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Mourning a Mexican-American tragedy, under the shade of pecan trees

The trees that George Garza planted as a new teacher in the 1960s today offer shade at the memorial to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Adrian Florido
/
NPR
The trees that George Garza planted as a new teacher in the 1960s today offer shade at the memorial to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

UVALDE, Texas — Josue "George" Garza could never have predicted that the baby pecan trees he planted on the front lawn of Robb Elementary School would, almost 60 years later, provide shade from the searing Texas sun to thousands of people who would come to mourn an unthinkable tragedy.

And yet it's fitting that it's beneath those trees that mourners have built the sprawling memorial that honors the 19 children and two teachers — almost all Mexican-American — who were gunned down in a classroom steps away.

It's fitting because when he planted them in 1965, George Garza, then a 5th-grade teacher at Robb Elementary, knew the trees would help Mexican-Americans of Uvalde, Texas, feel better connected to their school and to each other.

The saplings had been dug up from the banks of a nearby river. Garza, one of Robb's only Mexican-American teachers, convinced the principal at the time to let him plant them because he wanted Robb to be just as beautiful as the school for white children two miles away. Uvalde, Texas, was a segregated town. Robb Elementary was the school for Mexicans. And it was in bad shape.

Garza raised money and donations to make it better — a basketball court, a track. He paid students a quarter each to water the new pecan trees and protect them from vandalism.

"To have a good educational atmosphere, you have to like your school," Garza, now 83, recalled recently. "I told the students, 'This is our school! It's ours!' And they began to take pride in it."

His efforts won him the regard of the school's Mexican parents, who also relied on him to help translate from Spanish when they needed to speak with the principal or other white, English-speaking teachers. But Garza also began to sense that he was earning the principal's resentment. He felt undermined, Garza recalled, and when, in 1969, the principal found out that Garza was taking graduate courses, he accused the young teacher of trying to take his job.

"He said, 'You're a double-crosser,' " Garza recalled. Toward the end of the 1970 school year, Garza got a letter saying his teaching contract would not be renewed.

As a young teacher in the 1960s, Josue "George" Garza worked to improve conditions at Robb Elementary, which in segregated Uvalde, Texas, was the school for Mexican-American children.
Adrian Florido / NPR
/
NPR
As a young teacher in the 1960s, Josue "George" Garza worked to improve conditions at Robb Elementary, which in segregated Uvalde, Texas, was the school for Mexican-American children.

Uvalde's Mexican-American parents learned about this and – angry about losing one of their only advocates – tried to convince the school board to save Garza's job. The school board refused.

"That's the way they thought of us," said Olga Muñoz Rodriquez, who was a young mother at the time, and was involved in the fight. "They didn't think, 'These are parents who care about their children, or a teacher they respect, or who want to improve their children's education.' We were just Mexicans."

Parents, furious, staged a walkout, pulling hundreds of their children out of school in protest.

It was one of the first times Mexican-Americans in Uvalde protested against entrenched racism on a large scale. They demanded more Hispanic teachers, counselors, and programs that would help Spanish-speaking children learn English before they started school to keep them from falling behind English-speaking children.

They got none of what they asked for, and within weeks, the school walkout fizzled. But Elvia Perez, a senior at Uvalde High School who became one of the protest's leaders, said that, still, it was a turning point for political engagement among Uvalde's Mexican-American community.

"That was when people began to stand up," she said, "and demand that their voices be heard, and that their needs be met."

After not having his contract renewed, Garza taught at another school district and would later serve as mayor of Uvalde.

The fight for equality in Uvalde's schools would last for decades, the subject of lawsuits that would eventually force the town to integrate its schools.

Today, Uvalde is more than 80 percent Latino. All of its public schools — not just Robb Elementary — serve mostly Mexican-Americans. But now, unlike in the 1960s and 70s, most of its teachers are Mexican-American too.

George Garza's son, Ronald Garza, who is now a county commissioner, called Uvalde's teachers a source of the town's pride.

"We're growing our own now," he said. "We're having people born and raised here in Uvalde becoming teachers and role models."

On May 24, two of those role models – Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia — were killed by a rampaging gunman along with 19 of Uvalde's children.

The district superintendent has said students will never return to Robb Elementary.

It's a painful thing to hear for the people who fought to make Robb a school that Uvalde's Mexican-American community could be proud of. And for the people who know the role it played in the town's fight for equality.

But closing the school is also, they recognize, probably for the best.

"If I were a parent of one of those children, I would not want to go back to that school," Olga Muñoz Rodriquez said.

Some Uvalde residents have said they hope the school will be demolished, and the site turned into a memorial park. But they'd like to see Garza's pecan trees saved – a reminder of Robb Elementary's proud Mexican-American history.

The radio version of this story originally aired on May 31, 2022.

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