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A year after Uvalde's school massacre, healing remains elusive

The memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. A mass shooting there on May 24, 2022, killed 19 children and two teachers. For surviving families, the year since has been an agonizing fight for answers and accountability.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
The memorial at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. A mass shooting there on May 24, 2022, killed 19 children and two teachers. For surviving families, the year since has been an agonizing fight for answers and accountability.

In the year since 19 children and two teachers were killed inside their classrooms at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the search for healing has been elusive.

Many victims' relatives have said healing cannot begin without closure. But closure has been impossible, because 12 months later there are still many unresolved questions about what happened that day — most stemming from the failed police response. It took officers an agonizing 77 minutes to enter the classroom and kill the gunman. It was more than an hour during which some of the victims slowly bled to death.

Details about precisely what happened, which victims might have survived if police had acted faster, and why the law enforcement response failed so miserably are the subject of ongoing local, state and federal investigations. Many surviving families are pinning their hopes for closure on their findings. Others are skeptical. But in the meantime, much of the community is suspended in its grief, grasping still for a narrative of what happened on that tragic day, and searching for ways to cope.

Sandra Mireles Sanders and Maggie Mireles

Sandra Mireles Sanders, left, and Maggie Mireles.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Sandra Mireles Sanders, left, and Maggie Mireles.
Left: Maggie Mireles and Sandra Mireles Sanders tattooed their arms in honor of their sister, Eva Mireles. Right: Banners, flowers and other mementos that Maggie Mireles has collected from her sister's memorials.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
/
Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Left: Maggie Mireles and Sandra Mireles Sanders tattooed their arms in honor of their sister, Eva Mireles. Right: Banners, flowers and other mementos that Maggie Mireles has collected from her sister's memorials.

In the year since their sister — fourth-grade teacher Eva Mireles — was killed in her classroom, her sisters Maggie Mireles and Sandra Mireles Sanders have transformed their lives.

"Everything we do is for her. Everything," Sandra said. "That might not be a good thing, but for me it is, because that's how I'll be able to live — is live for her."

Maggie has turned her house into a sort of shrine to her sister's memory, with pictures in every room, next to her bed, and in the closets. She stores bins full of stuffed animals and dried flowers from Eva's funeral and from the memorials that popped up across Uvalde after the tragedy. The sisters drape themselves in clothes and jewelry bearing Eva's name. And their SUVs each have custom license plates that commemorate the day she was killed.

"The day she became a hero," Maggie said.

This has been an important part of their healing process. It makes them feel closer to their sister, and sometimes — only sometimes — it makes them feel better. Mostly, the sisters still feel swallowed by grief, and like they're grasping for a better understanding of what happened in the classroom that day. From one of Eva's surviving students, they've learned tidbits about their sister's fight to stay alive. That she used a plastic bag to try to tourniquet a bleeding arm. That she kept repeating that she didn't want to die. But many details still elude them.

So they keep searching for ways to piece it all together. On Monday, they visited their sister's classroom, thinking it might give them a sense of closure. The school district allowed them an hour inside. Sandra sat on the floor with her rosary and prayed. They found, though, that the visit only raised more questions in their minds.

"I just felt heavy, and my mind just kept trying to figure it out," Maggie said.

"I need the peace," Sandra added. "I'm hoping that's what it'll entail at the end of whatever I'm looking for. I'm going to keep trying. I don't know if I'll succeed."

Esteban Aranda

Esteban Aranda.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Esteban Aranda.

Esteban Aranda was not directly affected by the tragedy. He's not even from Uvalde. He lives in San Antonio. But the massacre devastated him emotionally, and so every few weekends since the shooting, he's driven the 90 minutes from his home to visit Uvalde, to leave flowers at the various memorials, and to reflect.

"Yeah, it's been a year, but it's still hard to process it. Like, wow, did this really happen here?" he said. "And when you come, you get chills. To be here and see all these crosses, it hits you like, it's real, it's real."

Still, it's hard to accept, he said, which is why he visits the town so often. Because he often finds himself drifting away from acceptance. He hopes his presence in town – even if none of the victims' families know who he is — will impart them some peace, if they see a flower he's left.

"I have to keep coming back and pay my respects," he said, "and let these families know that they're not alone."

