How the inhabitants of Uvalde see their city: “Everyone knows each other”
On Wednesdays, the El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde closes at 6 p.m. sharp, and on that day the director wanted to lock up so he could arrive in time for a prayer vigil across town.
But about 15 reporters were at the tables, having found a quiet place with a reliable internet connection to work in, and San Antonio children’s book author Chris Scoggin was busy signing the 300 books he planned to donate to the library.
Mendell Morgan therefore opened the lobby of the building and invited them to stay after closing time.
“We appreciate the outpouring of compassion for our community and the way people, I think in a very sensitive way, are trying to tell this untold story and help the community begin to heal,” Morgan said. “I want to support that.”
Life in the close-knit town of Uvalde changed Tuesday when a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School and injured scores more. Other cities where mass shootings have taken place have become synonymous with these tragedies, but people like Morgan cling to what they value most about where they call home — and they want people who pay so much attention to Uvalde now know these things about it. , too.
“I feel like I have a purpose to be here, and the people are very nice and supportive in every way,” he said.
Uvalde is a town of over 15,000, the seat of a mostly rural county of the same name with a total population of less than twice that number. The city’s population is predominantly Hispanic.
Located 80 miles west of downtown San Antonio and 54 miles from the US-Mexico border, Uvalde straddles the Hill Country and Coastal Plains regions and is a gateway to chaparral country.
The 7.6-square-mile city also sits at a literal crossroads where two of the nation’s longest highways — US Highway 90 running east-west and US Highway 83 running north-south — intersect.
“It’s of course a center for ranching and agriculture, and that’s really what’s made it grow over the years,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. ‘University of Texas at Austin, which oversees the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde.
But those major thoroughfares keep it busier than other cities in Texas, he added.
The library and museum are only a few blocks from where the freeways converge. On both sides of Highway 90 there are motels and restaurants, the usual outlets including an HEB and Walmart store, a few high-end local merchants, and a 66-bed hospital serving multiple counties.
At the El Taco Madre food stand on Evans Street, Mike Palacios sells street tacos, nachos and other Tex-Mex favorites. In recent years, Palacios said, Uvalde has kept crime to a minimum and is mostly a peaceful place. Once a Predominantly white city, it has become “a melting pot” with a thriving Hispanic community, he said.
“We’re just a small community that sticks together,” said Palacios, who has lived in Uvalde for 14 years. “You drive down the road, and the car in front says hello, and everyone is really friendly.”
Uvalde is also home to a branch of Sul Ross State University and Southwest Texas Junior College. The city has its own well-developed airport and an active chamber of commerce, founded in 1920.
Employment in educational services, health care and social assistance accounts for the largest number of jobs (22%), according to the Uvalde Area Economic Development Foundation, followed by agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining (12%). The median household income is $31,185.
Wildlife, both native and exotic, is abundant in the area, fueling a healthy hunting tourism industry. In 2010, the magazine Outdoor living named Uvalde County one of the best white-tailed deer hunting areas in the world.
Spiritual life is important in the area, Morgan said, with churches of many denominations in Uvalde.
“Faithful and True”
The independent school district of Uvalde Consolidated, which serves about 4,000 students and employs more than 730 full-time staff on eight campuses, has a motto “Loyal and true.” For many of its residents, the idea that the city’s schools would be anything more than a place of learning and safety was inconceivable.
Celeste Ibarra’s 9-year-old daughter, Aubriella Malchor, attends Robb Elementary and survived the attack by hiding in a toilet stall.
Until Tuesday, Ibarra felt safe in the community which she describes as “very tight-knit”. She grew up in Uvalde. This is where his family lives — his mother, brothers, sisters and grandparents.
“We never had to worry about things like that. Everyone knows each other,” she said. “We are a peaceful and quiet little town.”
Ibarra owns a cattle ranch and a concrete company, while his siblings work in the medical field, some working as nurses and radiologists. For fun, the family heads to nearby Concan, where the Frio River offers tubing and other water activities in the spring and summer.
History and political power
Founded in 1853 as the town of Encina, Uvalde takes its name from Spanish governor Juan de Ugalde, a change made when the town was made the county seat three years later.
It was once a major stop on the railroad and was renowned for the huajillo honey produced in the area. In 1905, Uvalde was named World Capital of Honey at the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
Two prominent politicians hail from Uvalde: John Nance Garner, who served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives before becoming Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dolph Briscoe, the 41st Governor of Texas.
Briscoe, a rancher and businessman, was elected governor in 1972 and ruled the state for six years. His mentor has been another Democrat, Garner, considered one of the most powerful vice presidents in history.
“This little town, while Garner lived, had a sort of parade of very powerful and influential people coming to visit,” Carleton of the Briscoe Center said. “These two men have played a huge role in shaping this county, its destiny and its growth.”
Today, the county leans conservative and is represented by Republican Tony Gonzales in Congress and two Democrats, State Senator Roland Gutierrez and Representative Tracy King, in the Texas Legislature.
Go beyond grief
Residents said the way of life in Uvalde has always had a unique charm.
“I would say it’s a very nice place to live,” said Gary Heyen, who grew up in Uvalde and came back 15 years ago when he retired. The 81-year-old appreciates that the city has everything he needs “without the hassle of a big city”.
Heyen played football in high school and occasionally attends a game at his alma mater. He ventures with his wife to the nearby town of Concan to swim or watch people dance under an open-air pavilion.
Growing up, “it was very easy to be here, easy to make friends, enjoyable,” Heyen said. “I don’t think I could find a better place to live, honestly.”
Now, as Uvalde mourns the deadliest day in his collective memory, the city feels the outpouring of sympathy and support from San Antonio and beyond.
“I believe we’ll get through this,” said Palacios, the owner of the food stand. “We are Uvalde and we are strong Uvalde,” he said.