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Listen: Through art, keepsakes and advocacy, families are making sure the 21 Uvalde victims are not forgotten

By Stephanie Wolf, The Texas Tribune

Listen: Through art, keepsakes and advocacy, families are making sure the 21 Uvalde victims are not forgotten” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Audio Brief: Through art, keepsakes and advocacy, families are making sure the 21 Uvalde victims are not forgotten

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Evadulia Orta keeps a binder of Pokémon cards in her room. It belonged to her son, who loved the trading card characters.

One of her son’s favorite cards features a purple, mystical bird in flight. The binder’s entire contents are precious to her.

“I can hold it and see what he was looking at, what he was into,” she said.

Orta’s 10-year-old son, Rojélio Torres, often brought this Pokémon collection to his school, Robb Elementary in Uvalde, to trade cards with his classmates. He had it with him on May 24, 2022, when a gunman entered the school carrying a semi-automatic rifle and killed 19 children and two teachers. Rojélio was among the students who died that day.

“This was the last thing that he had with him at school in his backpack so this one stays with me,” she says. “I can’t hold him no more. I can’t talk to him anymore. These made me get closer to him more now. And for my kids, that’s what they hold on to, those memories of him.”

Wednesday marks exactly a year since the shooting. For Orta and others whose child, cousin, spouse or friend did not come home from school a year ago, they’re determined to keep the memories of their loved ones alive.

Holding on to memories through mementos

At Evadulia Orta’s home, Rojélio’s room has become a place of solace for the family. She says her two youngest children and her eldest come into Rojélio’s room at some point every morning.

[Watch: A Uvalde family remembers their 10-year-old through the mementos he left behind]

“I don’t know when they come to the room, but they do and they probably sit down on the floor to talk to him.”

The room has a bookshelf packed with stuffed animals: a Care Bear, a plush pig, what looks like a fox. Squeezed in between some of the stuffies are a toy car and plane, and a small American flag hangs off the side of a higher shelf.

Orta wants to keep it filled with the things Rojélio loved.

“My oldest, now she gets Pokémon cards, and she’s like, ‘Mom, I want to buy Pokémon cards,’” Orta says. “And if she finds one that he likes, she’ll leave it in his room for him. And my son, too.”

People also wrote notes on Pokémon cards as small remembrances of Rojélio: “They put it in a book for me.”

Artwork as monuments to the 21 victims

Orta and her family received lots of artwork, drawings and paintings, memorializing Rojélio and the other children who died in the shooting. She hung them on the walls of his room.

The town plaza still has bouquets of flowers and crosses — 21 of them, one for each student and teacher who died. There are also murals — painted as a memorial to each of the victims.

“We’re never going to forget them, their faces — that’s why they had to be portraits,” local arts educator Abel Ortiz-Acosta, who oversaw the project, told The Texas Tribune last fall. “The murals provide a place where [the families] can celebrate. In the cemetery it’s somber. Here, it’s a celebration of their lives.”

[Photos: In the wake of tragedy, Uvalde residents look to murals for healing]

Rojélio’s mural is near the plaza, on the side of a Security Finance building. He’s painted in a red shirt and jacket, surrounded by his favorite Pokémon characters. At the other end of the mural, the phrase “The life of the party” is painted below an image of a football player sprinting and carrying a ball.

Orta says, on the days her kids are missing Rojelio the most, they all do an activity that he loved, like football. Or they go to the cemetery and sit by his gravesite to be close to him and talk to him. Other families have told reporters they also find comfort in visiting their loved one’s grave. Some spend holidays there so they can be together.

Orta hopes people remember Rojélio as happy.

“He was loving, caring. [I want people] to remember him, that he loved playing football,” she says. “He wanted to be in the Navy when he grew up. And he wanted to build his own house … That’s what he said, ‘I’m gonna build my own house. I’m gonna help you, Mom.’”

Other families remember their loved ones with activism

Many family members of victims have been invited to speak at local and national rallies and events supporting the tightening gun regulations. This legislative session, a number of them traveled to the capitol in Austin, joined by gun reform advocates and families of other mass shooting victims, with a very clear message for their state lawmakers.

Often chanting “raise the age,” they showed up in support of House Bill 2744. The proposal would have raised the minimum age to buy a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21.

[Gun safety advocates see signs of progress in first session after Uvalde shooting even though raise-the-age bill stalled]

On April 18, families waited more than 13 hours to testify about the bill before a state House committee.

Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi died during the Robb Elementary shooting, came to the capitol that day. She told lawmakers waiting that stretch of time reminded her of May 24, 2022, “when we waited hours to be told our daughter would never come home.”

