Robb Elementary's History Of Mexican-American Activism : Consider This from NPR So many people in Uvalde, Texas have a shared history. Some of that history runs right through Robb Elementary School, a place that was part of the Mexican-American community's struggle for racial equality.

NPR's Vanessa Romo spoke with Eulalio Diaz, Jr. He was the coronor on duty when a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers at the school. Diaz also went to Robb Elementary and knew a lot of the victims' families. And NPR's Adrian Florido has the story of Robb Elementary's role in the fight for Mexican-American equality.

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Robb Elementary School and Uvalde's History of Mexican-American Activism

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Uvalde is the kind of town where you still know people you went to elementary school with. That's what made May 24 so hard for Eulalio Diaz Jr.

EULALIO DIAZ JR: I know both teachers, their husbands. I know probably three-quarters of the kids and their families or their grandparents. They're connected. They're cousins. It's just that type of community, and it's close.

SHAPIRO: Diaz spoke to NPR reporter Vanessa Romo in Uvalde, where he's justice of the peace. The town is so small that he is also the de facto coroner. That's why the district attorney called him on May 24 and asked him to head for Robb Elementary School.

DIAZ: And I was informed at that time that there was probably roughly 16 to 17 victims in the school, and most of them were children. So again, at that time, you cannot believe what you're hearing.

SHAPIRO: It's not only that Diaz knew a lot of the victims' families - he went to Robb Elementary himself. And one of the teachers who was killed there, Irma Garcia, was his classmate in high school.

DIAZ: She was one year younger than me through junior high and high school.

SHAPIRO: Diaz also knew her husband, Joe. Years ago, they worked together at the only grocery store in town. Two days after his wife Irma was shot, Joe Garcia died of a heart attack. When Diaz heard the news...

DIAZ: At that point, I was just devastated. Now I feel terrible for the family. It just keeps getting worse and worse.


SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - so many people in Uvalde have a shared history, and some of that history runs right through Robb Elementary School - a place that was part of the Mexican American community's struggle for racial equality.


SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Thursday, June 2.


SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Almost every victim in Uvalde was Mexican American. That reflects the town, which is mostly Mexican American, too. But that wasn't always true. Uvalde used to be a mostly white town. But even half a century ago, Robb Elementary School was known in town as a school with mostly Mexican American students, and it played a central role in the fight for Mexican American equality. NPR's Adrian Florido picks up the story from here.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: I'll start with Josue Garza. He goes by George.


GEORGE GARZA: Good morning.

FLORIDO: I met him at his house a few blocks from Robb Elementary. He's 83 now. But in 1965, he was a brand-new Mexican American teacher at Robb.

G GARZA: It was a typical Mexican school.

FLORIDO: By which he means it was in bad shape - no landscaping, no playgrounds for the kids - a white principal, he says, who said there was no money for that stuff.

G GARZA: They wouldn't pay for a penny for anything.

FLORIDO: So Mr. Garza started raising money and donations for a basketball court and a running track. And he asked the principal for permission to plant three-foot baby pecan trees.

G GARZA: Well, who's going to water them? I'll take care of it, sir. And I assigned three or four trees to every student, and I would give them a quarter for them to water the trees, take care of it, not let anybody vandalize it. My idea was to make the school look like the white schools.

FLORIDO: Uvalde in the late '60s was a segregated agricultural town. Its white residents, farmers and business owners lived on the east side and sent their kids to Dalton Elementary. The Mexicans, many of them farm labor, lived on the west side and sent their kids to Robb.

OLGA MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: In those years, you could drive by Dalton Elementary on the Anglo side of town, and it was beautifully landscaped. The grounds were kept. You know, they had paved driveways.

FLORIDO: Author Olga Munoz Rodriguez was a young mother in the late '60s.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: Then you walked to Robb - it was very obvious that the maintenance of the schools was different.

FLORIDO: Robb Elementary's principal and almost all of its teachers were white and spoke only English. The parents were all Mexican or Mexican American. Many spoke only Spanish. So they celebrated George Garza's arrival as a fifth-grade teacher.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: George Garza was approached by many parents that didn't speak English. And he would go to Mr. Shannon, the principal, and be a translator for the parents.

FLORIDO: They complained about the school's conditions, about teachers who spanked their children for speaking Spanish. They had lots of complaints.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: So that was something that the principal was unhappy with.

