UVALDE, Texas — Time has neither healed wounds nor answered lingering questions for many of the families who lost their children and loved ones when a gunman unleashed a barrage of bullets at Robb Elementary School last year.
Nineteen children and two teachers were killed in the carnage, which also left 17 wounded.
In the 12 months since one of the bloodiest school shootings in U.S. history transformed this quiet Texas community into another example of the nation’s complicated relationship with guns, the parents of the children killed last May 24 have not moved on.
Texas marks first anniversary of Uvalde school shootingMay 25, 202302:17
Some have harnessed their anger into political action, wielding it like a shield to protect themselves from getting lost in their pain. Others have seen their worlds shrink under the weight of unrelenting grief, with only close friends and family allowed inside their increasingly insular worlds.
Of the six parents NBC interviewed in Uvalde, all said the shooting remains fresh in their minds. They said they still expect to hear their children’s voices when they wake up in the morning or when someone tells a joke that would have made their kids laugh. They have built makeshift memorials filled with toys, photos and other memories that have remained as vibrant as the day they were made.
“We take it day by day,” said Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old son, Uziyah Garcia, was among those killed last year. “There’s no good days anymore. There’s just all-right days.”
On a breezy April afternoon, Brett Cross slowly shook his head as he gazed at his son’s memorial in the Uvalde town square. It’s just one of almost two dozen similar memorials surrounding a large fountain in a lush municipal park. Murals of the 21 victims light up public walls throughout the city, turning Uvalde into an outdoor gallery filled with colorful works by various Texas artists.
Adorned with flowers and handwritten notes, Uziyah’s memorial stands apart from the others with its oversize stuffed lion and red Spiderman basket.
“Time doesn’t heal,” Cross said, exhausted from a recent trip to Austin where he joined other families and advocates pushing for a gun bill that would raise the minimum age from 18 to 21 for buying an assault-style weapon.
Cross has become a full-time gun reform activist and one of the most vocal proponents of new gun laws in the year since his son was killed, driving three hours every week to the Texas capital to champion tougher laws that supporters say would prevent future tragedies. He now has more than 58,000 followers on Twitter, regularly speaks with elected leaders and trained himself to speak out after mass shootings.
“I shouldn’t be going to Austin. I shouldn’t be having to do this fight. Nobody should,” he said. “We have failed not just as a country, but as a race, as a species. We do not protect our young.”
Cross said he was not involved in politics before the Uvalde shooting, and that he was “just a dad,” shuttling his six school-age children to school and games and practices. After Uziyah’s death, he filled his emptiness with rage.
Now, he is pushing for more background checks, for red flag laws and safe storage measures and to raise the minimum age for purchasing certain types of firearms. He has camped outside Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District headquarters, calling for the resignations of law enforcement officers and administrators involved in the widely criticized response to the shooting, and has been kicked out of state Legislature hearings and even drawn disapproval from some community members who say he should stop drumming up the past.
“Once I slow down, I’m going to be useless,” Cross said. “Everything I do is for Uziyah, but nothing I say or do can bring him back, so it’s about making sure nobody else has to fight for their child after they die.”
Blinking heavily after not sleeping for two days, Sandra Torres didn’t want to talk about gun bills or politics or the failures of law enforcement on the day her daughter was killed. She didn’t want to talk about anything other than Eliahna, who would have turned 11 earlier this year.
“She always wanted her own room because we shared one when we lived with my mother,” Torres said. “We spent all year decorating it.”
Torres and her partner, Mack Segovia, moved into their own home after the shooting and have spent much of the last year dedicating a bedroom to Eliahna. It’s filled with her most cherished possessions: a jersey signed by the Houston Astros, photos with her grandmother, an honor roll certificate, softball cleats and other sporting equipment.
In the closet, displayed on a small table, is the small blue backpack she carried with her the day she was killed.
“She didn’t want to go to school that morning,” Torres said. “She was so worried about making All-Stars.”
Eliahna made the team but didn’t live long enough to celebrate the victory. Instead, her memory is captured in a new house she never visited. On her bedroom door is an almost life-size poster of her in her softball uniform, giant angel wings stretching behind her.
In the living room, as their puppy whined in the corner and Segovia sat quietly at a table, Torres slumped over a chair cradling her head in her arms.
“I know she’s not going to sleep in there ever, but just to have a memorial of what she loved is a comfort to me,” she said of Eliahna’s recently completed bedroom.
When asked how she has coped since the shooting, she fell into contemplative silence.
“I don’t believe in ‘Uvalde Strong’ anymore,” Torres said. “It’s like nobody cares. Nobody understands our pain. Nobody knows what we’re going through. It’s us against the world.”