“I expressed confusion then, and I’m perplexed now,” she said. “Did you think we would go home?”

She asked the House committee members if, while watching news coverage of the shooting, they wondered if they could have done something to “prevent the tragedy.”

“Do you look at images of children running for their lives and think, what if we had enacted stricter gun laws? Did you consider the children still inside, those like our daughter who would never emerge? Did you imagine what it would feel like to bury your child? Sit with that image as we do.”

According to Lexi’s obituary, the fourth grader was smart, athletic, driven and fun to be around. She had dreams of earning a softball scholarship to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where she wanted to major in math and then go to law school to become an attorney. Lexi loved basketball and talking on the phone with her friends.

Angel Garza also stuck it out that April day to speak about his daughter.

“We’re here today because our 10-year-old daughter Amerie Jo Garza was shot and killed by an assault rifle,” he said.

Amerie’s favorite color was purple. She was an honor roll student. Her family has described her as kind, but also brazen — a tiny diva with goodness in her heart. She was remembered as a good friend who stood up for others and had aspirations of becoming an art teacher.

“After dropping off Amerie that morning, I had no idea that ‘I love you, Daddy’ would be the last words I would ever hear come out of her little mouth. No idea that I would get her sunflower backpack back with bullet holes in it,” Garza said in his emotional testimony.

Amerie had turned 10 just two weeks before the shooting.

“My baby girl was full of life and love,” said Javier Cazares.

His 9-year-old daughter, Jackie, never learned how to ride a bike.

“Never made it to the fifth grade,” he said. “Will never experience her 15th birthday, prom, graduation from high school, college, becoming a vet, visiting Paris or even falling in love.”

Jackie had a love for singing and the color sage green. Her family remembers her as a free spirit, someone who always wanted to help others.

When Christina Zamora sat down before lawmakers that night, she asked them to imagine how they would have felt to learn a teen with a deadly weapon was in their child’s school.

“So many sweet children never made it home that day,” she said. “Others like Mayah will never be the same: their lives, their bodies, their personalities, changed forever.”

Zamora’s daughter, Mayah, survived the shooting, but was severely injured. She underwent multiple surgeries and was in the hospital for months.

“The power of these weapons to harm and kill so many is a huge responsibility. And one I personally feel is too much for a teenager whose minds are not fully developed and who truly still need and deserve guidance on the big and complicated issues of life,” Zamora said.

State Rep. Tracy King, a Democrat who represents Uvalde, filed the raise-the-age bill. His children attended Robb Elementary in the years prior to the shooting. He also spoke during that overnight April hearing, telling his colleagues that he’s a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment. King speculated that had someone filed a similar bill last session, he likely would have voted against it.

“But at 11:30, mas o menos, on May 24, 2022, everything changed,” he said.

King doesn’t want other communities to have to suffer the way Uvalde has, and he thought his legislation could have made a difference last year as the assailant would not have been old enough to buy the gun if this bill had been law.

“My constituents would be alive today,” he told the committee members.

Legislators prioritize school security, but some advocates still see progress

That hearing wasn’t the last time Uvalde families made the trip to Austin. They knew it was an uphill battle to advance this kind of legislation in the GOP-majority state Legislature, which has loosened gun regulations for Texans in recent years.

Earlier this month, a 33-year-old gunman killed eight people and injured several others outside of an outlet mall in the North Texas community of Allen. A raise-the-age bill wouldn’t have hindered the shooter in this case from legally getting a weapon. But it did renew calls for gun reform.

In the days after the Allen shooting, Uvalde families returned to the capitol, this time joined by Democratic lawmakers including Rep. Gene Wu of Houston. He spoke during a press conference at the capitol on May 8 and said there are no more safe places in America due to gun violence: not churches or schools.

“There’s no shopping mall that is safe. There’s no library that is safe,” Wu said. “Not because of books, not because of trans kids who want health care but because of things that people own. Because we value things over people.”

That same day, in a surprise, last-minute move, the House Committee voted to advance the raise-the-age bill to the full chamber. It was a celebratory moment for the families but a short-lived one. The bill was left off the House’s agenda ahead of a key deadline, even as families chanted outside the chamber doors. That marked its end.

Instead, Texas state lawmakers have prioritized bills focused on school security, like House Bill 3. Yet, some advocates have said, despite HB 2744 not getting over the finish line, they’ve seen some progress on the issue of gun safety this session, and families have vowed to continue to fight for change in the name of their loved ones.

Jinitzail Hernández and Fabiana Chaparro contributed to this report.

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