For Uvalde Families, a Call for Answers Grows Louder

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UVALDE, Texas — Kimberly Rubio and her husband, Felix, took the stage on Sunday evening at Uvalde Plaza next to City Hall while holding a photo of their slain daughter, Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, known as Lexi, and read aloud part of the mission statement of the Uvalde Police Department.

The department “is committed to providing superior police service to the public in order to protect life,” Ms. Rubio said, her voice quavering. She recalled testifying before Congress to plead for more gun control measures in the aftermath of the mass shooting in her city.

Then she looked up and gained fire in her voice. “What I want no one can give me,” she said. “I want my daughter back. If I can’t have her, then those who failed her will never know peace.”

In the days after the massacre at Robb Elementary School, parents like Ms. Rubio and other relatives of the victims responded with shock and silent grief. Residents of this mostly Mexican American community in South Texas turned inward and pushed away outsiders as they buried the dead and embraced one another during intimate family gatherings.

But as time has passed and officials have largely failed to explain why it took officers more than an hour to confront the gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers, the shock has faded and the anger that began to set in early on has only intensified. In recent weeks, the families have lashed out at their elected officials at City Council meetings. And on Sunday, hundreds marched through the city in their first collective call for accountability.

The event, which organizers called the Unheard Voices March and Rally, started at the elementary school, still blanketed by flowers and photos of some of the 21 victims more than a month after the tragedy. Marchers braved the sweltering weather, carrying signs that read “Remember Their Names” and chanting “Save Our Kids!”

Once assembled at Uvalde Plaza, which has become a solemn gathering place for mourners, the relatives of the fallen took turns reading their loved ones’ names out loud and recalling their shattered dreams of becoming baseball players and community leaders. Those in attendance included Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas.

Javier Cazares, whose 9-year-year-old daughter, Jackie, was killed in the shooting, said the seed for the rally was planted the day he stood over her body and made a vow that her death would not be in vain.

“I want her name to be remembered,” Mr. Cazares said. “I promised her we’re going to fight.”

Mr. Cazares said the families were seeking a detailed explanation of what happened during the response on May 24, and demanding that officials hold those at fault to account. The head of the State Police, Steven McCraw, has called the response an “abject failure.”

An official familiar with the inner workings of a Texas House investigative committee said lawmakers planned to release their findings in a private meeting with the families within a week or 10 days.

Many of those who marched also want more than justice. Some families are pushing for stricter gun laws and background checks. But in a mostly rural and socially conservative county where gun culture is threaded into everyday life, and where many own guns for protection and hunting, gun control may prove an elusive goal, Mr. Cazares and others said.

A U.S. veteran and longtime gun owner, he once considered himself a staunch supporter of gun rights. But something in him changed since the tragedy, he said in an interview.

Mr. Cazares recalled in painful detail how he forgot his gun in his truck as he rushed to his daughter’s school the moment he heard there was a gunman inside. Once there, he said, he pleaded with armed officers to burst in and take on the gunman. He later learned that his daughter lay dead in a nearby hospital.

A preliminary law enforcement report suggested responding officers waited some 78 minutes to enter the classrooms where the gunman was terrorizing a teacher and children. Mr. Cazares said the memory of Jackie, whom he described as a “firecracker” who dreamed of one day visiting Paris, was what kept him motivated to get a full accounting and demand that the Uvalde school district bolster its security measures before the coming school year.

“I’m not afraid to speak my mind and will continue to do so, so these families know that they are not alone,” he said.

Much of the anger in the community has centered on the chief of the school police force, Pete Arredondo, who was one of the first to arrive at Robb Elementary, and, according to the State Police, was the incident commander at the scene. He has denied in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he was in charge, and he has since been placed on administrative leave from his post. He also resigned from a City Council seat he won before the shooting.

Vincent Salazar, who lost his granddaughter Layla Marie Salazar in the massacre, came to the march sporting a black T-shirt with a photo of Layla wearing angel wings. He said he wanted the resignation of every officer who failed to breach the doors and stop the gunman in time.

“If you’ve taken a badge to protect the people, protect the babies, why didn’t they do it?” he asked. “This is just the first step, the first march. This is far from over.”

That anger has also been evident in recent City Hall meetings. During one packed meeting in late June, Velma Lisa Duran, the sister of Irma Garcia, a teacher who died in the shooting, denounced the lack of transparency from the authorities. Grieving families like hers, Ms. Duran said, were tired of “listening to empty words.”

Visibly upset, she emphasized to the mayor the damage that an automatic rifle, which was used by the gunman at Robb Elementary, could do to a body. “These kids were obliterated — my sister was obliterated,” she said, adding that attending her sister’s funeral was an excruciating experience. “It was a closed casket. I couldn’t hug her. I couldn’t touch her. I couldn’t say my last goodbye.”

Holding back tears, she asked the mayor to explain why the officers in the hallway were not aware that children under constant attack kept calling 911 pleading for help.

“There’s a lot of children that could have been saved,” she said. “This was not supposed to happen. We are having a meeting after a massacre that happened. We need change. Enough is enough.”

The mayor, Don McLaughlin, tried to assure Ms. Duran and other families that he felt “their pain.”

“No you don’t,” she replied sharply.

At another point in the meeting, Tina Quintanilla-Taylor, a local activist who ran unsuccessfully for a school board seat in 2020, stood up, stared at the TV cameras in the room and addressed politicians in the State Capitol. “Show your face,” Ms. Quintanilla-Taylor said. “Answer our questions. Now.”

Days after the meeting, she recalled taking her daughter out of the school moments before the attack. Ms. Quintanilla-Taylor remains haunted by the sounds of shots fired as dozens of police officers waited outside. Now she feels an urgent need to keep speaking up for those who were lost.

“We want accountability from all levels — local level, county level, state level, federal level,” she said in an interview. “I also want people to become more active. Register and vote.” She added that if officials were not responding to people’s concerns, “vote them out.”

Leonard Sandoval, who lost his grandson Xavier Lopez at Robb Elementary, believes he can change people’s minds through activism. Once a quiet family man, he has become outspoken about his desire for a total ban on assault weapons like the one used in Uvalde. He is also advocating uniform tactical training for mass shootings for all levels of law enforcement.

He has personally lobbied President Biden for more gun regulation and plans to join future marches to wake people from apathy, he said, adding that a recent law passed by Congress aimed at preventing dangerous people from obtaining guns legally did not go far enough.

At the rally on Sunday, Xavier’s mother, Felicha Lopez, took to the microphone, surrounded by family members, and urged lawmakers in the State Capitol and in Washington to listen.

“We are asking to change the gun laws so that they can stop selling them to bad people,” Ms. Lopez said, her voice breaking. “Please change our laws so no more babies can be taken from us.”

Rick Rojas contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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