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The Guardian - US

‘These are innocent babies’: grief, loss and love as Uvalde struggles under a heavy cloud

People visit memorials for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas
People visit memorials for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Photograph: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images

The grief is visible on almost every corner in Uvalde, Texas: in the faces of the school-aged kids who are no longer in the classroom and the mournful messages written on the backs of vehicles: “Annabell Rodriguez, daddy missing u”.

Three days after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb elementary, a loss and a sense of deep confusion hangs over this small ranching town like a shadow. “I feel a big heavy cloud right now,” said Jose Cazares, the uncle of Jackie Cazares, who died in the shooting. “It’s not the same.”

The killings have touched nearly everyone in the community of 16,000 people, which is largely Latino, and left residents struggling to come to grips with what happened and support their bereaved friends and neighbors.

“What do you say? What do you do?” said Justin Hill, thinking of a friend who lost their daughter in the shooting. “There aren’t enough words.”

There is more movement than ever in Uvalde, with large vigils and memorials to honor the dead and journalists from around the world on seemingly every street, but life here, residents say, feels almost motionless.

“It’s just still,” Hill said as he stood inside the Local Fix, a Uvalde coffee shop. “We have a lot of people coming into town; businesses are busy. But for the overall population, everything is different. It’s just waiting and watching.”

A woman weeps as she is embraced at a memorial site for the victims in Uvalde.
A woman weeps as she is embraced at a memorial site for the victims in Uvalde. Photograph: Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

This time of year is normally busy in the small south-western town, with high school graduation and summer activities. All have been postponed. The area recently got rain, which would usually send people to the river, Hill said, but no one seems interested in water recreation.

The local Walmart was uncharacteristically empty after the shooting, Hill added, and local businesses closed early or shut down entirely. “That’s how close people in this community are. They are willing to drop everything to do what they can to help.”

People have started returning to the Walmart, picking up free bouquets to leave alongside the 21 crosses that surround the town square. Inside the store, children fiddle with toys and adults greet their neighbors in quiet voices. In the sympathy card aisle, under the section for bereaved parents, there are no more cards.

A girl leaves flowers at the memorial in Town Square, Uvalde.
A girl leaves flowers at the memorial in the town square. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters

Even for those not directly connected to the school, the loss feels personal. “It feels as if it’s our child, as if it’s our kids or our nieces or nephews,” Alex Covarrubias said.

Countless people have visited the memorial set up around the town square, some from San Antonio, Lubbock and Laredo, and others from just down the street.

PJ Talavera came to the memorial with his daughter and wife, and soon they were embracing grieving friends. “I’ve hugged no less than maybe 200 or 300 people in the last 24 hours,” he said. “One thing that I can tell you for sure, is there’s an enormous amount of of love.”

‘You can still feel it in the air’

Talavera, who runs a local martial arts studio, is familiar with many of the names on the crosses that line the fountain in the square – he mentored and taught several of them at an after-school program at Robb elementary. “There are too many,” he said, gazing at the crosses. “These are just innocent babies.”

His martial arts school has stayed open since the tragedy, if not for classes then just to provide a normal routine to his students. “They need to do something. They’re just here and this is just too much. We need to shelter them.”

Covarrubias said he had grown tired of sitting home and watching the news, so on Wednesday he headed down to the town square and held up a sign reading, “Prayers for the families”.

“I’m kind of glad I don’t have a job because I just couldn’t imagine going to work every day right now,” he said. “You can still feel it in the air.”

Elisa Gonzalez, who used to live in the area, came to pay her respects and was heartened to see the way residents cared for one another. “They’re still together like they always are,” she said.

Also at the memorial were family members of those who died, like Jose Cazares, who stood under the trees and remembered his niece, Jackie, the “little firecracker”.

“She was motivated, she was loving. Full of love. A spark in her eye all the time,” he said. “She loved taekwondo, singing, dancing. She liked going to the river, shopping with her tía [aunt].”

When Cazares came into town to visit, she always offered to give up her room so that he would stay close instead of at a hotel. Jackie greeted everyone with a big hug, and a big heart, her aunt added. The family consoled one another and received support from their friends like Talavera.

But they also expressed frustration, as questions mount about how the gunman was able to carry on his rampage for almost an hour. “It took them 45 minutes to do what? Nothing,” said Cazares about the law enforcement officers who had responded to the scene. “I heard the governor say that he advocated half a billion dollars for school safety. Why wasn’t that school safe? They need to be held accountable – the school, the PD, the governor.”