TESS MATA STOOD BENEATH the brown awning and threw a yellow softball at the white box that her father had spray-painted on a sugar maple tree. Tess hated practicing out here in the backyard. Every time she missed, she had to chase the ball and walk back to beneath the awning, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her sweaty nose before the next pitch. Do that routine a few times in the heat and humidity of South Texas, and you’d hate it, too.
“It’s too hot,” Tess finally complained. And so she went inside, got on her knees and whipped a tennis ball against the chimney wall, until one of her pitches strayed. “Hey!” her father, Jerry, yelled, “You’re going to break the TV.” It was back outside after that.
Tess might have hated the heat and the tree, but she kept throwing because, just like playing softball, pitching was her idea. When she told her parents she wanted to give it a try, her mother, Veronica, worried the position wasn’t right for her baby girl, still just 10 years old. Tess had been so timid when she first started school, she’d sneak her baby blanket into her backpack. “She was always scared that nobody was going to pick her up,” Veronica says.
But they couldn’t tell Tess no; she was too determined. Her goal was to make the Little League all-star team, and so Tess watched countless hours of YouTube on her iPad to learn the pitching mechanics. She refined them at that tree. She kept going because few things felt better than hitting the target. Sometimes the ball hit so perfectly, it almost bounced back to Tess.
When that happened, even the neighbors in the Mata’s quiet neighborhood in Uvalde heard the soft thumping of a softball hitting a tree. Thump. Thump. Thump. Over and over again. Each time, the ball broke off small pieces of bark. She threw for hours, and after she was done, Jerry rubbed Biofreeze on her shoulder to comfort her.
Talking about Tess while standing at the kitchen table, Jerry says he has video of the first time she pitched in a game for her team, the Bandits. He pulls out his phone from his front pocket and scrolls through videos looking for the right one. He stands there, with salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin and puffiness under his eyes, wearing a gray T-shirt with the Bandits logo on it.
“Here it is,” Jerry says. He holds the phone so I can see Tess pitching. His back is to the chimney wall, now full of flowers, balloons and drawings. Further behind Jerry’s back is the sugar maple tree.
“She struck out the first batter she faced,” he says.
FOR CENTURIES, the place that’s now Texas was the ungovernable frontier. The place where even if it was a part of Spain, or France, or Mexico, or its own republic, or the United States, or the Confederacy, its boundaries and laws were abstractions. The reality of who controlled the land was different from what any map said. And no place in Texas was as contested as the Nueces Strip.
For years after declaring its independence from Mexico in 1836, Texas said its southern border was the Rio Grande. If it even acknowledged Texas’ independence, Mexico claimed the border was further north, at the Nueces River. The land between those two bodies of water, about 150 miles wide and 400 miles long, became the Nueces Strip.
It was a place with no clear owner outside those with a stomach for violence strong enough to hold a claim. A place that seemingly alternated between floods and droughts. At times, with cholera in the water, even trying to quench your thirst in that unrelenting heat could be deadly. That general lawlessness there, mixed with the large and small animals — bears, mountain lions and wolves, and scorpions, tarantulas, snakes and mosquitoes — made the area almost uninhabitable.
Whatever semblance of control Texas gained of the Nueces Strip is largely a result of the Colt revolver. The same year Texas declared independence, Samuel Colt filed a patent for his weapon. Until then, for centuries, handguns were practically all the same: a metal tube that used gunpowder to fire pellet-like projectiles. You took one shot then reloaded. That process could take up to a minute, longer in inclement weather. Often that was the literal time between life and death. In the Nueces Strip, Comanches riding on horseback could shoot as many as 20 arrows in the time it took to reload a gun.
The Colt revolver, which could fire five shots between reloads, was designed to kill more efficiently, and when Texans got their hands on those revolvers, it changed everything; the Comanches stood no chance against them. And because you can’t understand this country without knowing how much Texas influences its identity, that gun also changed the United States.
Among the first things the country mass-produced was the Colt revolver. It was a preview of the things the American industrial revolution could make with speed, precision and uniformity. Owning a gun became easier, and if one ever broke, because of its interchangeable parts — hammers, triggers and cylinders — it could be easily fixed compared to when a gunsmith had to repair the entire gun.