Veronica and Jerry Mata

Veronica and Jerry Mata.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Veronica and Jerry Mata.
Left: Rosaries hang from a memorial cross placed at Robb Elementary School. Right: Tess Marie Mata's grave at Uvalde's Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Left: Rosaries hang from a memorial cross placed at Robb Elementary School. Right: Tess Marie Mata's grave at Uvalde's Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.

Veronica and Jerry Mata's 10-year-old daughter, Tess Marie Mata, was one of the 19 children killed in the massacre. And what haunts Veronica is not knowing whether her daughter was killed instantly, or whether she might have survived if the police had acted faster.

"It's all those 'what-if' questions," she said, that have kept her from truly beginning the healing process. "I need to know what happened to her before I can do any of that."

She hopes the ongoing investigations will help her answer those questions.

The Matas know they want to heal, at some point. They've worked to preserve Tess's memory and are fundraising to create an endowed scholarship in her name. They've become among the most active and vocal of Uvalde's surviving parents to lobby for gun reform. They even took several months of therapy. For Jerry, it was a hard decision.

"I'm not someone who opens up," he said. But he finally agreed, in part because the therapist was one of the army of counselors who flooded into Uvalde after the shooting but who had no connection to this small town, and would therefore not know anyone that Jerry knew. In his first session, he asked his therapist not to "backstab" him — meaning, he asked her to make a long-term commitment to the town, because Jerry had no intention of starting over with someone new.

The therapy helped, he said. But about five months in his therapist delivered the news. She had gotten a new job and was leaving Uvalde. For Jerry, that was it. He said he won't start therapy again. He'll search for other ways to heal, as he and his wife continue fighting to honor Tess's memory.

Marian Sokol

Marian Sokol, CEO of the Children's Bereavement Center of South Texas.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Marian Sokol, CEO of the Children's Bereavement Center of South Texas.

The shooting at Robb Elementary has torn at almost every thread that held Uvalde together before the shooting. It also revealed a gaping hole in the town's social safety net. The shooter, a troubled teenager, hadn't received the mental health counseling that might've kept him from carrying out the massacre. Counseling services were hardly offered in the town.

In the year since, those services have poured in.

Marian Sokol runs the Children's Bereavement Center of South Texas, which arrived in Uvalde within hours of the shooting, and eventually opened a permanent counseling center in the town.

At first, Sokol said, people were skeptical of accepting therapy. But over the months, more families have signed up — including families of the victims.

"We continue to see that there's so much pain of the past and what's happened. But in addition to that there's still so much anxiety about the future," she said. "Am I safe? Is my child safe? Who can I trust? And so it's taken a full year for us to feel comfortable that families will come."

Still, many remain hesitant. There's the stigma associated with therapy, or nerves about opening up to a stranger.

"And for some, they continue to say, 'it's too early. I can barely talk about this'," Sokol said. "And we have to respect their process, and that's OK."

Ronald Garza

Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza.
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Uvalde County Commissioner Ronald Garza.

Much of Ronald Garza's job as a Uvalde county commissioner is to listen to his constituents. And as time has passed since the shooting, more of them have expressed to him their desire for Uvalde to turn the page on the tragedy and move on.

Some have grown tired of the surviving families' persistent calls for answers, accountability and justice.

"There are some naysayers out there who say, 'What do the parents want now? What do they want now?'" Garza said. "And I'm quick to remind them, 'Hey wait a minute. You didn't lose a child. You didn't lose a grandchild. You didn't have to go identify a body maybe with a face blown off, so just back off.'"

The sentiments are a reflection of how all consuming the Robb shooting and its fallout have been for Uvalde during the past year. Families have sued the city and law enforcement. Anger exploded over which families should be entitled to a share of the millions of dollars that was donated for victims. Tension has bubbled up over parents' demands for gun control.

Garza said it's understandable that some in town would want to put it all behind them. They don't want Uvalde to be forever defined by the tragedy. But until the surviving families have gotten the answers, accountability and reforms that they need, he said, that process simply can't begin.

He sees it as part of his job to remind people of that.

"That is when parents and families are going to have some sense of healing," he said. "And we can move forward. I believe we can move forward but still support the parents and families, and always honor and remember those children and those two wonderful teachers that we lost."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.