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What Robb Elementary School has meant in Uvalde's history of Mexican activism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the next two weeks, the town of Uvalde, Texas, will bury 21 of its own - 19 children and two teachers killed by a gunman inside Robb Elementary School. The school carries deep importance within Uvalde's Mexican American community.

And NPR's Adrian Florido is in Uvalde and joins us now to talk more about that. Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, you know, a striking fact about the shooting is that almost all the victims were Mexican American. Can you tell us a little more about that?

FLORIDO: Well, 90% of the students at Robb Elementary are Latino because Uvalde is an overwhelmingly Mexican American town. But, Ailsa, even when Uvalde was a mostly white town, Robb Elementary was known as the school for Mexicans. And it's a school that played a central role in the fight for Mexican American equality here in Uvalde.

CHANG: Tell us about that history.

FLORIDO: I'll start with Josue Garza. He goes by George.

Morning.

GEORGE GARZA: Good morning. Oh, how are you this morning?

FLORIDO: I met him at his house a few blocks from Robb Elementary. He's 83 now. But in 1965, he was a brand-new Mexican American teacher at Robb.

G GARZA: It was a typical Mexican school.

FLORIDO: By which he means it was in bad shape - no landscaping, no playgrounds for the kids - a white principal, he says, who said there was no money for that stuff.

G GARZA: They wouldn't pay for a penny for anything.

FLORIDO: So Mr. Garza started raising money and donations for a basketball court and a running track. And he asked the principal for permission to plant 3-foot baby pecan trees.

G GARZA: Well, who's going to water them? I'll take care of it, sir. And I assigned three or four trees to every student, and I would give them a quarter for them to water the trees, take care of it, not let anybody vandalized it. My idea was to make the school look like the white schools.

FLORIDO: Uvalde in the late '60s was a segregated agricultural town. Its white residents, farmers and business owners lived on the east side and sent their kids to Dalton Elementary. The Mexicans, many of them farm labor, lived on the west side and sent their kids to Robb.

OLGA MUÑOZ RODRIQUEZ: In those years, you could drive by Dalton Elementary on the Anglo side of town, and it was beautifully landscaped. The grounds were kept. You know, they had paved driveways.

FLORIDO: Author Olga Muñoz Rodriquez was a young mother in the late '60s.

RODRIQUEZ: Then you walked to Robb. It was very obvious that the maintenance of the schools was different.

FLORIDO: Robb Elementary's principal and almost all of its teachers were white and spoke only English. The parents were all Mexican or Mexican American. Many spoke only Spanish. So they celebrated George Garza's arrival as a fifth-grade teacher.

RODRIQUEZ: George Garza was approached by many parents that didn't speak English. And he would go to Mr. Shannon, the principal, and be a translator for the parents.

FLORIDO: They complained about the school's conditions, about teachers who spanked their children for speaking Spanish. They had lots of complaints.

RODRIQUEZ: So that was something that the principal was unhappy with.

FLORIDO: George Garza remembers that the principal started to feel undermined by Garza's efforts to improve the school and that he finally turned on Mr. Garza when he started taking graduate courses in education.

G GARZA: He says, you're a double-crosser. How come you're trying to get your master's degree? You want my job, don't you?

FLORIDO: Mr. Garza said, no, he did not. But as the school year neared its end, he got a letter from the superintendent. It said...

G GARZA: It is in the best interest of Robb Elementary School and the Uvalde Independent School District that your contract not be extended.

FLORIDO: What reason did it give?

G GARZA: None. None.

FLORIDO: Word that he was going to be fired spread through Uvalde's Mexican west side. On the night the school board was set to finalize the decision, a huge crowd of parents showed up, including Olga Muñoz Rodriquez.

RODRIQUEZ: Of course I was there. And I'll divulge something that I rarely talk about, but it is so painful. The school board met in a very small room around a very large table so that the people that were able to get in were against the wall and just packed real tight.

FLORIDO: She was packed in next to a white man.

RODRIQUEZ: And I hear him tell the Anglo person next to him, this place is bad enough to get tuberculosis.

FLORIDO: That night, Rodriquez said, a lot crystallized for Uvalde's Mexican school parents.

RODRIQUEZ: That's the way they thought about us. They didn't think, these parents care about their children or a teacher they respect or they want to improve their children's education; they just were Mexicans, and we should be worried about being around them.

FLORIDO: Mr. Garza's son, Ronnie, was a student at Robb and was at the meeting that night. He remembers when the school board took its vote.

RONNIE GARZA: Six to one they voted to not renew my dad's contract. The parents walked out, upset. They were devastated. And one lady in the crowd, Manuela Canales, started chanting, walk out, walk out, walk out, walk out. The crowd started chanting it.

FLORIDO: It was April of 1970, and parents started pulling their children out of school. Mexican students at Uvalde High School walked out, too, some 500 students in all.

ELVIA PEREZ: It started in April. And so then we were out of school for the rest of the year.

FLORIDO: Elvia Perez, then a Uvalde High School senior, became one of the walkout's leaders. They drafted a list of demands. They wanted more Hispanic teachers in Uvalde. She remembers the night protesters went back to the school board to deliver the list.

PEREZ: I remember walking across the street, and for some reason, I just looked up, and I looked up the barrel of a Texas Ranger's rifle. They were on the roof with their rifles pointing down at us.

FLORIDO: What did that feel like?

PEREZ: I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken because I thought, I am an American citizen from generations, and all of a sudden, we're being treated this way? Like, I was appalled. I was 17. I had no idea that people would react that way.

FLORIDO: The walkout lasted six weeks. Volunteers came from San Antonio to tutor children who had walked out so they wouldn't fall behind. But at the end of the school year, the walkout fizzled out. Some Mexican parents had refused to participate, afraid they might be fired by their white bosses. Others lost enthusiasm for the walkout as the school board refused to meet their demands. Despite that, Perez says the walkout was a success in another way.

PEREZ: Because that's where people began to stand up and to ask that their voices be heard and that their needs be met.

FLORIDO: After the walkout, one parent filed a federal lawsuit to force Uvalde to desegregate its schools. After years of litigation, she won. The fight to get the district to comply took decades more.

Today, Robb Elementary is 90% Latino because that is what this town looks like. Most white people have moved away. But Mr. Garza's son, Ronnie, who's now a Uvalde County commissioner, said, look, now almost all the teachers are Latino, too, many born and raised here.

R GARZA: So we're growing our own now. You know, we're having people that are born and raised here in Uvalde becoming teachers, role models.

FLORIDO: Two of those role models, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, were murdered in their classroom along with 19 children. And now, people in Uvalde are starting to ask a painful question - what'll happen to Robb Elementary? Should this symbol of the fight for Mexican American equality in Uvalde be torn down? It brings Ronnie Garza to tears.

R GARZA: I get emotional thinking about that.

FLORIDO: Olga Muñoz Rodriquez says it is painful, but it might be for the best.

RODRIQUEZ: If I were a parent of one of those children, I would not want to go back to that school.

FLORIDO: The community will answer that question later. Right now, it's grief. Every day, people bring flowers and stuffed animals to the sprawling memorial growing on the school's front lawn under the shade of some giant pecan trees, the ones Mr. Garza planted more than 50 years ago because he wanted to make Uvalde's Mexican school more beautiful. The trees are massive now, sturdy, and they are beautiful.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Uvalde, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE'S "OM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.