“God created men equal. Colonel Colt made them equal.” That became a common saying as the Colt revolver’s impact spread across the country. Manifest Destiny was the ideology guiding the country’s western expansion — from Texas, west to New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Nevada, Colorado, Utah and all of California, then north to Oregon and Washington — and the Colt was the gun used to enforce it.
The Nueces River runs through Uvalde County. The town is on the edge of the Nueces Strip. Mexican long before it was Texan, it’s the same place that when preachers brought the good word to the roughest of countries, they often carried a gun next to their Bible. The same place that, today, because it’s still surrounded by wilderness, is one of Texas’ hunting capitals.
VERONICA AND JERRY thought about moving. Before their oldest daughter, Faith, started school and their family roots grew deeper, they thought about getting out. Not because they disliked Uvalde. Both of their parents were born and raised in this small town of 15,000. Their grandparents, who moved here from Mexico to work, also lived in Uvalde. Jerry still remembers how when his father drank with friends, they’d talk about the places in town where they couldn’t go. Despite that, Veronica and Jerry felt safe here. The high school sweethearts only thought about leaving because that’s part of growing up in a small Texas town.
Through the years, Jerry, an aviation mechanic, got job offers with better pay in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, even as far away as Virginia. They’d visit. They’d start looking for a place to live, but it never felt right. “It was just scary to take my daughters to a big city I didn’t know,” Jerry says, sitting at the kitchen table. So, when it was time to decide, the comfort of home and living in a small town — where you could leave your doors unlocked, ride your bike to the movie theater, and know who your neighbors were — always won.
They stayed, planning for their two daughters to have the same friends from kindergarten to high school, and probably long after that. They’d have the same neighbors, and Veronica, a kindergarten teacher at Dalton Elementary School, would see her young students grow into adults. With time, she’d even teach the kids of her students, too. Faith and Tess would play sports, often with the same teammates, and their lives would, in many ways, revolve around that.
“She was on the softball field since she was a baby,” Veronica says of Tess. She grew up watching Faith play so often that Tess would sometimes fall asleep on the grass or stands next to the fields. She spent so much time there that, at first, Tess didn’t want to play. “I don’t want to do softball,” she said, choosing gymnastics and soccer instead. She said that until she changed her mind.
Before she pitched, Tess played second base for two reasons. Because that’s the position Faith played, and because her favorite player on her favorite team did, too.
José Altuve this, José Altuve that. Tess talked about the Houston Astros star all the time. Before settling on Oliver, Tess even considered naming her cat José. She talked about him so much that she asked for an Altuve poster and jersey. When Veronica and Jerry bought them, Tess couldn’t wait to show Faith.
“He proved that anybody short can play,” Jerry says of the 5-foot-6 Altuve. He thinks Tess related to him because of his height.
“GROWING UP, THE SCHOOLS WERE DIVIDED,” Roberto Morales says. Uvalde is nearly 82% Latino, mostly of Mexican ethnicity. The local schools are desegregated today because Roberto’s mother, Genoveva, sued the district in 1970. His house is roughly two blocks from Robb Elementary School, and about double that distance from what locals know as el parque Mexicano, the Mexican park. “The Mexicanos, we were on this side of town,” Roberto, 65, continues. “And that’s where we stayed because of the gringos. They didn’t want you over there.”
Over there was the east side of town. It included what the Mexicanos know as el parque de los gringos. It was in the part of Uvalde that, when Roberto was a young boy, had paved roads and sidewalks around the big, nice houses with indoor plumbing. On cold nights, that part of town never worried about the gas getting turned off to keep enough pressure in the pipes to heat the other side. That part of town had enough resources for schools. The west side was the opposite of that.
For the schools, that meant not enough textbooks and basic equipment. Not enough organized sports. Not enough Mexican American teachers and administrators who understood the culture. Too many teachers and administrators who guided students toward trade and vocational schools. Too much of a difference between how the white students got treated compared to everyone else.
“You weren’t supposed to speak Spanish,” Roberto says. When teachers heard anyone doing that, they sent the students to the principal’s office. “He had a wooden paddle with a bunch of holes,” Roberto remembers. Because of those holes drilled into the paddle, he also remembers the soft whistling sound that came the split second before a violent slap against his body. That type of punishment will make an entire generation, and maybe even the ones after that, lose their language.
