Palm trees are visible around the water tower in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.
Equity & Diversity

In Uvalde, Pain Where There Once Was Pride

By Ileana Najarro — August 16, 2022 12 min read
Equity & Diversity

In Uvalde, Pain Where There Once Was Pride

By Ileana Najarro — August 16, 2022 12 min read
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Robb Elementary had been a symbol of resilience and progress for residents. Its meaning changed in one horrific day.

Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, will be demolished.

The school of nearly 600 mostly Hispanic students in 2nd through 4th grades is now known internationally as the site of one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

But long before that, the school was a symbol of civic pride for Mexican American families. Before the 21 funerals, the headlines, investigations, marches, tears, and never-ending grief—it represented a legacy of activism for Mexican Americans’ access to quality education.

It’s a legacy some hope will carry on even as Robb’s story is now an inextricable part of a growing, national, tragic tale of school sites where multiple children have been killed in mass shootings.

The story of Robb Elementary, like that of its parent school district in this South Texas town, is a complicated narrative of a community’s ongoing fight for progress toward equal rights. It stretches from the schooling era of the Jim Crow South to recent, popular investments in dual-language education.

Now, with the details on the future of Robb Elementary still in flux, former students and activists from generations past wonder how to move forward after a tremendous loss, asking themselves wrenching questions with no clear answers.

An aerial view of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.

What can we learn from Uvalde about what it means to be safe in school–physically, emotionally, culturally? What does it mean when a place that embodied a community’s hopes for their children’s education is now a mausoleum to them?

How do you preserve the memory of a place that is a source of both historic pride and deep pain?

A site of segregation

Robb Elementary’s story starts with segregation.

In the early part of the 20th century, some Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the South Texas region attended well-resourced community schools known as escuelitas. But the majority of children of Mexican descent in the area attended public county-run schools, later known as schools in independent school districts, that operated under Jim Crow rules, said Francisco Guajardo, chief executive officer of the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg.

Uvalde’s Robb Elementary was colloquially called a Mexican school. Built on the west side of town where more Mexican and Mexican American families resided, the differences between it and other district schools were palpable even at first glance.

“You saw that Dalton [Elementary], which was on the Anglo (or white) side of town, was manicured,” said Olga Rodriquez, 77, whose family immigrated to the Uvalde area when she was 9. “It had landscaping, trees, it was neat, it was pretty, where Robb had no trees.

“There was no maintenance. The parents always were complaining about how the bathrooms were always broken and just what is typical of a segregated school,” Rodriquez continued.

Things weren’t much better from the students’ perspective.

Linda Morales, 67, a student at Robb in her youth, recalled having a teacher who would slap students’ calves with a 36-inch ruler if they were caught speaking Spanish.

“Most of the teachers when I was in school were Anglo teachers. There were very few Mexican American teachers—very few,” she said.

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Students walking in the streets of Uvalde, Texas participating in the 1970 Uvalde School Walkout. Pictured bottom right in numerical order are Mary Helen Canales, Lee Lugo, and Alfred Santos.
Students walk in the streets of Uvalde, Texas during the 1970 Uvalde School Walkout.
Courtesy of Voces Oral History Center at The University of Texas at Austin

The discrimination didn’t stop at the elementary school level.

Abelardo Castillo, 76, who grew up about two blocks away from Robb Elementary, described a white high school counselor who would advise Mexican Americans not to pursue a college education.

“Her thing was, ‘You Mexicans are very good with your hands so why don’t you follow your uncle. He’s a mechanic’,” Castillo said.

One Mexican American educator stood out in the 1960s for his work in translating school information for parents in Spanish and advocating for better conditions for students: Josue “George” Garza of Robb Elementary.

Effectively an assistant principal in all but title, Garza was beloved within the community. When his principal did not renew his teaching contract, reportedly disapproving of his advocacy work, it set ablaze years of pent-up frustration among Mexican American families.

Inspired by similar efforts across the country and within neighboring Texas cities, hundreds of students walked out of class on April 14, 1970 in a walkout that lasted about six weeks. As many as 600 students participated, fueled by support from local activists, including Rodriquez and Castillo.

The activists demanded that Garza be reinstated, but also set forth an expansive vision for their education. They demanded more Hispanic educators, more Mexican American history classes, and better maintenance of schools—all to provide quality education for Mexican American students.

