Jae C. Hong/AP
UVALDE, Texas — It seems everyone in this small town of about 15,000 has a personal connection to those who perished in one of the deadliest school shootings in US history and the man accused of carrying it out.
Around the corner from the scene of the Robb Elementary School shooting, Sarah Zapata, who works for the local court system, is playing with her granddaughters.
“It’s sad for every family, because we all know each other. Everybody knows everybody,” she told NPR as children ran through her front yard. “It’s unimaginable.”
As one side calls out for gun control and the other stifles it with equal vigor on the national stage, the overwhelming emotion in this small, tight-knit community is grief.
“We all went to Robb. My kids all went to Robb,” Zapata said.
The city is about 80 miles from San Antonio and about 70 miles from the US-Mexico border. It’s a place where Friday night football rules, and its claim to fame is being the hometown of actor Matthew McConaughey.
More than 80% of its population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, according to data from the US Census Bureau.
The slow process of trauma management begins
A day after a lone gunman killed 21 people, most of them children, the neighborhood around the school is quiet. On a nearby street, two horses wander across the asphalt while a man in a car leads them slowly.
ATF agents go door to door to talk to neighbors about what they may have seen the day before. Law enforcement officers patrol the area, some wearing large cowboy hats.
Patricia Lim /KUT
Zapata’s children range in age from 17 to 24, and one of them has known the suspect since elementary school.
“He just said he was always a different kid, just one of those kids that you know are different. Not with the crowd I guess,” he said.
Nearby at Uvalde High School, Ariana Diaz and Jaime Cruz were hoping to graduate this week, but now the ceremony is up in the air and they say it’s far from their minds.
“We’re just trying to make sure our community is together and okay,” Cruz said.
They said they had known the gunman their whole lives. According to reports, Salvador Ramos dropped out of this high school.
“We weren’t friends with him, but we knew about him,” Diaz told NPR. “He’s crazy, every time he backed off we didn’t know where he was going. I know he was in a dark place, but I’m not sure what happened.”
Jae C. Hong/AP
She said the tragedy has affected almost everyone she knows.
“A lot of our classmates and friends lost siblings, cousins, their mother,” Diaz said. “It hurts a lot to see them. It hurts our community and it hurts especially those families, who have to go through this kind of pain.”
High school students came to watch a press conference by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and want tougher gun laws.
“We really need to start spreading awareness and getting better gun control,” Diaz added.
Counselors from other nearby communities are arriving to help, like Iveth Pacheco, who works at a high school and drove about 85 miles from San Antonio to the small town surrounded by cow pastures and farm fields.
“We are here to be a presence for all the families who are grieving this tragic loss,” he tells NPR. “We listen. I don’t think there’s anything we can tell them other than listen, and be prepared for whatever thoughts and emotions they bring up.”