“It was bad,” says Roberto, a truck driver who delivers asphalt across the state. When he talks, he’ll pepper Spanish words or phrases into his sentences, as if he’s quietly showing defiance. A subtle reminder that they might have beat him, but they never took those words from him. Roberto repeats himself. “It was bad. Pero then, it turned after the walkout. They started hiring maestros Mexicanos.”
Roberto was in sixth grade when, on April 14, 1970, Mexican and Mexican American parents and their children, about 600 students, walked out of Uvalde schools. Inspired by a similar walkout in Crystal City, nearly 40 miles south, parents and their children protested. They said the Robb Elementary School principal refused to renew the contract of one of the few Mexican teachers; among other things, those maestros Mexicanos translated for parents and didn’t enforce the no-speaking-Spanish rule. They also protested the inequalities between their school and the ones on the east side.
At that point, it was the culmination of decades worth of school segregation. Across Texas, school administrators and agricultural growers worried, sometimes saying it explicitly, that properly educating students of Mexican ethnicity would lead to diminishing the state’s labor force. In a place like Uvalde — which, like other cities and towns across the country, recruited Mexican labor during the 1930s — there was little incentive to improve schools. There, those of Mexican ethnicity often worked in restaurants, the nearby asphalt mine, in the fields picking cabbage, onions, spinach and cotton, or as sheep shearers. Trasqueleros, they called themselves. They stayed in Uvalde until there was no more work, they’d then offer their services to ranchers across the country.
In 1930, Texas’ first court case on Mexican school segregation occurred in Del Rio, about an hour’s drive west of Uvalde, right on the Rio Grande. The district admitted to segregating schools but argued it was for the students’ advantage since many of them traveled with their parents to any field that needed picking or any ranch that needed a hand. They’d have their own pace of learning among those just like them, separate but equal, is what the district said in so many words. A local court ruled against the district. That decision was overturned on appeal, which helped spark the Mexican and Mexican American fight for Texas civil rights. The Uvalde school walkouts were a continuation of that.
Roberto remembers how, as they marched peacefully, singing “De Colores” — the Mexican folk song that became the anthem of the United Farm Workers — Texas Rangers, from atop surrounding buildings, aimed their guns at them. How helicopters hovered above. How even after students returned to class after a six-week boycott, some held back a grade as a form of punishment, others reclassified and drafted into the military, the fight was far from over.
That’s when Genoveva, who worked as a cook, sued the school district. Small-town rumors said Fidel Castro had brainwashed her. She got called a communist because she demanded school desegregation. The district court heard her arguments and found nothing illegal. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. It ruled that more than 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation, Uvalde had exactly that.
Soon after Genoveva’s lawsuit, a federal judge ordered Texas to desegregate all of its schools. As a response, in the East Texas town of Longview, two men used dynamite to explode and destroy 36 parked buses that would have taken Black students to the white schools.
In Uvalde, school desegregation came slow. So slow that every April 15, the district had to submit an annual report to the court, showing the changes it made. That went on for decades. So long that, Roberto says, whenever the district hired a new superintendent, their first job was to meet with his mother and ask her to drop the lawsuit, which wasn’t fully resolved until 2017, nearly a half-century after it first got filed. “I owe so much to Genoveva,” says Dr. Jeanette Ball, who served as Uvalde’s superintendent from 2013 to 2018. “It allowed a Hispanic young girl like me to become superintendent.” In 2014, the district renamed Uvalde’s one junior high school after Genoveva.
With Robb Elementary School, even if it isn’t the way it once was, it’s still the school on the Mexican side of Uvalde, where almost 90% of the students are Latinx, most of Mexican ethnicity, and a quarter are in a bilingual program. Still the school where just over 81% are classified as economically disadvantaged. Still the school four blocks from el parque Mexicano, where, during the walkout, the community gathered to teach the students, trying to make sure they didn’t fall behind.
Suffering from dementia, Genoveva is 93 years old. There’s a chapter in the book “Revolutionary Women of Texas and Mexico” that’s all about her. Roberto keeps a copy in his home and shows it with pride. “God’s been good to me, here in Uvalde,” Roberto says. “No matter what we’ve gone through.”
“IT’S BEEN REAL QUIET LATELY,” Jerry says. He has a soft but raspy voice with that Mexican Texan accent of someone who speaks as much Spanish as English. He sits at his kitchen table, in his house a couple of blocks from Morales Junior High School, in a neighborhood once predominately white. It’s a house that, until recently, was filled with some sort of sound, most of it coming from Tess.
