Maria Castañon Hernandez, 58, attended Robb Elementary in 1971 in Uvalde, Texas, as a newly arrived immigrant from Mexico. She spent 15 years working as a teacher in the Uvalde school district and 15 more as a high school counselor until she retired in 2018. Her youngest daughter graduated from Uvalde High School, her alma mater, in 2014.
Two months after Uvalde was rocked by the tragedy of a mass shooting that took the lives of 19 students and two teachers at Robb, Castañon Hernandez reflects on how far the local schools have come since a 1970 walkout, in which students and parents demanded a better education for Mexican Americans—and what might come next as the town works to heal from the loss.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My parents immigrated from Mexico in 1971, which was right after the walkout. In my elementary, I can’t really pinpoint anything bad there because, of course, other kids and my friends, we were all Mexican American, because we lived a block away from Robb. We all spoke Spanish, although I don’t remember if we ever were told not to speak Spanish. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t, I don’t know.
I never knew about this walkout. I never learned it in school. I think I started hearing more about it when I had a friend of mine, who was in my grade, and I think we met in junior high. She was a year older than me, but we were in the same grade. And one day we touched up on why she was a year behind, you know? And she said, “Oh, because I was a member of the walkout. My family was in the walkout.” And I said, “What is that?” And she said, “We just didn’t go to school one year.”
I said, “What? Wow, that’s neat. Why?” I don’t think she even knew either. She said we were protesting something. She was young when it happened.
My parents, although they were not educated, they always impressed upon us the importance of getting an education. My dad, he would always say the one thing that you all need to do is you need to get educated. Doesn’t matter what you do, what career you choose, you just need to get an education because that is something that no one can take away.
I definitely think that students [now] are getting more motivated. I don’t know exactly when that happened. I think maybe in elementary, they’re doing a very good job of exposing them to different careers, to the things that are a possibility for them. I do see a lot of students coming to me—when I was counseling—already with an idea of, “I want to do this.” Or they already had a college in mind. Even though they might have no idea what it took, like I had students that said I want to be a pediatrician, but they hated math. But then at least they had an idea of what was out there and what they could study, what was a goal for them. I definitely see that and I give credit to the elementary teachers, because something they’re doing out there is giving them that insight.
Of course, we still have that minority [for whom] education is not that important. We still have a high rate of dropouts, and it’s [largely] the Hispanics. But I don’t think it’s a lack of resources now. Maybe at one point it was. But now I don’t think it’s a lack of academic resources. Maybe it’s a different kind of resource that we still haven’t tapped on.
We still have a lot of students who have parents who struggle with making ends meet, and that has a lot to do with the students not exploiting all the resources that are out there. When parents work so much for so little, there has to be a feeling of [being] let down, I guess, that is probably passed on to the kids.
I’m really grateful for all the people that had the courage to get involved in [the 1970] walkout. We’ve come a long, long way. And it’s bittersweet for me to hear that [Robb Elementary] is going to be demolished because that’s part of the neighborhood where I grew up. I hope that something is going to be built there that is going to bring some joy to the neighborhood, maybe a little park or something with a memorial for those little ones who passed away and the teachers.
I feel sad that our little town—now, we’re going to be known as another Columbine.
I sure hope that the tragedy here becomes a springboard for other people to make changes in their schools. And not just in the schools, but I really do hope that gun laws are addressed. I hope that this is going to be the beginning of seeing things differently and taking care of our kids and our teachers.
So even though I hate that it happened, it shouldn’t have happened, maybe it’s what’s going to make things change.
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A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘We’ve Come a Long, Long Way’: A Former Uvalde Educator Reflects On the Town’s History