That world has become smaller in recent months. Torres feels a close bond with the other families who lost loved ones but said she has been all but abandoned by the school district and law enforcement officials.
“They failed all around,” Segovia interjected. “It’s like they don’t even care.”
School district and law enforcement officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Shortly before the shooting, Eliahna and her family had watched a documentary about the one at Columbine High School in 1999, Segovia said. Eliahna asked her mom what she should do if something like that ever happened at Robb Elementary.
"I told her to run and hide so he couldn't find her," Torres said. "But I told her not to worry about it, something like that would never happen in Uvalde."
Veronica Mata, who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of her 10-year-old daughter, Tess, looked down as she described how difficult the last year had been for her family.
“We have people wanting us to remove the crosses from the plaza,” she said. “We have people not wanting the murals up. We have people that used to be our friends that no longer talk to us.”
When asked what sparked the rift, Mata said she suspected it boiled down to politics.
“They don’t believe in what we’re doing,” she said, referring to parents advocating for stricter gun legislation. “What should matter is that my daughter is no longer here because of a gun.”
That wasn’t always the case, Mata said. Support flooded into Uvalde in the days and weeks after the shooting but waned as unaffected community members sought to return to normal and gun rights advocates framed the country’s mass shooting pathology as a mental health crisis.
She has joined efforts to enact stricter gun laws in Texas and has criticized lawmakers who oppose such measures, drawing the ire of Second Amendment supporters.
“It’s been a difficult road,” Mata said. “Realizing that we don’t have support right now is hard. It’s hard to continue moving.”
Like other Robb Elementary parents, she wants the world to remember her daughter for the happiness and warmth she brought to her community.
“Tess was our energetic, our fun-loving, athletic little girl,” Mata said. “She was the light of our lives.”
One of the most surprising developments over the last year for Kimberly Rubio has been the support she received from people she had long forgotten, including a former classmate she had not spoken with since the fourth grade. The two families have since forged a bond that helps anchor her when torrents of grief about her 10-year-old daughter threaten to overwhelm her.
“Her entire family messages me all the time,” she said of the former classmate. “One of the sisters will go to Austin to be with us. They’ll bring food locally, those that still live in Uvalde, and it’s so comforting to know that our stories reached them. It’s very powerful.”
Rubio has also found solace through a new tattoo on her arm depicting a drawing Lexi gave her several years ago. It shows mother and daughter with the words “I love my mom.”
“I just think it’s beautiful to wear something she drew,” Rubio said. “How often do we get to see ourselves through our children’s eyes? I think I need that reminder on bad days when I feel like I failed her. I need to see that she loved me and she thought I was doing a good job.”
The feeling of failing to protect her daughter often obscures her vision for the future. She struggles with her faith and questions whether she will ever be reunited with her little girl.
“If somebody told me tomorrow, you’ll for sure get to see her again but you have to wait till you’re 100, I could do it,” Rubio said. “I could do it and I could even be remotely happy. But not knowing, that’s devastating.”
The Cazares family, who lost 9-year-old Jacklyn in the shooting, does not shrink from a fight. Gloria Cazares, her husband, Javier, and their 18-year-old daughter, Jazmin, have been regulars at state and school board hearings, tweeting their anger over failures to enact gun legislation or hold law enforcement officials accountable.
“We are not going away and we will not back down!” Cazares recently tweeted at Texas Gov. Greg Abott, state Rep. Ryan Guillen and other Republican lawmakers who do not support stricter gun laws. “We aren’t done!”
But as she sat inside a small library in Uvalde, she was solemn.
“Some days I feel like it was just yesterday,” she said. “Not being able to hold your daughter, give her a kiss, say ‘I love you’ feels like an eternity. And just as the days go by, it gets much harder.”
The pain feels especially immeasurable given how warm her daughter was in life.
“Jackie loved hard,” she said. “Everybody that she came in contact with, if you had any kind of relationship with her, you knew that you were her best friend. She made everybody feel like that.”
Like other Uvalde parents, Cazares is aghast at the failures that contributed to her daughter’s death, from lax gun laws that allowed an 18-year-old to purchase an assault-style weapon to the delayed response from law enforcement officers, who waited more than 70 minutes to engage the shooter, to school officials who, she says, have provided few answers and even less support.
“It’s devastating. Disappointing, just disgusting,” she said.
But her ultimate goal, she added, is honoring her daughter’s memory.
“We just don’t ever want the world to forget our kids,” she said. “Their beautiful, beautiful souls. They had the world in front of them, so much potential, and I just want people to remember our children because they’re not here anymore.”