It was the sounds Tess inadvertently made when trying to keep quiet, sneaking a bag of Takis out of the kitchen before dinner. The sounds she made — those meows — when she played with Oliver around the house. The sounds of her repeated plays of Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be.” That was her favorite song, and when it came on the car radio, she’d have Jerry sing it with her.
“She would make us laugh every day,” Veronica says, sitting next to Jerry at the kitchen table. She says even when Tess did something wrong, it was simply impossible to stay upset with her. Like the time they told her not to wear a quinceañera dress for picture day at Robb Elementary because it was simply too much for the occasion. “OK,” Tess said. When the school pictures arrived a few weeks later, Veronica and Jerry got the photograph of Tess, smiling while wearing the formal dress better suited for a ball. She’d snuck the dress into her backpack, changed at school, and wore it just for the photo.
That school picture is in the Mata’s living room, by the chimney wall, next to the balloons and flowers. It makes them smile when they see it. When they tell the story, it makes them laugh, even now. They’re trying hard to get used to all the things that are gone. Trying to get used to no longer hearing the sounds Tess made, the thump-thump-thump whenever she practiced her pitching.
After her first strikeout, she knew she was meant to pitch; even though she’d taught herself to do it, she’d get angry at herself whenever she didn’t strike a batter out. And so this spring, Jerry had decided to hire a pitching coach so Tess could work with them during the summer.
“Of course, that didn’t happen,” Jerry says.
The house is so quiet, you can hear his voice crack.
YOU CAN DRAW A STRAIGHT LINE connecting Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836, to the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845, to the United States-Mexico War in 1846, to the United States’ westward expansion, to the Civil War in 1860. And along each of these events that physically and philosophically shaped the country, you can trace the spread of the Colt revolver.
The Colt Paterson — the gun patented in 1836 — was the weapon of Texas. When Texans decided they wanted parts, if not all, of neighboring New Mexico in 1841, they carried Colts with them. (The Mexican military stopped them at Santa Fe, then forced them to march about 1,500 miles to a Mexico City prison.) From the Colt Paterson, evolved the Colt Walker. The revolver was named after Samuel H. Walker, who wrote letters to Colt, praising the value of his weapon out in the Texas frontier. Walker was a Texas Ranger, the state law enforcement group founded in 1823 to protect the more than 600 white families and their slaves settling in Texas. His letters to Colt also included suggestions to improve the revolver. Colt listened and added a chamber. The six-shooter was born just in time for the war with Mexico.
Those Colts were the weapons Texas Rangers carried as they arrested people of Mexican ethnicity and sometimes made them vanish. It happened so often that loved ones of the missing knew where to look for the bodies, out in the isolated Texas country, among the mesquite trees.
“The history of brutality by the Texas Rangers is one that a lot of Texans know,” Dr. Monica Muñoz Martinez says. “It’s just that they’ve seen it intentionally suppressed or worse, celebrated in history and popular culture.” A history professor at the University of Texas and a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, often called the genius grant, Martinez was born and raised in Uvalde. She describes it as “a complicated town” where she made “beautiful and joyous memories.”
She attended Robb Elementary School, and her parents participated in the walkouts. She has dedicated her research to uncovering anti-Mexican violence on the Texas-Mexico border, even writing a book about it: “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas.” Mexican communities across Texas have told her parts of their history got erased or altered. After sharing file folders and boxes documenting the violence done against their families, they thank her for listening to their painful history they refused to forget.
“There are very dark parts of Texas history,” says Martinez, who receives hate mail for her work. “But I choose to be inspired by the people who’ve continued, for generation after generation, to call for justice.”
To this day, people sing corridos — Mexican songs recounting that history of oppression and tragedy and the folk heroes who waged war when their land got taken from them — about what the Texas Rangers did. They’re a sort of oral tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Los Rinches, some songs call the Texas Rangers. Others call them Los diablos Tejanos. The devils from Texas who, in 1855, even crossed south of the Rio Grande looking for runaway slaves then burned down a Mexican town on their way back. The ones who shut down Spanish-language newspapers that wrote about Mexican and Mexican Americans getting lynched, sometimes by Texas Rangers themselves. The ones who blocked school integration. And because the vast Texas land always requires someone to work it, the Texas Rangers were also the ones who brutally broke farm worker strikes.
