A Mural Project Remembers Uvalde’s Lost Lives

UVALDE, Texas — Heavy rains blanketed the small town of Uvalde, Texas, the night of the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Uvalde resident Abel Ortiz recalled of the downpour, “it’s almost like the heavens opened up and all the tears came down.” On the morning of May 24, 2022, a gunman entered the school, killing 19 children and two teachers and injuring 17 others. Ortiz, an artist, and art professor at Southwest Texas Junior College, wanted to do something to help the families and community. Drawing on his artistic background, he spearheaded the Healing Uvalde Mural Project, a series of portraits of the victims displayed across buildings in downtown Uvalde. The murals, he explained, “were intended to provide comfort for the families,” and offer “a sense of calm, a sense of reflection.” They not only serve as a remembrance of the victims, but bear witness to the people and places impacted by gun violence in Uvalde and across the United States. Ortiz surmised, “the community can respond to the mural, to the image, reflect, contemplate, and think about possible changes.” 

Ortiz partnered with Monica Maldonado, founder of Austin-based nonprofit MAS Cultura, who acted as program manager. She brought 50 Texan artists to Uvalde in the months following the shooting to paint the 21 murals, all volunteering their time and services, free of charge. The families of the victims gave their permission for the project, and many participated in the creation of the murals of their loved ones. Each image tells a story about one life — the person’s hobbies, hopes, and dreams, and the family and friends they loved and who loved them — through re-creations of the children’s drawings, ranging from rainbows and cartoon characters to sea creatures and puppies, signifying dreams of becoming a marine biologist or veterinarian, to lyrics of favorite songs, among other tributes. 

“You can feel the hurt in that community,” artist Joey Martinez reflected when he first came to Uvalde to paint Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez’s mural. “I think it was really important to be there for everybody,” he said. With guidance from Annabell’s family, Martinez included a Uvalde Coyotes logo and a sketch of an A+, a nod to her honor roll credentials — aspects of the 10-year-old’s personality in which loved ones and visitors alike can share. The mural also contains a cell phone with the text “I love you,” which she and her best friend, 10-year-old Xavier James Lopez, would send to each other each night before bedtime. Xavier was also killed in the shooting and his mural sits right next to Annabell’s, their close bond solidified in art. Their union was also honored in death, when the two families buried the children next to each other.

“Murals,” artist Silvia “Silvy” Ochoa said, “are beautiful tools to communicate.” She added, “They can make you feel, can help you remember.” Ochoa’s painting of 10-year-old Makenna Lee Elrod is an array of positive memories and symbolic imagery that aims to heal the traumatic memories surrounding her death. “Trauma” comes from the Greek word meaning “piercing” or “wounding.” Through art, a mending of the wounds can occur. Ochoa’s mural depicts Makenna in the bucolic farm where she grew up, surrounded by three butterflies that represent her and her parents, and four trees that symbolize her and her siblings. But it’s the rainbow adorning her shirt that stands out. Makenna’s parents gave Ochoa a photo of their daughter holding a rock with a rainbow she had painted on its surface and asked that the image be recreated on her shirt. Ochoa invited each member of Makenna’s family to contribute to painting the rainbow. The family wanted it to be painted across her chest because that’s where she was shot: “That’s where she lost her life,” Ochoa told me through tears. “Her family gave her life on the mural in the same place.”

The murals, as remembrances, also tell the story of lives violently cut short. At a memorial to the victims in downtown Uvalde, a resident expressed her opposition to them. They’re painful to look at, she explained. “The families shouldn’t see their kids like that … they should have seen them grow up.” 

One of the country’s deadliest mass shootings, the Robb Elementary shooting was also one of the greatest law enforcement response failures. While an 18-year-old former student armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle stalked the halls and classrooms for 77 minutes, nearly 400 law enforcement officers, including US Border Patrol agents and state and local police, remained outside the school, even as children called 911 from their classrooms for help. A Department of Justice report described the response as “cascading failures.” Attorney General Merrick Garland said, “lives would have been saved and people would have survived,” if law enforcement agencies had followed generally accepted practices and gone immediately into the school to apprehend the shooter. As of May 22, families of the students and teachers killed or injured at the school settled a lawsuit with the city of Uvalde for $2 million and are suing 92 officers with the school district, individual employees, and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The lives of the children and teachers honored in the Healing Uvalde Mural Project were neither the first casualties of gun violence nor the last. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), gun violence is the leading cause of death among children and teens. Ortiz said, “If there’s any art that I wish didn’t exist, [it] is this art, because that means the kids would be alive.” 

The 21 Healing Murals tower over Uvalde’s landscape, greeting all who gaze upon them with warmth and benevolence. They aim to provide healing for the families and community through remembrance of the lives taken. As they honor the victims, they also bear witness to the gun violence that brought about the project, violence that, two years after the shooting, has continued across the nation. Ortiz said, “As you walk from one mural to the next, it’s almost like you’re stitching a wound,” but, he added, “Unfortunately, that wound reopens every time there’s a new shooting.” 

In Remembrance of the Robb Elementary School Shooting Victims: Nevaeh Alyssa Bravo, 10, Jacklyn “Jackie” Cazares, 9, Makenna Lee Elrod, 10, Jose Flores Jr., 10, Eliahna “Ellie” Amyah Garcia, 9, Irma Linda Garcia, 48, Uziyah Sergio Garcia, 10, Amerie Jo Garza, 10, Xavier James Lopez, 10, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, 10, Tess Marie Mata, 10, Maranda Mathis, 11, Eva Mireles, 44, Alithia Haven Ramirez, 10, Annabell Guadalupe Rodriguez, 10, Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, 10, Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio, 10, Layla Marie Salazar, 11, Jalilah Nicole Silguero, 10, Eliahna Cruz Torres, 10, Rojelio Fernandez Torres, 10. The murals and artists can all be found here.

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