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Uvalde's history is marred with struggle. Now it tries to heal again

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The fortitude of Uvalde, Texas, is being tested by an unrelenting pace of visitations, funerals and burials. Many longtime residents say the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School has shattered the town of about 16,000. It was once known for its rich history and tranquil living. They say Uvalde's path to healing will be a long one, as NPR's Claudia Grisales reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'll see you later.

DIANA BONNET: Blessings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you.

BONNET: I'll get back with you.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Retired teacher Diana Bonnet is delivering vibrantly colored homemade quilts to the Children's Advocacy Center in Uvalde.

BONNET: We've already given out 60 quilts since this happened.

GRISALES: The Bluebonnet Center that counsels children facing trauma is now overwhelmed with requests. Bonnet is on a frantic mission to get the quilts to every hurting child through her program, Quilts of Grace. Bonnet was a fourth-grade teacher at Robb Elementary School in the 1990s. She is now haunted by her connections to the school shooting.

BONNET: A little at a time, I started realizing, that's my friend's granddaughter. That's another friend's grandson. That's another - and my husband lost his cousin.

GRISALES: The 70-year-old's family has lived here for three generations. She shares a common thread with many longtime residents still struggling to make sense of the shooting. That includes Virginia Davis, who moved here as a high schooler in the 1940s and is now the longtime archivist at the town's El Progreso Memorial Library.

VIRGINIA DAVIS: Looking out here and looking at all the little kids going by is so precious, and I have a lot of great-grandchildren, and you just can't imagine something like that happening to them.

GRISALES: Today, Davis is part of a group called El Progreso that founded the library more than a century ago. It's set among Uvalde's trademark oak trees. The town was originally named for the Spanish word for those trees.

DAVIS: The first name the founders gave to it was Encino.

GRISALES: Its history also includes a town name change in the 1800s, to honor a Spanish-born Mexican general turned governor, Juan de Ugalde. But an English misspelling changed the name. And now it sounds as diverse as the community itself.

DAVIS: I've heard a lot of different pronunciations.

GRISALES: That includes oo-vahl-deh, you-vahl-dee and you-val-dee. The pronunciations can reflect a family's background. It also ties into the town's troubled racial divide. An old railroad forced Latinos and whites to live separate lives on opposite sides of the town. And many push for change.

ELEAZAR LUGO: I've been very active in politics, trying to get the community, the raza, motivated.

GRISALES: That's 71-year-old Eleazar Lugo, who went to Robb Elementary as a child, like most Latinos of the community at the time. Lugo is one of the last surviving members of a Uvalde group who protested around the state for better educational access for the Mexican American Youth Organization in the 1960s.

LUGO: Well, we were just showing force that we were against the way the school system was being to the Mexican American. They dealt us a secondhand card.

GRISALES: But Lugo says that protest spirit largely left the town 40 years ago.

LUGO: Generations that followed after, I'd say, 1980 - nobody really did anything to motivate the people to see if they could change things.

GRISALES: Uvalde began as a farming community but now has seen a mix of industry jobs come into town, including many fast food employers offering lower-paying hourly wages. Lugo and his wife, Maria, have been scrambling to volunteer everywhere possible, including their Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where many of the funerals for victims have been held. This past week, he helped grill burgers with other retired workers to serve 700 meals to the town. But even with all that volunteering, Lugo is not hopeful the town will heal. He recently talked with a friend who asked if a parent ever gets over the loss of a child. Lugo says no.

LUGO: Eventually, it'll ease off, but you'll never get over it.

GRISALES: Back outside the Children's Advocacy Center, Diana Bonnet says part of Uvalde's charm has been its feeling of safety. But that is gone now.

BONNET: That's what we need to get back. We need to get the safety back. And, oh, that's going to be long term.

GRISALES: That's what keeps Bonnet focused on her Quilts of Grace program that she hopes can play a part in the community's healing. But she worries for the next wave of trauma when the community learns exactly what went wrong to allow a shooter to take the lives of 19 children and two teachers.

BONNET: There's going to be another level of healing. It's just going to be difficult.

GRISALES: But Bonnet is holding out hope her town can heal, even if it takes just one quilt at a time. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Uvalde, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.