Just like the Texas Rangers, other law enforcement agencies across the West, including the military, either did little to stop the anti-Mexican mob violence or were part of it. The local, state, and federal government were complicit in all of this; mayors, judges and governors were the ones asking for help in seizing control of their regions from people whose families, in some cases, had been there for generations. And in South Texas, part of this control included dispossessing Mexicans of their guns.
“Well into the twentieth century, the majority-white culture continued to utilize extra-legal violence against Mexicans as a means of asserting its sovereignty over the region,” historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb write in their academic journal article, “The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928.” Most of that region was the place that’d once been Mexico. “The lynching of Mexicans was one of the mechanisms by which Anglos consolidated their colonial control of the American west.”
Some of these lynch mobs carried Colts, too. And at the beginning of the Civil War, before Samuel Colt got increasingly accused of treason, he sold his guns to both the North and the South.
This made Samuel Colt extravagantly wealthy. He’d been buried in debt until Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 and Texas revolted because of it. Until then, he’d been trying to convince the world of the usefulness of his revolutionary weapon. But once Texas, and then the country, and then the world, saw the deadly advantage of firing as many shots in as little a time as possible, Colt made so much money, his mansion — named Armsmear — was the second largest in his home state of Connecticut. Only P.T. Barnum had a bigger home. Colt had so much money that when he died, his widow, Elizabeth, had a church built in his honor in Hartford. Colt Manufacturing Company is still headquartered nearby in West Hartford.
Today, the Church of the Good Shepherd is on the National Register of Historic Places. Elizabeth had the architect incorporate parts of the revolver into the church’s Gothic Revival design. Hammers, triggers, and cylinders are there in the archway. Carved into the stone, there’s a Colt revolver on the church’s porch.
“SOMETIMES I FEEL GUILTY for not being here enough,” Faith tells Veronica, sitting at their kitchen table.
Immediately after graduating from high school in 2019, Faith wanted to leave. Her parents convinced her to first attend Southwest Texas Junior College, there in Uvalde.
“OK, I guess,” she said. “I’m getting all my basics done in a year, and then I’m leaving.” When she did that, she quietly applied and got accepted to Texas State University — two hours away in San Marcos — then told her parents and Tess she was going. Almost immediately, Tess took over Faith’s old room.
Moving away for college was hard; you come from a small town, from a small, tight-knit family, and being apart takes some getting used to. To help ease that distance, Jerry and Veronica would send Faith photos of Tess. Photos of her playing softball, of her dancing, of her with Oliver.
“It was like watching her grow through pictures,” Faith says, “and not being there for some of the big things that she was going through.”
Tess loved whenever her big sister — Sissy, as she called her — came home. She’d be the first out the door to greet her. The one who carried Faith’s bags inside. Tess was the one who cried the most when Faith again left home. That’s part of the reason Tess and Faith spoke on the phone every day. “She was my mini-me,” Faith says.
In addition to inspiring her younger sister to play softball and second base, Faith was the reason Tess wanted to learn how to swim. She wanted to celebrate Sissy’s college graduation, about a year from now, by jumping into the San Marcos River that runs through campus. It’s a university tradition for graduates to jump into the river that’s always 72 degrees.
“She didn’t know how to swim,” Faith says, “so she was teaching herself.”
As Faith talks at the kitchen table, Veronica listens, nodding her head. Veronica says Tess learned how to swim on the Saturday before that Tuesday.
THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS that happen when there’s a mass shooting in your town.
The media arrives and stays for months. Family members of the slain come, too. As do people from surrounding towns, cities and even states. Florists come offering their help. Some of them are from places also broken by a mass shooting, so they know the town’s florists can’t keep up with the sudden demand.
Hotels are sold out for weeks. And because the infrastructure wasn’t designed for this, the streets are congested. There are SUVs from police departments across Texas that, here in Uvalde, because of all the questions of why cops waited so long to act at Robb Elementary, and why they’d waited even longer to give answers, adds to the simmering tension you can feel in your chest and throat.
If you live here, you won’t feel as safe as you once did. That feeling of something like that wouldn’t happen here will be gone. You’ll see neighbors change their opinions of guns. Some will embrace them. Others will never want to touch them again. In a similar way, some will find God. Others, being so close to evil and the suffering it brought, will feel lost.
