Texas communities that have recently experienced mass shootings share Uvalde’s pain

ELPASO — Long after the television cameras have gone and the thoughts and prayers have ended, despair and anger have settled in this border community devastated by one of the largest mass shootings in Texas.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, a psychologist by training, searched for answers. He shares lessons with Uvalde, the last town in Texas reeling from another massacre.

“Of course you never fully heal, but the healing garden we’ve built is also meant to help heal by keeping the memory (of the victims) alive,” said Samaniego of the Healing Garden, which opened in the summer. last. “It became a place of meditation, of tranquility and it was magnificent.”

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego pictured at the Healing Garden when it opened last year to remember and honor the lives of those who died on August 3, 2019.

As the small community of Uvalde buries loved ones, Texas has no shortage of examples of how to deal with the aftermath of a massacre. In 13 years, eight massacres in cities across Texas, including Santa Fe, Sutherland Springs, Midland and El Paso, have left communities shattered. All provide a roadmap to recovery, an overly complicated process, warned Celeste Nevarez, chief of clinical services at the Emergence Health Network in El Paso.

“Healing is not linear. It’s not specific to the time,” said Nevarez, whose group was largely responsible for providing grief counseling and mental health services in El Paso, a process that continues today. “Nothing says that in three months you will feel better. Six months, you should feel like this. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.

For more than a week, the spotlight has been on Uvalde, a predominantly Hispanic community sandwiched between San Antonio and the Texas-Mexico border, after a lone gunman entered an elementary school and killed 19 children and two teachers. The alleged shooter used an AR-15 type assault rifle, purchased just after he turned 18. After terrorizing the students for more than an hour, Border Patrol agents entered the classroom and shot the shooter.

For residents of Texas communities still grappling with their own grief, the gruesome murder reopened old wounds.

“It’s like a bad dream,” said William (Will) Englisbee, describing back-to-back murders in upstate New York and the town of Texas, about 450 miles southwest of El Paso. “Buffalo and Uvalde hit home.”

Englisbee’s 87-year-old mother, Angelina María Silva de Englisbee, was one of 23 people killed when a gunman walked into a Walmart in El Paso on Aug. 3, 2019, and opened fire. In addition to those killed, two dozen others were injured. Authorities say Patrick Crusius, who is awaiting trial, traveled more than 600 miles from Allen to El Paso with an assault-type weapon to ‘stop the Hispanic invasion’ of Texas, according to a racist screed he released online minutes before the shooting.

“If I think about it for too long, I get very emotional and have to hide,” Englisbee added. “I have to focus on other things, not think about it for too long. It never goes away, like a hole in your sole. I pray a lot; it is the best medicine.

The post-massacre ritual is relentless and too similar. Makeshift memorials pop up at the crime scene, surrounded by crosses, bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals and other keepsakes. Next came bumper stickers, t-shirts, hashtags with the slogans of #SantaFeStrong, #El PasoStrong and now #UvaldeStrong. Nothing changes except the name of the city or subdivision.

Theresa “Terrie” Smith is president of the Sutherland Springs Community Association and owner of Theresa’s Kitchen, located across from First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. It was there that Devin P. Kelley, a 26-year-old gunman, walked through the pews of First Baptist Church and killed or injured nearly everyone in the congregation during the service, including Joann Ward. She died protecting three of her children. Two were killed. A third was hospitalized in critical condition and later released.

For Smith, Ward was like a girl.

To help her grief, Smith keeps a picture of Ward and her children on the wall of her restaurant. Often customers ask about them.

“I have good days and bad days,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that when you share your memories of loved ones you’ve lost, it helps you get through the day. You never heal, but love helps.

Rhonda Hart, a former school bus driver, became a gun reform advocate after the shooting at Santa Fe High School, a community between Houston and Galveston, on May 18, 2018. The 14-year-old daughter of Hart, Kimberly Vaughan, was one of eight students and two teachers killed by a classmate.

