Stories of struggle and strength from two Uvalde student survivors
The one year anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde is fast approaching.
At legislative hearings and in calls for greater gun control, the names and faces of the 19 children killed in Uvalde have become familiar to many. But almost a year after that school shooting, the survivors and their families have worked to recover some sort of normalcy – though nothing will ever be the same.
Edgar Sandoval is a longtime South Texas resident and New York Times reporter who’s spent much of the past two months with two of the survivors from room 112. He told the Texas Standard that the parents of Mayah Zamora and Noah Orona have worked with doctors and therapists in the immediate wake of the shooting, but as time passes they worry how the children will process this trauma.
Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Now, a very powerful story you’ve written for The Times. Can you talk first about taking on this assignment? How did you go about trying to profile the recovery of these two young people and their family?
Edgar Sandoval: Well, thank you. Yeah. I mean, from the very beginning of this tragedy, we wanted to profile what it’s like to survive, you know, being injured by a weapon like this – a weapon that is really meant for war. And the family of Noah Orona was initially receptive, but tentative to talk to us. At first, used to badger them at their house, leave them notes. And then we started exchanging text messages for a while and phone calls. We even met in person once. But there was a little hesitation because the family were concerned that if they spoke too soon, they might take away some of the microphone to the families of the children and the teachers who died. So they were really concerned about doing that.
But over time, as you mentioned, as the year gets closer that marks the tragedy, the families knew they also had a story to share – that they’re going through a different kind of pain. When it came to the girl, we made an approach to them more recently. I spoke to a local politician who put me in touch with a lawyer and then the family. And they also had the same motivation – they were concerned to kind of, you know, take the families’ spotlight in a way, but they also wanted to share what it’s been like to recover mentally and physically.
Can you say briefly more about why they wanted to share their stories with you?
Yeah, I think, you know, oftentimes we, rightly so, focus on the victims, but we kind of forget about the survivors. You know, people just perceived that they were the lucky ones, that they survived, you know? But in reality, they go through this unspeakable pain psychologically or physically, and the kids have changed. They’re not the same. You know, they have different children now. And I think that they wanted to share that story in a more nuanced and detailed way. Something you can’t really do with that, you know, ten minute interview and a radio or TV station. So they were willing to give us some access into their private lives.
Well, let’s get on to this profile that you wrote: two survivors from the shooting, Noah and Mayah. Maybe we can touch on Mayah a little bit more first. How badly was she injured and how has she recovered since?
Mayah was severely injured. I mean, if you can imagine, she was shot seven times – including her chest, both hands. You know, other parts of her body – she still has shrapnel in her body and they’re trying to remove it slowly as time goes by. But when you meet them, you know, when you meet her, you just see a shy girl. You don’t really perceive that there’s this torment going on inside her.
But once you spend some time with her and her family, you get to peel the layers of that trauma. And, you know, even the physical bodies are also slowly recovering. Her right hand is visibly injured. They had to reconstruct her right hand, basically because this powerful bullet just shredded her flesh. And she’s really wary of strangers. You know, when you knock on the door and it’s not expected, she would just run under the table or go to her room. That’s her new reaction to protect herself. So every time I would go to the house, I had to announce myself, you know, beforehand and let them know that I was showing up.
Well, what about her demeanor? I mean, does she seem relatively happy? Was she reluctant to talk with you and what did she choose to share with you?
She was really friendly, you know, and we’d be talking about how she really loves going on TikTok, you know, sharing selfies and dancing. She likes to talk to friends. You know, when you go to the house, she will show us her paintings. She also likes to paint, which is inspired by the painter Bob Ross, made famous on YouTube. So she’s got a jovial side to her, you know?
But there was this one time when she was playing a video game and her mom got really concerned. She said “is that a video game that involves weapons?” And it was. But it was a sci-fi game with like interesting, colorful characters with these laser weapons. And Mayah is trying to explain to her mom that this is not a real weapon, this is just a fantasy world. So they all have to walk that balance, you know, and it’s hard to avoid when you go to the movies. You know, they have to be conscious not to see a movie that would have some gun violence, which is impossible to avoid.
Her family moved to San Antonio. How has that worked out for them?
I mean, even though they’re far away, the trauma really follows them, you know? But they’re here mostly because they want to focus on her health. She goes to therapy almost every day, physical therapy and mental therapy. And even though they’re thinking about returning one day, whenever they do go back, I mean, their hearts just sank because they can’t forget what happened, you know? And going back, it’s a reminder every time.
Let’s shift to Noah. He was severely injured. Could you talk about that and what his dad told you about Noah’s recovery?
Yeah, Noah. Similarly, you know, he’s also trying to cope and trying to, day-by-day, just keep going. And Noah was a little bit more open about that day. You know, the kids know what happened. They don’t talk about it too much. But we had a short conversation when I asked him what was the most difficult part of the last year. And he quietly, you know, cast his eyes down and said in a whisper, “the shooting and the therapy.” And they were just two quick words. But that explains so much of what he was thinking, you know, that they really can’t forget what happened. He does share with his mom bits and pieces about what happened that day. And he’s really proud that his teacher literally took a bullet for him. We went with him when he stopped by Uvalde Plaza where people go to honor the victims. It was the first time he paid his respects to his former teacher.
Well, his family had tried to keep him sort of shielded somewhat from a lot of the tributes and memorials and stuff?
They tried. It’s impossible because when you drive around Uvalde, I mean, reminders are everywhere and signs of “Uvalde Strong” are everywhere – you know, the beautiful murals are all over downtown. There’s crosses set up at the elementary school and also in the plaza. So it’s challenging. But I think earlier this year they decided that it was time to be more open about it and kind of confront, in their own quiet way, what had happened.
You know, we should point out Noah was injured here. He recovered. Has he fully recovered from those injuries?
Not fully recovered. I mean, he was shot once in the back and the bullet exited his torso shoulder blade in that area. And he joined a basketball team recently because he wanted to test his body. He doesn’t score a lot of baskets, you know, but it is a way for him to get around kids his age and start moving his body slowly. And also. Yeah, he just wants to win some games, too. He, you know, he won a recent game earlier this year and he was really happy about that.
The Orona family, Noah’s family, they’re still in Uvalde, though Noah is now in private school. How is the family doing overall?
I mean, they’re concerned for their son. They know it’s going to be a long road and they’re a little bit older than the average parents. So they are concerned about the long term future for Noah. You know, sometimes dark thoughts also consume them and they think “what would happen in ten years when he’s 20 and I’m 70.” So, you know, they’re thinking ahead and focusing on the now. You know, they know that Noah can be just acting like a normal boy and then one day he can just, you know, everything can be coming rushing back in.
In the meantime, you’ve been covering hearings at the Texas Capitol where many families from Uvalde are pushing for tougher legislation on gun control. Can you tell us a little bit about where that stands?
Yeah, so we spent a really long day yesterday with some of the family members. They were waiting about 10 hours to testify before a committee on gun safety. And when they finally were able to get a chance to testify, it was just really a painful, long list of tragic tales. You know, they understand there’s an uphill battle, but they just want to go on the record and say where they stand, and they’ll come back next year and the next year and the next session until, you know, they get the change they want.
Do they feel like they’re making progress at all in this session?
They feel that this session is going to be definitely a challenge, but they feel that they’re going to move, you know, an inch at a time. Perhaps it’s going to be a long fight for them. This is the fight of their lives.
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