If you’re from Uvalde, as clear as knowing the west side of town is where most Mexican and Mexican Americans live, you feel as if time has broken in two. The things that happened before May 24, that Tuesday, and the things that came after. It’s in the after that, whenever you tell someone where you’re from, they’ll almost immediately remember what happened there. They’ll ask you about it and, even years later, when you answer, you’ll still fight that urge to cry. The wound will always be there. The best you can hope for is that one day it won’t hurt as much.
As you drive around, you can see the signs of “Uvalde Strong” and “Pray for Uvalde” just about everywhere you look. On the windows of stores and fast-food restaurants. On decals placed on the back of cars, on T-shirts, and on the sidewalks, written in pastel-colored chalk, near the places of gathering.
Your town is full of people, trying to help by giving away things. A teenager holds a sign near a coffee shop on Main Street that says, “Free Carne Guisada.” At Town Square, across from the county courthouse whose front lawn has a granite monument saying Uvalde’s main street was once Jefferson Davis Highway, a boy walks around offering free bibles. A sign in Spanish, taped to a light post, near there, says there’s free therapy for the survivors.
Someone will write a corrido about the tragedy. Your eyes look swollen from the lack of sleep and the nightmares when you do sleep, but mostly from the crying. From the sadness of hearing mariachis, who traveled from San Antonio, sing and perform “Amor Eterno.” That song of loss and longing that makes it feel like your soul is being cut apart by a dull knife.
You hear the pain and anger in the voice of Jorge Barrera Lopez, the Brown Beret who, along with other members of the Chicano civil rights organization, traveled from San Antonio too. He tells you about Pharr — another small Texas town, right on the Rio Grande — and what happened there on February 6, 1971. Mexican and Mexican Americans gathered to denounce police brutality. During the protest, a deputy sheriff shot and killed 20-year-old Alfonso Loredo Flores. Nothing ever happened to the cop who pulled the trigger. Shot in the head, Flores died with his hands in his pockets.
“It just never ends,” Lopez says.
When there’s a mass shooting in your home, there will be a main memorial. Here, it’s at Robb Elementary. There, you see parents, holding their child’s hand, walking toward the school. With bloodshot eyes, they stare at the victims’ photos surrounded by wilted flowers and stuffed animals whose color has faded from being so long beneath the sun. Some visitors try to clean them as best as they can before the town manager tells them to leave it alone.
At that same memorial, someone places a Happy Meal box in front of each of the children’s photos. Because of the heat, some balloons next to those photos have popped. They once flew next to handwritten signs offering condolences and lamenting everything that’s happened.
“I’m sorry we all let you down,” one of those signs reads.
It’s a shattered town full of what sounds like people trying to catch their breath. You wonder if the person with loud screams and cries has lost a family member or friend. You can smell the burning of wax candles that, when the sun sets, try to brighten the darkness of this small South Texas town.
“JUST MOVE,” Faith tells Veronica and Jerry. They’re sitting in their kitchen, which is full of food and bottled water that friends and family have brought them.
Move from Uvalde is what Faith wanted. Maybe to San Marcos, to be with her as she finishes college. After a few years, maybe they can all move to the Dallas area or somewhere around Austin. Maybe even away from Texas. Move to a place where they don’t know where everything is. A place where people won’t know their name and everything that they’ve lost.
“I can’t,” Veronica answers. “This is where we brought Tess home. This is where I raised her.”
Inside Tess’ room are the things one would expect from a 10-year-old-girl that was deeply loved. A corkboard filled with thumbtacked photos of the two sisters and Tess with her friends. “I love you, Faith!!!!” Tess wrote in black marker on the lower left corner of the corkboard’s wooden frame.
The room has trophies and medals from sports she played. A bag full of softballs is on her dresser, next to her glove. Stuffed animals — a teal-colored octopus, a purple owl and a pig the size of a pillow — lie on her bed, atop a comforter full of butterflies in all colors and sizes. Tess’ softball bat pack rests on the floor in front of the closet full of the clothes she once wore. The money she earned selling bracelets with beads is still in the jar. She was saving money to visit Disney World again. Not far from that is a picture of Tess with her cousins from the day she learned how to swim.
Her Altuve jersey has been turned into a pillow and put inside a protective plastic. The family says they’ll carry it with them from now on, whenever they travel. They also say the Altuve poster will stay on her wall. It’s next to a floral arrangement made with Houston Astros colors.