Rodriquez, who worked on public messaging for the walkout as a secretary for the local parent group, the Mexican American Parents Association, described Texas Department of Public Safety helicopters hovering over the scene and at least one Texas Ranger screaming at a 6-year-old walkout participant. She remembers anger from white families upset at Mexican and Mexican American families for demanding change, she said.

Walkout leaders developed communication strategies, assigning point people who would gather and disseminate news from the ongoing national Chicano Movement to shape their organizing, Castillo said. (That movement, inspired by and part of the broader civil rights movement of the 1960s, was the Mexican and Mexican American community’s fight for justice and inclusion.)

High school students marching in the streets during the Uvalde School Walkout of 1970.

Later that summer, local parent activist Genoveva Morales filed a lawsuit against the district seeking the desegregation of local schools.

But participation in the walkout wasn’t unanimous, and sparked tension within the local Mexican and Mexican American population. Some students questioned whether it was the right move—after all, they were still going to school and graduating.

Morales, the former Robb student, didn’t participate in the walkout because her father disapproved of it. He thought the walkout was prompted by outsiders—not something originating locally, and couldn’t see the bigger picture of why the walkout was needed.

“Those of us that didn’t walk out, we felt like we weren’t there for the cause, you know, la causa. We really didn’t understand la causa,” Morales said. “Yes, Robb was a poor school. It wasn’t always kept up. But we didn’t see that as children.
“I can’t say it tore our town apart,” she continued. “But I think there was some anger from those who did walk out against the ones that didn’t walk out.”

And those who did participate bore the brunt of consequences. Students involved had to repeat a year of school or lost their eligibility to graduate that year. Adults who protested put their jobs on the line. Some activists including Rodriquez even dealt with FBI investigators knocking on their doors.

But for Rodriquez and others, all the risk was worth it.

“What drove us? It was the love of our children,” she said. “We didn’t want them to continue in menial labor and a lack of opportunities to get higher education.

“Schools are everything. If our kids do not have a good education, what’s their future going to be like?” she said. “And I know that almost every parent in Uvalde can say that they will give their last breath to give their kids the best education they can.”

A site of growth and progress

The quality education Mexican and Mexican American parents and students fought for in the 1970s finally did begin to emerge in Robb Elementary and the other local schools—albeit over an extended timeline, say former educators and parents. And that progress is a source of considerable pride.

Take the number of Hispanic educators in the district. In the 1970s, just a handful of Hispanic teachers worked in the district, mainly because few speakers of Spanish were licensed. As of the 2020-21 school year, Hispanic teachers accounted for about 64 percent of the district’s teacher workforce, according to state data.

Maria Castañon Hernandez, 58, saw the shift in representation even within the counseling department of Uvalde High School.

A former Robb Elementary student and a product of Uvalde schools, including the local junior college, Castañon Hernandez worked as a teacher for 15 years before becoming a high school counselor in 2003. At that time there were two white counselors and two Hispanic counselors including herself.

By the time she retired in 2018, the entire counseling team was Hispanic, and so was the school’s principal.

She attributes that growth in representation to both the 1970 lawsuit, which ultimately required the district to be more conscious in its staff hires to match the diversity of its student body, and the opening of the Uvalde campus of the Sul Ross State University in partnership with the local Southwest Texas Junior College. It offered education programs that could essentially grow a local pipeline of educators.

Thanks to the lawsuit, which yielded a consent agreement with the district that was modified several times, Castañon Hernandez recalls how weaker schools in the district were monitored. Every year, the district submitted paperwork tracking things such as the rate at which Hispanic students were enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, and how many were involved in athletics, cheerleading, and clubs.

The playground at the former Uvalde Junior High School, which is now Flores Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.

And over time, she witnessed growth in access to academic and extracurricular opportunities as both an educator and a mother. Her eldest took four years of mariachi in high school in the early 2000s, something Castañon Hernandez could only dream of when she was a student at the same school.

Her elementary alma mater, Robb Elementary, even got a whole building addition that looked fresh and modern—a far cry from the days when the school was poorly maintained.

In more recent years, the Uvalde district has boasted a growing participation rate in its career and technical education program. Demand for a dual- language program, which started around 2014, rapidly surged so the district opened a dual-language academy for the 2021-22 school year.

