of this system still linger in disparate treatment and outcomes. (Case in point: the 1970 lawsuit wasn’t fully resolved until 2017.) The old seams in Uvalde’s social fabric have become visible to the world in recent days, as the mayor sides with conservative politicians while the city grapples with the mass murder of predominantly Mexican American students and teachers.
If I were close to those who lost their lives on May 24, then I don’t think I could write this. But in a town like Uvalde, we are all connected. I knew the victims’ families from church and H-E-B. My friends were their friends and family and teachers. Their loss leaves a ragged hole. The scar will never heal. My colleague, a counselor, works with fourth graders who survived. They are in such fear and pain. She cries for them every day. Last week I attended a memorial mass for Irma and Joe Garcia. Partly to pay my respects, but perhaps also because, selfishly, I needed comfort too. Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller elevated his hands: “Lift up your hearts,” he said. “We lift them up to the Lord,” said the people. The archbishop’s voice cracked and, through tears, he said: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Weeping, the whole church replied: “It is right and just.”
Uvalde undergoes its Passion. Like the crucifix in Sacred Heart, the town’s shape is hard to make out now, backlit by the fluorescent glow of a media frenzy. Uvalde is a byword, a tool, an obsession. The outpouring of love and support has met a deep need. But the carnival atmosphere is hard to bear, and hard to bear too are the hot takes trying to pigeonhole us.
Some insist we’re a border town. Well, not exactly, although Mayor Don McLaughlin is fond of going on Tucker Carlson Tonight to decry Biden’s policies. Others insist that we’re far from the border, which is also untrue; Piedras Negras is just sixty miles away. Some Uvaldeans cross over to Mexico regularly, partly because it’s easier to get health care there. And we live under the multilayered, omnipresent law enforcement agencies that blanket the border. Your average very-online liberal assumes that rural South Texas Hispanics must despise law enforcement and desire open borders. The opposite is more often the case, but the truth is more complex than even that would suggest. Again, is Uvalde urban or rural? To oversimplify, it’s a mostly Hispanic city surrounded by tracts of land owned by rich white people. An ABC reporter quoted the mayor as calling Uvalde a “community of farmers and ranchers.” To him and to many who hold power here, that narrow slice is the real Uvalde. But not many farmers or ranchers live in the neighborhood around Robb Elementary School.
When the shooting started, a rumor began to circulate on social media that “illegals” had overrun the school. Some locals are still trying to divert attention to the border, which is the real danger, they insist, despite the fact that the gunman was a Uvalde resident, bought an assault rifle legally at Oasis Outback in Uvalde, and killed as many people as he did because of the inept Uvalde police response. This is our burden to bear.
With my coworkers I sat behind Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz in the rodeo pavilion for a prayer vigil last week. I hover at the edge of an AP photo, a blurry witness to the proceedings, which struck me as a sincerely planned effort that nevertheless turned into a grotesque centering of the VIPs, with camera crews outnumbering those who had come to grieve. Later I stood outside Sacred Heart, waiting for Joe Biden to emerge, while a San Antonio activist called our police pussies and a white woman with a Robb T-shirt screamed at him and cried. Other activists chanted “Do something!” as Biden finally came past, and locals cheered and clapped and waved and booed, and reporters wriggled through the sweaty throngs, mics in hand. I burn with anger as I see local leaders close ranks and curry favor with those who exposed us to tragedy and refuse to be held accountable. But my heart also rises up against activists who come to get attention and then jet.
Grief and anger are twins. I hear calls for heads to roll. Will they be the right heads? With so much capital stacked on our town’s hurt, and the perfect scapegoats ready at hand, how can justice be done? Without asking for it, Uvalde has become the bleeding nerve center of our nation’s broken politics. Everything from immigration to voting rights to gun violence melts here into a toxic stew. Narratives harden quickly, setting like concrete. Will they be true to reality?
What will happen to our town? So much gets deliberately forgotten here that I’m afraid this will be another poison pill, downed silently to sicken future generations. Still, now that all the evils have been loosed, I find hope at the bottom, timid, waiting to emerge. When all the journalists and volunteers and activists are gone, and Uvalde-the-news-item has been reduced to a political token like Sandy Hook or Columbine, we will live as ever we have, though with a greater burden of grief: caring for one another, fighting with one another, because in the end, a town like this is a family. Help will continue to come, but in the end healing and change will be left to those who remain.
When I first moved here, I had to get my house painted. The painter smiled broadly and said, “Welcome to God’s country!” I keep thinking of that.