Some things inside that room, they’ll give to family and some of Tess’ friends. They’ve been asking for things that were once hers. Things that, if they hold to their nose and take a deep, deep breath, still smell like her.
For now, this is Tess’ room, as close as possible to how she left it. Oliver, who, Faith says, is the reason Tess also wanted to attend Texas State and become a veterinarian, often lays in the middle of the bed. He lays there most of the time, like he is waiting for Tess. The family says they know it sounds crazy, but they think Oliver can still see her around the house.
“This is where our heart’s at,” Jerry says of Tess’ room, and their home, and their small South Texas town next to the now waterless Nueces River.
“After all this, I don’t think I can live here anymore,” Faith says.
She wants to leave and take her parents with her. Veronica and Jerry say they can’t. Everything that’s left of Tess is here.
OF THE 11 DEADLIEST MASS SHOOTINGS in this country, five of them have happened in Texas. The first of them, from atop a tower on the University of Texas campus in 1966, is considered the country’s first modern mass shooting. The second, inside a Luby’s Cafeteria in 1991, helped change the state’s strict gun laws. For years after that shooting in Killeen, one of those survivors, Suzanna Gratia Hupp, traveled the country telling her story. How she watched her parents die. How she’d left her gun in her car, afraid that if caught carrying it, she’d lose her chiropractor’s license. How the gunman wouldn’t have killed so many had she had her weapon. How she wasn’t upset at that gunman as much as she was at lawmakers who didn’t allow her to defend herself and her family. In 1996, Hupp was elected to the Texas House of Representatives as an unflinching proponent of gun rights.
The year prior, Governor George W. Bush signed a bill allowing Texas citizens to carry concealed handguns. In 1997, Bush signed an amendment removing that same law’s prohibitions against carrying concealed handguns at churches. Since then, and increasingly more recently, Texas gun laws have loosened. In 2021, Governor Greg Abbott signed a law that allows Texans to carry a handgun without a license or training. He called the bill the “strongest Second Amendment legislation in Texas history.” According to the Pew Research Center, there are 588,696 registered guns in Texas, the most of any state, and 45.7% of residents own a gun, which ranks 27th.
Three of Texas’ deadliest mass shootings have happened in the past five years: at a church at Sutherland Springs in 2017, at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, and at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. At the Sutherland and Uvalde shootings, the gunman used an AR-15. Colt bought the production rights to that weapon in 1959. Colt’s patent expired in 1977, and other companies now mass-produce similar models.
AS VERONICA AND FAITH walk onto the baseball field, near the eastern town limits of Uvalde, they hold each other’s hand. Along with Jerry, who walks beside them, they’ve been doing more of that recently. Holding each other, trying to figure out how to live through the days.
They wear matching gray T-shirts with the Bandits logo on them. Three weeks and two days after that Tuesday, they line up next to the other families along the first-base line. All of them here, at an all-star game ceremony, to honor the lives of the 19 students and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary. That number is higher if you count the husband who died of a heart attack two days after his wife, who was Tess’ teacher, was killed. Even higher if you count those still here, though a large part of them is gone.
“That day has never ended,” Veronica says. She wears a button with a photo of Tess over her heart. Tess is smiling. “She was happy,” Veronica says. “She made us happy.”
In the past 17 days, Uvalde has held 21 funerals. Most were held in the same two churches. Most of the dead were buried in the same cemetery 3½ miles from the baseball fields. The same procession route, the same families, the same worthless attempts to turn off the bad thoughts.
The last of the funerals was at 10 in the morning on the day of this ceremony. “It’s hard,” Veronica says, “but we’ll get through this.” She wears dark aviator sunglasses. She says Tess wouldn’t want to see her cry.
Uvalde Little League officials considered canceling the all-star tournament. That was around the time when teams across the country, as far away as Hawaii, filled the league’s Facebook page with pictures of kids playing in honor of the Robb Elementary students and teachers. They wore Uvalde patches on their jerseys and stickers on their helmets. They said prayers and observed moments of silence.
In small towns like Uvalde, Little League binds the community. That’s why Uvalde officials ultimately chose to continue the tournament as planned. Maybe it could, for at least a game, bring people together. Maybe, again, kids could run around and play until they got tired and fell asleep next to the fields. Still, it felt jarring to play games in a town wrecked by grief. A town that is broken by unanswered questions.
