In Uvalde, tragedy and food bring a community together

Updated May 29, 2022 at 6:51 AM ET

As residents in Uvalde grapple with the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, many are trying to soothe their community with an age-old salve: Food.

All over town people are holding cookouts to make meals for the families of the victims. The gatherings have an improvised feel. Best friends Romie Perez and Elia Zamarripa — both in their mid-60s — learned of one such plan when they bumped into a friend at Walmart, who told them his family was going to grill burgers for distribution at a place commonly referred to as “the Mexican park.”

“We just said, ‘OK, we’ll go!’ ” says Zamarripa.

On the drive over, Zamarripa points out a towering oak growing smack dab in the middle of the road.

“When they were building new houses on each side of the road, they needed to make the road where the tree was,” she explains. “But that tree has been there years and years — even before probably their great-great-grandparents.”

And in Uvalde, she adds, you don’t cut down an oak.

This is a place where roots matter. Many hail from Mexican farmworker families that have been intertwined for so many generations, everyone seems to know everyone.

That very inter-connectedness has now made the mass shooting at Robb Elementary all the more painful. “It’s just something that we — we can’t believe,” says Perez. “Uvalde! Our little hometown.”

When they reach the park, the two friends walk up to a young man in who’s piling wood into an enormous grill.

Zamarripa and Perez don’t actually know him on sight. But in that Uvalde way, it takes them about two seconds to figure out who he is — Jerry Martinez, the son-in-law of their friend who organized this meetup.

The talk immediately turns to one of the lives lost in this tragedy.

“You know, the shooter? I know his family well,” says Martinez. “He lived on the street with my mom when he was a baby.”

And because this is Uvalde, they mourn him too — as one of their own.

He was 18. But Martinez keeps referring to him as “that little boy.”

“It’s real sad, all the way around,” he sighs.

Perez clucks her tongue — switching between English and Spanish, the way many Latinos in Uvalde do, as she wonders at the demons that haunted him. “He must have been so angry to take it out on the children,” she says.

Zamarripa worries about the grandmother who the young man shot just before heading to the school. Zamarripa and Perez have been friends with her for years and know her as Sally.

“Oh everybody knows Sally. She was outgoing, loved gardening, loved her plants,” says Zamarripa.

Barely a week ago they swung by Sally’s house to pick up some plants she was selling.

“Now she’s in the hospital,” says Zamarripa, her voice choking up. “And we’re all praying.”

More people are showing up to help pack the burgers into paper bags — including Monique Rodriguez. She’s dressed in a white T-shirt with the words “Uvalde Strong” printed on it. Her 9-year-old daughter Adeline stands by her side, hair in a high ponytail, expression somber.

The girl was at Robb when the shooting started. Rodriguez says by the time she was finally reunited with her, Adeline was hysterical.

Days later, Rodriguez says her daughter “has her moments when she just cries.”

Rodriguez is trying to at least keep Adeline busy and focused on helping others.

“I do it for her because I know she’s the one who’s really going through something. And I will never know because I’m not in her head. And she went through that by herself.”

Now, she says, all they can do is come together.

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Transcript :

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, residents in Uvalde, Texas, are still struggling to come to terms with the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers were killed and 17 others were wounded. But the tragedy has also sparked spontaneous get-togethers across town as people search for a way to heal. NPR’s Nurith Aizenman joined two longtime friends as they headed to one of the gatherings.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: As we drive along one of Uvalde’s side streets, Elia Zamarripa points out a towering oak growing right in the middle of the road. She’s 65, old enough to remember when they poured the asphalt around it.

ELIA ZAMARRIPA: When they were building new houses on each side of the road, they needed to make the road where the tree was. But they didn’t want to cut the tree because that tree has been there years and years even before them, you know, probably their great-great-grandparents.

AIZENMAN: In Uvalde, she says, you don’t cut down an oak tree. This is a place where roots matter so much, where so many people hail from Mexican American farmworker families that have been intertwined for so many generations. Everyone seems to know everyone. Now, that very interconnectedness has made the mass shooting at Robb Elementary all the more painful. In the seat next to Zamarripa is her best friend since kindergarten, Romie Perez. Perez sighs as we pass a line of 21 crosses that someone’s erected by the side of the road, one for each of the victims. It seems impossible to heal the wounds like this, says Perez.

ROMIE PEREZ: It’s just something that we can’t believe. We can’t – Uvalde, our little hometown.

AIZENMAN: And so people in Uvalde are trying to apply the best salve they can think of – food. All over town, people are holding impromptu cookouts to make meals for the families of the victims. Last night, Perez and Zamarripa bumped into a friend who told them of a plan to grill burgers at a place everyone calls the Mexican park. The two friends step out of the car and walk up to a young man who’s piling wood into an enormous grill, Jerry Martinez.

PEREZ: Good morning.

JERRY MARTINEZ: Hello.

PEREZ: How are you?

MARTINEZ: We’re good.

AIZENMAN: Zamarripa and Perez don’t actually know him on sight, but in that Uvalde way, it takes them about 2 seconds to figure out who he is, and that he’s related to one of the teachers who was killed.

PEREZ: Are you – you’re not the one that lost – it was your wife, right?

MARTINEZ: No, no, no. That’s my brother-in-law’s wife.

PEREZ: Oh, OK, your brother-in-law.

AIZENMAN: The talk turns to another person who lost his life in this tragedy.

MARTINEZ: You know, the shooter, I know his family as well. He lived down the street from my mom’s when he was a baby, you know?

AIZENMAN: And because this is Uvalde, they mourn him, too, as one of their own. He was 18, but Martinez keeps referring to him as that little boy.

MARTINEZ: It’s real sad, I mean, all the way around.

AIZENMAN: Perez switches between English and Spanish, as many Latinos in Uvalde do, as she wonders at the demons that haunted him.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish) – you know – (speaking Spanish) those kids, you know.

AIZENMAN: “He must have been so angry to take it out on the children,” she says. Zamarripa worries about his grandmother, who he shot just before heading to the school. They’ve been friends with her for years, know her as Sally.

ZAMARRIPA: When you say Sally, everybody knows Sally – outgoing, love gardening, loved her plants.

AIZENMAN: Barely a week ago, Zamarripa swung by Sally’s house to pick up some plants she was selling. Now Sally’s in the hospital.

ZAMARRIPA: You know, everybody is just praying.

AIZENMAN: More people are showing up to help, to pack the burgers and paper bags, including Monique Rodriguez, dressed in a white T-shirt with the words Uvalde Strong printed on it.

MONIQUE RODRIGUEZ: Put the table here so we have, like, an assembly line just going.

AIZENMAN: Her 9-year-old daughter stands by her side, hair in a high ponytail, expression – somber. The girl was at Robb when the shooting started. By the time Rodriguez was united with her, she was hysterical. Days later, she still seems numb, says Rodriguez.

RODRIGUEZ: She has her moments. She has her moments where she just cries.

AIZENMAN: So Rodriguez is trying to at least keep her busy, focused on helping others.

RODRIGUEZ: I do it for her because I know she’s the one who’s really going through something, and I will never know because I’m not in her head. She went through that by herself.

AIZENMAN: Now, she says, all they can do is come together. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.