Starting with 10-year-old Amerie Jo Garza, Uvalde begins to bury its dead
This week, services are planned for 11 children and teacher Irma Garcia. The first was Amerie Jo Garza, 10, buried Tuesday in a silver casket.
“She was sassy. She was always laughing, smart and just a beautiful little girl,” said an aunt, Angie Ortega, 56, as she walked toward the town’s Catholic church for the funeral.
She and her 12-year-old niece, Zaedy Ortega, both wore purple T-shirts that featured Amerie Jo’s image and said, “Forever in our hearts.” Purple was Amerie Jo’s favorite color.
“We’re just trying to hang on through this day and put her to rest,” Ortega said before entering Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where most of the funerals will be held.
Uvalde’s mayor filed in after them, followed by the county’s chief executive and scores of others. A silver hearse was received by pallbearers wearing purple boutonnieres and Amerie Jo’s name inscribed on their sleeves in purple.
Inside, Father Eduardo Morales — an Uvalde native — urged mourners not to dwell on Amerie Jo’s death, but rather to celebrate her life.
“They wanted to remember Amerie as a joyful kid,” said Erika Santiago, 37, whose 11-year-old son, Adriel, was once Amerie Jo’s classmate.
By the time the funeral procession left for the cemetery, hundreds of people surrounded the gravesite. They lined up to pay their respects next to dozens of white balloons shaped like doves. Some of Amerie Jo’s fellow Girl Scouts came in uniform. A reception followed at the local American Legion Hall.
An aunt, Desirae Garza, 33, recalled how intelligent Amerie Jo was — “like talking to a mini adult.” Just last week, Amerie Jo had come over to Garza’s house to swim in the pool with her cousins.
“My family is crushed. It shouldn’t be this way,” Garza said after the funeral. “More should have been done.”
Garza lives down the street from Robb Elementary School. The campus is still a crime scene this week, with investigators darting past yellow police tape. Outside, hundreds of people — mostly from other Texas cities, but also from California, Florida and New York — flocked to a growing memorial featuring life-size photos of the victims and piles of flowers and stuffed animals.
“Everyone is off track. They’re scarred,” Amerie Jo’s cousin Sonny Galindo, 36, said after the funeral.
When Galindo noticed a state trooper posted at the church door, he couldn’t help but think of how police had failed to protect the school.
“Now that this happened, they want to have security everywhere,” he said. “If we’d had security in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Yrma Fuentes, 75, attended the funeral because she has known Amerie Jo’s family for years.
“I’m mourning with my neighbors, with my humble town,” Fuentes said. “I’ve lived here all my life. What hurts my neighbors, my community, hurts me.”
Amerie Jo’s great-aunt Gloria Gonzalez said she appreciated the message of Father Morales and funeral home staff at the gravesite: “Support all the families.”
Casket maker Trey Ganem met with the families, and his company, SoulShine Industries, donated caskets for every child except the one whose family wanted to design its own.
Out of respect for the families, Ganem declined to discuss specific casket designs.
“There was TikTok, softball, horses, dinosaurs, hiking,” said Ganem, who drove the last few caskets 220 miles west from his company’s base in Edna, Texas, over the holiday weekend. “One girl wanted to be a marine biologist, so we put whales and dolphins on hers.”
Most of the children‘s funerals will be open casket, Ganem said. But for those that are closed, he said, “we put their picture on the outside of the casket. With that, the families can see their child for a last time.”
Jimmy Lucas, president of the Texas Funerals Directors Assn., drove to Uvalde from Fort Worth to assist the town’s two funeral homes Tuesday.
“While we’re funeral directors and we deal with loss and tragedy every day, this is above and beyond,” Lucas said. “Just the sheer number of services.”
Many people have volunteered to cover funeral expenses for the victims, including local companies and an anonymous donor who gave $175,000.
A gunman killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio, on May 24, 2022.
Some services will be held at the funeral homes rather than at church, including the one scheduled Thursday for Eliahana Torres, 10. Her family called her “a master of jests who loved making people laugh,” but who was also “nurturing and always putting others before herself,” according to her obituary.
Eliahana’s casket — also designed by Ganem — will feature pictures of some of her favorite things: TikTok, softball and yellow slime, said uncle Rudy Aguero.
Aguero, 47, who works at the front desk of an emergency room in San Antonio, is accustomed to other people’s tragedies. But he said that the children’s deaths still seemed surreal, that the week anniversary of the shooting “approached so fast.”
“We still have the most difficult days ahead of us,” Aguero said as he stood with relatives on his stepfather’s front lawn, near a purple ribbon on the mailbox signifying that they were among those in mourning.
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Eliahana’s casket will be open for her funeral.
“We finally get to see and say goodbye to her,” Aguero said.
He has been having trouble sleeping. He’s been angry but also plagued by thoughts of his niece’s final moments with the gunman.
“What keeps me up is not knowing: Was she the first? Was she in the middle? Was she scared? What were her final thoughts?” Aguero said.
Police waited outside Robb Elementary for more than an hour before moving in, believing that the gunman, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was barricaded inside and no longer shooting, officials said. Police have faced criticism for not confronting Ramos sooner, and the U.S. Justice Department announced Sunday that it would review law enforcement’s response.
By Tuesday, local police had stopped cooperating with state investigators, according to law enforcement sources.
In this city of 16,000 people, almost everyone knows one — and often many — of the victim’s families and plans to attend at least one of the funerals.
When I found out that the person who killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, was named Salvador Rolando Ramos, my stomach dropped.
“Somehow or another we’re connected to all of them,” Ana Santos said as she distributed water to those visiting the memorial at Robb Elementary over the weekend.
Santos, 62, worked in the school’s cafeteria: “We knew all the little faces from the register.”
One of her former co-workers is Nelda Lugo, grandmother of 9-year-old victim Eliahna “Ellie” Garcia. Santos planned to attend Ellie’s funeral next Monday — two days after what would have been the girl’s 10th birthday. Santos said that Lugo had told her: “I won’t believe it until I see her in the coffin.”
Father Morales has been meeting with families and has counselors from Catholic Charities available to help for the next six months. He’s also heard from hospital staff traumatized by the attack and law enforcement officers who responded to the scene.
Morales, 62, has served as parish priest for the last six years, burying fewer children in that time than were killed in the May 24 shooting. On Sunday, he met President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden when they joined his Mass, and blessed the president at his request. On Monday, Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, who Morales said was an old friend, called to check on him.
Morales plans to officiate the children’s funeral Masses, as well as a combined Mass on Wednesday for teacher and mother of four Irma Garcia, who was killed in the shooting, and her husband, Joe Garcia, who died of a heart attack two days later. The couple grew up in Uvalde and were high school sweethearts, married at the church 25 years ago.
“I’m doing funerals for people I’ve known all my life,” Morales said, including at least one girl killed in the shooting who had celebrated her first Communion with him.
Morales plans to include a message in each of the funeral homilies: “Don’t celebrate the death — celebrate the life, the blessings these children brought, even in their short lives.”
After the public spotlight shifts from Uvalde, the priest worries about his community’s ongoing private suffering, especially those closest to the victims.
“My concern is that all of this is going to come to an end,” he said. “Everyone’s going to leave, and we’re going to try to go back to normal. I hope we don’t forget the families.”
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