FLORIDO: George Garza remembers that the principal started to feel undermined by Garza's efforts to improve the school and that he finally turned on Mr. Garza when he started taking graduate courses in education.

G GARZA: He says, you're a double-crosser. How come you're trying to get your master's degree? You want my job, don't you?

FLORIDO: Mr. Garza said, no, he did not. But as the school year neared its end, he got a letter from the superintendent. It said...

G GARZA: It is in the best interest of Robb Elementary School and the Uvalde Independent School District that your contract not be extended.

FLORIDO: What reason did it give?

G GARZA: None. None.

FLORIDO: Word that he was going to be fired spread through Uvalde's Mexican west side. On the night the school board was set to finalize the decision, a huge crowd of parents showed up, including Olga Munoz Rodriguez.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: Of course I was there. And I'll divulge something that I rarely talk about, but it is so painful. The school board met in a very small room around a very large table, so the people that were able to get in were against the wall and just packed real tight.

FLORIDO: She was packed in next to a white man.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: And I hear him tell the Anglo person next to him, this place is bad enough to get tuberculosis.

FLORIDO: That night, Rodriguez said, a lot crystallized for Uvalde's Mexican school parents.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: That's the way they thought about us. They didn't think, these parents care about their children or a teacher they respect, or they want to improve their children's education. They just were Mexicans, and we should be worried about being around them.

FLORIDO: Mr. Garza's son, Ronnie, was a student at Robb and was at that meeting that night. He remembers when the school board took its vote.

RONNIE GARZA: Six to one they voted to not renew my dad's contract. The parents walked out upset. They were devastated. And one lady in the crowd, Manuela Canales, started chanting, walk out, walk out, walk out, walk out. The crowd started chanting it.

FLORIDO: It was April of 1970, and parents started pulling their children out of school. Mexican students at Uvalde High School walked out, too - some 500 students in all.

ELVIA PEREZ: It started in April. And so then we were out of school for the rest of the year.

FLORIDO: Elvia Perez, then a Uvalde High School senior, became one of the walkout's leaders. They drafted a list of demands. They wanted more Hispanic teachers in Uvalde. She remembers the night protesters went back to the school board to deliver the list.

PEREZ: I remember walking across the street. And for some reason, I just looked up, and I looked up the barrel of a Texas Ranger's rifle. They were on the roof with their rifles pointing down at us.

FLORIDO: What did that feel like?

PEREZ: I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken because I thought, I am an American citizen from generations. And all of a sudden, we're being treated this way.

FLORIDO: The walkout lasted six weeks. Volunteers came from San Antonio to tutor children who'd walked out so they wouldn't fall behind. But at the end of the school year, the walkout fizzled out. Although their demands weren't met, Perez says the walkout was a success in another way.

PEREZ: Because that's where people began to stand up and to ask that their voices be heard and that their needs be met.

FLORIDO: After the walkout, one parent filed a federal lawsuit to force Uvalde to desegregate its schools. After years of litigation, she won. The fight to get the district to comply took decades more. Today, Robb Elementary is 90% Latino because that is what this town looks like. Most white people have moved away. But Mr. Garza's son, Ronnie, who's now a Uvalde County commissioner, said, look, now almost all the teachers are Latino, too - many born and raised here.

R GARZA: So we're growing our own now. You know, we're having people that are born and raised here in Uvalde becoming teachers, role models.

FLORIDO: Two of those role models, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, were murdered in their classroom along with 19 children. And now people in Uvalde are starting to ask a painful question - what'll happen to Robb Elementary? Should this symbol of the fight for Mexican American equality in Uvalde be torn down? It brings Ronnie Garza to tears.

R GARZA: I get emotional thinking about that.

FLORIDO: Olga Munoz Rodriguez says it is painful, but it might be for the best.

MUNOZ RODRIGUEZ: If I were a parent of one of those children, I would not want to go back to that school.

FLORIDO: The community will answer that question later. Right now, it's grief. Every day, people bring flowers and stuffed animals to the sprawling memorial growing on the school's front lawn under the shade of some giant pecan trees - the ones Mr. Garza planted more than 50 years ago because he wanted to make Uvalde's Mexican school more beautiful. The trees are massive now, sturdy, and they are beautiful.


SHAPIRO: NPR's Adrian Florido in Uvalde, Texas. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.


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