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'The devil was in the midst of us': School shooting strikes the heart of small-town Texas

LA Times logo LA Times 5/27/2022 Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Crosses with the names of Tuesday's shooting victims are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press) © Provided by LA Times Crosses with the names of Tuesday's shooting victims are placed outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Growing up in this small ranching town, Juan Martinez knew he wanted nothing more than to stay.

It’s a conservative, majority Latino town where family and faith are everything. Churches in Uvalde post signs reminding residents to pray, alongside stores advertising “liquor/guns.”

The pull of family is strong — stronger than the lure of San Antonio about 80 miles to the east on Highway 90 or of the quintessential Texas oilfields to the north and west or Mexico 60 miles southwest, where many families trace their roots.

That small-town history that kept so many here has been obscured this week by the deadly attack at Robb Elementary School, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.

The town of approximately 16,000 is semirural. People come here to hunt deer. They go tubing on nearby Hill Country rivers. But they can also enjoy a latte at a Starbucks on Main Street, shop at Hobby Lobby or H-E-B grocery. In the mood for fast food? There are half a dozen of those establishments, including Whataburger. And if a visitor chooses to spend the night, Uvalde has its share of motels too, from Holiday Inn to hunting lodges and the Amber Sky Motel.

For Martinez and other lifelong residents, those conveniences haven’t sullied the town’s essential character. Uvalde still feels timeless.

It lies in the path of migrants crossing the border illegally on their way north, a route through town that draws state and federal law enforcement. The resulting high-speed chases prompt school lockdowns, sometimes several per day. Some residents figured that’s what had happened Tuesday.

Border militias began appearing in Uvalde recently, self-described patriots hoping to stop drug and human traffickers. This spring, members of one Texas-based militia met with Mayor Don McLaughlin and asked to patrol in town, armed. McLaughlin, frustrated by all the high-speed chases and trespassing, agreed.

McLaughlin, who is unaffiliated with a political party but “leans Republican,” has been critical of the Biden administration for its immigration policies.

In the last presidential election, Donald Trump won Uvalde County with about 60% of the vote, compared with 52% for Texas overall.

Originally founded in 1853 as the town of Encina, Uvalde was renamed three years later after a Spanish governor.

Its residents are mostly Mexican Americans who for generations have preferred the town’s pace over larger Texas cities.

It has helped that the median home price is $100,000 cheaper than San Antonio. But that isn’t the only reason people become lifelong residents.

Generations of extended Latino families have sustained Uvalde’s population in Texas’ wide open brush country, building it from a railroad stop county seat into the biggest commercial center between San Antonio and Del Rio. It’s a reliable woodsy stop for deer hunters seeking lodges, but also tourists at the southern tip of Hill Country and road trippers refueling on the main drag, where the fast-food restaurants have joined feed supply stores.

Most adults here graduated from high school, about 73%, and many are military veterans. The civic center, where residents were instructed to gather to identify their children after the shooting, is named for Staff Sgt. Willie de Leon, an Uvalde native who was among the first Mexican American noncommissioned officers.

Sul Ross University, based farther west in Alpine, has a campus in town. So does Southwest Texas Junior College.

Those who leave home for college often return. They come back to settle city streets that have kept their rural feel, shaded by oak and mesquite trees, sidewalks largely absent. Most residents work locally.

Many police officers and Border Patrol agents live in town, and neighbors support them — sticking “Back the Blue” bumper stickers on their pickups. Businesses support them too, posting signs in town thanking law enforcement, notably one at the Farm & Ranch supply story for securing the border and “protecting our ranches.”

“People just want to stay close to family,” said Martinez, 63. “It was about staying home, rooted at home.”

After Martinez and his 10 siblings graduated from Uvalde High School, half joined their father in his well-drilling business.

In 1993, Martinez bought out his father and hired his daughter. His younger son and daughter-in-law returned after graduating college in San Antonio to open businesses in the restored downtown, with its mural of hometown heroes that include former Gov. Dolph Briscoe, Grammy-winning Tejano band Los Palominos and actor Matthew McConaughey.

The town’s economy has drawn transplants from California and Florida enchanted by small Texas living. They’ve boosted Martinez’s business.

He founded a church near downtown, Trinity Fellowship, that has grown to 125 members.

“It’s an awesome place to raise children because everybody knows each other. People we grew up with are principals and teachers,” said Molly Flores, 50, an Uvalde native who graduated from Sul Ross and has raised her daughter, now 11, here.

Flores, a county extension agent for youth programs similar to 4-H Club, said the closeness of people in the town magnifies the loss. Although she didn’t know the victims personally, she said, “We’re a family.”

While waiting for a community memorial to start Wednesday at the local fairgrounds, she said she knows all those people affected by the shooting through her siblings and friends who lost children. Her daughter, Stormy, brought a sign to the memorial with the names of the dead and a message: “We will miss u.”

The deadly shooting by one of their own has shaken the town.

“The devil was in the midst of us,” Martinez said.

Not only have schools closed, so have courts and most downtown businesses — at least temporarily.

Many of the signs posted in store windows read, “This is a difficult time” and “Prayers for Uvalde.” Little League is canceled indefinitely.

Martinez’s daughter-in-law’s country clothing shop, Doll Haus, was one of the few still open.

Sitting behind the counter, she recalled running to the store with her 6- and 2-year-olds after hearing news of the shooting from relatives. She locked the door that day and has kept it locked between customers ever since.

“For a while, everybody’s just going to be looking over their shoulder. For a good long while,” she said as a few customers arrived, perusing the racks as country pop played over store speakers.

Jeanette Ovalle, 30, manages the local Dollar Tree store. Her husband, who works for the county, rushed to the school after the shooting to try to save their 8-year-old daughter, who survived. Many of their neighbors’ children did not.

“She’s been asking questions, so we’ve been taking her to see counselors at the civic center,” Ovalle said of her daughter, Makaylah. “She’s traumatized.”

So are the Ovalles. They visited a memorial set up Thursday in a park at the center of town, wooden crosses bearing the names of each victim. The victims are relatives or children of their co-workers, church members and former classmates.

“It’s our generation,” Ovalle said.

Martinez has been busy ministering to those touched by the tragedy, which feels like nearly everyone. He was so busy visiting relatives that he didn’t have time to attend a community memorial. “There’s a lot of broken people in our community: grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters,” he said.

His nephew’s wife, fourth-grade teacher Eva Mireles, was among those killed. Her husband was an Uvalde school police officer who rushed to the scene after receiving a call from Mireles.

“She said: ‘There’s a shooter, I just got shot, I don’t know if I’m going to make it,’” Martinez said.

His nephew arrived at the school while the gunman was still firing, but by the time he made it inside to hold his wife’s hand, she couldn’t be revived, Martinez said.

He prayed over his nephew, who couldn’t fathom such a deadly attack striking Uvalde, and kept saying, “This is a dream, I’m going to go home and she’s going to be there.”

“My nephew still cannot find it in himself to go home. It’s just going to bring memories,” Martinez said. “He’s at my sister’s home. He’s just broken.”

Martinez also prayed with Mireles’ adult daughter, even as she yelled, “I don’t want to live without my mom!”

He reminded her that she must look after her father.

“We’re here for you,” he said. “We’re not going to leave you alone. We’re family.”

That part of Uvalde, at least, hasn’t changed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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