Over the years, though, the Hispanic student population has grown from roughly 50 percent of the district in the 1970s to close to 91 percent in the 2020-21 school year. That change has left some residents, such as Rodriquez, wondering if the progress in offering quality education to Mexican American students reflects the reality that Hispanic students are now a clear majority more than it does a good faith effort to do right by this community.

Amid the progress, some gaps have remained. Toward the end of her career, Castañon Hernandez saw a steady rate of dropouts among Hispanic students in particular, and a new emphasis on serving the mental health needs of students alongside their academic needs.

“We had a deep concern on the number of students that suffered from anxiety, which caused absenteeism, and that would turn into failing classes,” she said.

And even as the academic opportunities in Uvalde school grew for Hispanic students, the political power of the town’s Hispanic population didn’t see the same level of steady progress.

Residents point to success stories from the local schools, such as students accepted to Ivy league schools and one who won a MacArthur Fellowship. But, they noted, many of these individuals ended up moving out for bigger opportunities across the country and state. The avenues for career growth in town have remained limited, former residents said.

“It’s been a community of struggle,” Morales said, who now lives in Houston working for a labor union. “We never had the good jobs, we were always doing the work down there. The big jobs were probably working at H-E-B [a major Texas grocery store chain] as a cashier. ”

It begs the question of how schools can get such talent to stay and invest in improving the lives of Uvalde’s Hispanic community.

“We have to inspire young people to get involved in their communities,” Rodriquez said.

For now, the generations that paved the way for success take pride in how far things have come. A testament to that work occurred in 2017, when the desegregation lawsuit was finally dismissed, 47 years after the initial filing.

Abelardo Castillo, who participated in the 1970 school walkout in Uvalde, stands in front of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.

Castillo, who left Uvalde for some time but has since returned to his hometown, points to the drastic change in the aspirations of Robb Elementary’s latest student cohort.

Gone are the days of Hispanic students regularly being told they had few options after high school. Students at Robb Elementary like 10-year-old Alithia Ramirez wanted to go to art school in Paris. And classmate Maite Rodriguez had set her sights on Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi and a career as a marine biologist.

A site of horror

Now a new reality has set in.

Alithia and Maite’s dreams, along with those of 17 of their classmates and two teachers, were cut short on May 24 by an 18-year-old gunman. And once again, Uvalde parents—and especially those whose children attended Robb Elementary—find themselves grappling with the question of what they must do to protect their children’s futures.

This time they must do so in the most literal sense of the word, confronting the reality of unlocked classroom doors, police failures, and gun policy.

As families and the press continue to piece together exactly what occurred that day in the halls of Robb Elementary, those from generations past share in the pain—and shed light on what may come of the tragedy.

“If anything good comes out of it—and I know people are hurting—there’ll be some activists that come out of this that will demand change, that’ll run for office and speak up,” Morales said.

Past and current residents are calling for a shift in conversations around school safety, more transparency from law enforcement, and tangible action on gun control laws, among other things.

Olga Rodriquez

“It’s so overwhelming that we have to fight to make things better,” Rodriquez said.

The conversations are likely to mimic some of the questions asked back in 1970, such as what approach will effectively bring about change.
Activist parent groups have formed, and there have been several debates at city council and school board meetings over the fate of Robb Elementary’s principal and that of the officers present the day of the shooting.

But Uvalde and Robb Elementary are now also part of a much larger story about the future of school safety policy.

“This is not 1970 anymore, where the school walkout really was only consequential to this one community,” said Guajardo with the Museum of South Texas History. “What happened in 2022, that mass shooting is consequential for Uvalde, and it’s consequential for the country.”

All eyes are on this town now as it publicly grapples with one of its darkest, profoundly painful moments.

“We have come a long way,” Rodriquez said. “And Uvalde will be a better community because we must do it in memory of these victims.”

Residents agree Robb Elementary’s building cannot stand as is. They cannot inflict more trauma on students by making them return to the scene of the attack, they said.

A newly created foundation will collect funds to build a new elementary school for the district. Students will be able to attend virtual classes this fall if returning in person proves too difficult, according to the district.

But whether there will be a memorial erected in Robb’s current site—or a museum built capturing both the tragedy and the history that came before it—is still unclear.

Amid the questions and cries, residents past and present hope that time will help heal these profound wounds.

The words “Uvalde Strong,” are written on the window of a business in the town square of Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.

Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as In Uvalde, Pain Where There Once Was Pride


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