Long after Robb Elementary has been destroyed — which it will be because there’s no need for a physical reminder of the time when kids called for the police to help them and they didn’t come — those questions will linger.
If this was the school on the white side of town, would the police have acted differently?
That’s the main question. It hardly matters to those asking it that a sizable percentage of Uvalde police officers are Latino. Because of the painful history: That’s why that question will haunt this place. It’ll be here forever. In the same way, those who were at the Uvalde civic center that night will say they’ll never forget the agonized screams of people who just found out they’d lost so much.
“She left us a lot,” Veronica says of Tess. She sometimes holds a small piece of cloth that’s been folded over several times. It’s what’s left of the baby blanket Tess snuck in and out of her backpack so often the thread started to run. She kept it, hoping to give it to Tess whenever she became a mother. “We can hear her voice every day,” Veronica says.
In the days after, the Matas found a TikTok account Tess kept hidden because she wasn’t allowed to have one. The account had over 200 unpublished drafts of Tess smiling and talking, dancing and laughing. Along with the selfies she took on Veronica and Jerry’s phones when they weren’t looking, Tess left them a sort of digital diary that they can look at whenever they miss her too much.
Jerry thanks God for that. He says that’s helped. He says they’ll probably always have anger about the police, and the lack of gun control, and everything else, but that won’t bring Tess back. They hold each other. They laugh and smile whenever he, or Veronica, or Faith, talk about Tess. But because some moments are easier than others — moments when all of them think leaving might just be easier — sometimes those same memories make them cry.
“We want to celebrate her,” Veronica says.
That’s why they’re here, for the ceremony in this park where, since it hasn’t rained since the day after that Tuesday, the palm trees look dry and the grass is browning. It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and already just over half of Texas is under an extreme drought. Just some 20 miles up the road in Concan, the town has shut off its water from midnight to 6 in the morning, trying to conserve what they have. With climbing temperatures, there’s the ever-present threat of rolling blackouts, as Texas’ power grid struggles to meet the energy demand.
But those problems, right now, feel distant. One of those things that come after trying to survive. Right now, Uvalde is here, on this field, in this aching moment. Standing here, it’s hard to say this is a moment of healing. Even long after these games have ended, healing will not come. There is something horribly familiar in this truth, something horribly familiar about Uvalde. I felt it as soon as I arrived. It’s in all the spoken parts: the connection forged by our shared Spanish language, letting me closer to all the pain, the pain that I recognized from my own home in El Paso. It’s in all the quiet parts too: the past that’s never gone, and the deep, unsaid fears that your broken home might never recover, the worry that Texas, and this country, will eventually rip the hope right out you.
None of this had to be this way. That’s what it feels like, standing here. Not the past, not the present, and not the seemingly inevitable tomorrow. It all could have been different. Avoided. We didn’t have to grow up alongside the Nueces River, listening to songs and stories of the violence all around us. But we did.
The ceremony continues, and a man, standing in front of the pitcher’s mound, plays the national anthem on his melancholic trumpet. About a half-mile to his right is the hospital where some of the victims died. The Border Patrol station is a half-mile toward his left. Behind him, just past the center-field fence, the United States flag flies at half-staff.
“We would like to remember the 21 individuals who we lost that day,” a voice over the PA system says.
Nevaeh Bravo. Jackie Cazares. Ellie Garcia. Uziyah Garcia. Amerie Garza. Jayce Luevanos. Maranda Mathis. Alithia Ramirez. Maite Rodriguez. Annabell Rodriguez. Layla Salazar. Jailah Silguero. Rojelio Torres. Irma Garcia. Eva Mireles.
“And our 2022 Little Leaguers,” the voice says.
#6, José Flores Jr. #13, Xavier Lopez. #2, Makenna Elrod. #2 Alexandria Rubio. #3 Tess Mata. #4 Eliahna Torres.
Each of their Little League photos hangs outside the dugouts. All of them in uniform, holding a bat. All of them smiling. All of them just 10 years old.
“You’ve got to remember their names,” Veronica says, holding onto her Faith.
As the Matas walk back to their car, the mother of another victim is carried back to hers. Her family tries to comfort her, tries to quiet her high-pitched cries. They can’t. Her face and body shake violently and uncontrollably.
“It’s painful,” Jerry says. He forces a smile. “But we can never forget.”
If there’s a more unjust, heartbreaking scene than this, may we all be spared of it.