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Día de los Muertos takes on new meaning in Uvalde

Verónica G. Cárdenas
The altar for Jackie Cazares is seen next to her grave on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Other family photos of deceased relatives are placed as part of the altar.

Día de los Muertos, the holiday that honors loved ones who have passed, resonated in Uvalde with a deeper degree of tragedy this year after the community lost 19 children and two teachers in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last May.

Families and friends, in this predominantly Latino community, tried their best to put their pain aside to honor tradition and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have gone – and the lives that were taken by the gunman.

Dozens gathered Wednesday afternoon at the Hillcrest Cemetery, where many of the victims are buried, for a quiet annual mass in both English and Spanish.

And many families set up altars covered in traditional marigolds and their children’s favorite things beside their graves.

“The myth, the legend is today they are here with us,” said Javier Cazares, the father of 9-year-old Jackie Cazares – who was killed in the shooting.

Cazares choked up as he talked about the holiday and his daughter’s colorful ofrenda– full of stuffed animals, photos with family members and some of her favorite snacks to share.

“They’re here, dancing around, having a good time with their families,” he said.

April Elrod lost her 10-year-old daughter Makenna in the shooting and made sure her daughter’s altar included Takis chips and Dum-Dum lollipops.

Verónica G. Cárdenas
Makenna Lee Elrod’s altar can be seen on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

“It’s the first time we’ve set one up. We’re Baptists,” she said. “It’s not a holiday that we normally celebrate but we felt this year that we wanted to celebrate with the other families.”

Makenna’s altar also included butterflies and pictures of her playing softball and riding a horse.

Ana Rodriguez, mother of 10-year-old Maite Rodrgiuez, set her daughter’s ashes atop her altar next to a pair of Maite’s signature green Converse sneakers.

Hundreds of Uvalde residents had trickled into the cemetery by mid-afternoon.

As darkness fell, mariachis began to play and belt out ballads into the night as most people were in no hurry to leave the cemetery and the souls they came to celebrate.

One family settled in to watch the Houston Astros play in the World Series from a TV they set up. Another family watched the movie “Coco” about a Mexican boy who has an adventure on Día de los muertos.

Verónica G. Cárdenas
A mariachi group plays during Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

In the Uvalde town square, there was more food and music organized by lifelong resident Katie Fulton.

"All my life I've lived here and I don't think there's been any kind of celebrations like this,” she said.

Fulton described how people in Uvalde often travel to nearby cities like San Antonio to join in their Día de los Muertos celebrations. This year, they could do it at home.

Verónica G. Cárdenas
People are seen at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery celebrating their dead on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.

And Fulton hoped that for this one evening, the community, torn apart by the shooting and the controversy that has followed, was able to unite around the holiday.

“We can all just be one with this celebration,” she said.

A thought echoed by Cazares, who organized the cemetery event.

“We’re all hurting but at the same time, we’re happy because we’re here together,” he said.

Edited by Amy Isackson

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules
As TPR's news director, Katz leads the organization’s news and journalism efforts, overseeing the newsroom’s day-to-day management and the development of a strategic vision for the news division. He also serves on the organization’s executive leadership team.