Upon hearing the news of the shooting in Uvalde, Hart went live on Twitter to recount her experience. The Uvalde massacre, which came nearly a decade after the nation’s deadliest school shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a “sickening new low even for Texas,” she said. later.

“I’m still mad as hell,” Hart said. “I feel lied to, I feel like we got the wool over our eyes by Greg Abbott and his administration. I’m so pissed off and this (massacre) is exacerbating my traumatic reactions, which are anxiety, sleepless night pain, so much physical pain from this mass shooting. It’s hard to describe. »

Over the years, Hart and others say, the killings in Texas have only gotten worse because of what she describes as a “crusade” by the governor and lawmakers to make guns more ubiquitous and unregulated.

Less than two years after the mass shootings in El Paso, followed by Midland weeks later, Republican-led lawmakers in Texas have relaxed gun laws, including passing license-free carrying in 2021, which allows residents to carry handguns without a license or training.

“You go back to every lie, every injury, every time there’s a mass shooting and every one is a little bit different,” she said. “But this one definitely represents a terrible new low because in Uvalde it was primary school children, the youngest, the most vulnerable.”

The mass killings upended lives and, in some cases, caused survivors to find new purpose, added Christina Delgado, a close friend of Hart. Hairdresser, Delgado enters law school in the hope “to provide answers, to act” on a complex question, in particular for the Texans. Delgado grew up in a family that loved guns. She respects the right to bear arms, which she says is part of Texas identity.

But high-powered weapons have no place in homes, communities, she said, adding that “we have to act. To be involved. Vote because I’ve sat and watched our Texas legislature, (Governor) Greg Abbott has made it easy for people who have nothing to do with these guns, for one reason or another, and come from the make open.

She saw Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, interrupt Abbott and accuse the governor of failing to stop the violence. “It just got me excited because they’re coming back here with their thoughts and their prayers, with the same empty promises to these heartbroken, crushed people. It’s just despicable,” Delgado said.

In Uvalde, the grieving process will be particularly long, observers say. The cultural parallels between El Paso and Uvalde are numerous. Both are largely Mexican American communities. Uvalde is about an hour’s drive from the border. El Paso is right on the border.

Pointing to El Paso, Pastor Humberto Renovato of Fuentes de Agua Vivas (Fountain of Living Waters), a Christian church in Uvalde, said, “We will have to learn to forgive in order to heal.

But the key circumstances of the two mass shootings differ. Law enforcement officials in El Paso – local, state and federal officers on and off duty – have generally been hailed as heroes for their efforts to save lives during the Walmart shooting.

In Uvalde, the grief is compounded by police mistakes, whose slow response and shifting accounts from law enforcement are under review by the US Department of Justice.

Many residents are angry, hungry for answers, especially to a key question: when the police arrived minutes after the shooter, including 19 of them who entered the hallway of the school, why did they’ve been waiting for a heavily armed tactical team to arrive for over a year? hour later to confront and kill the shooter?

Richard Pineda, political analyst and dean of communications at the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, has been following the mass shooting in El Paso and now Uvalde.

“Unfortunately, what El Paso and our experience hold for Uvalde are lessons in trauma and post-traumatic stress,” he said. as so many questions pile up on the response of law enforcement.

Another difference is the shooter, himself. The suspected shooter from El Paso drove hours to the border, with a white nationalist agenda.

In Uvalde, the shooter lived near the school. He was from us. Samaniego, the El Paso County judge, said that factor alone “breaks the neatly woven black-and-white narrative: white supremacist versus black, brown, Asian. The siren’s call is urgent because it’s all of us looking at the same mirror, regardless of skin color. Our humanity has gone astray. What are we going to do about it?”

As a show of solidarity, El Paso held candlelight vigils, among other activities, to show support for Uvalde, as Samaniego said, “They will need lots of love and support.” Healing will be a difficult climb.

Writers Imelda Garcia and Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report