Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Día de los Muertos, the holiday that honors loved ones who have passed, resonated in Uvalde, Texas 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 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 Jacklyn 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 her beloved Takis chips and Dum-Dum lollipops for people to try.
“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.”
Butterflies adorned framed photos of Makenna playing softball and riding a horse.
Ana Rodriguez, mother of 10-year-old Maite Rodríguez, 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 on a TV they set up. Another family watched the movie “Coco”, about a Mexican boy who has an adventure on Dia de los muertos.
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.
And Fulton hoped that for this one evening, the community, torn apart by the shooting and the controversy that has followed, could unite around the holiday.
“We can all just be one with this celebration,” she said.
A thought echoed by Cazares, Jacklyn’s dad, 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