One year later: New documentary reflects on Uvalde and those left behind

The Robb Elementary School shooting led the Texas Legislature to take an unusually serious look at gun laws in the state.

By Shelly BrisbinMay 30, 2023 1:52 pm, ,

In the year since a gunman took the lives of 21 people at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, investigations have sought to understand what happened, families have turned to activism and lawmakers in Austin have considered legislation that would have made it harder for young people to buy the kind of weapon used on May 24, 2022.

A new documentary seeks to chronicle the tragedy itself, and what has come after.

“After Uvalde: Guns, Grief and Texas Politics” tells the story of the Robb Elementary School shooting. The film is a partnership between PBS’ Frontline, Futuro Media and the Texas Tribune. Maria Hinojosa, the founder of Futuro Media and host of Latino USA, anchors the program, which airs tonight on PBS stations and will be available to stream on the Frontline web site, as well as on YouTube.

Hinojosa told Texas Standard that she expects families who took up activism in the aftermath of the tragedy to continue speaking out. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What did you set out to do when you began thinking about this project? What stories did you initially want to tell?

Maria Hinojosa: Well, I have to be honest. I’ve been covering school shootings and mass shootings since Columbine. So I’m not new to the subject of mass shootings, like many of us in the United States. But when Uvalde happened, there were several things that immediately stood out to me. One, I was like, what is happening in South Texas? How why is this happening in Uvalde, a place that is an hour away from the U.S.-Mexico border? Why is it that this kid was able to get an assault weapon like this, legally buying hundreds of rounds? Why is it that his nickname was ‘school shooter?’ Why is it that he went into his own old fourth grade classroom and shot up kids who look just like him?

I was also intrigued by Texas politics, the fact that the Legislature meets only every two years. The fact that after the shooting, the families became very activist. Not all of them, but many of them became very activist. So this just increased my interest. And then when I got to Uvalde, finally in January, I just fell in love with Uvalde. It is one of those places that will stay with me forever. And I know I’m going back. I’m trying to figure out the next time because it’s not an easy place to get to, but it is a place now where I have seen a community trying to heal.

I also recognize, as many people would say to me, as soon as I turn the mic off, they’d say, “This is a very divided town. We are not, in fact unified. We’re divided on many issues.” And so I think that the story of Uvalde continues, especially because you now have another response, which is mothers, fathers, and especially kids who are turning their rage and their mourning and their sadness into activism. And this is part of the story that we just kind of came upon, which has been fascinating.

And we’ve been telling the story of… I used to say that she was “our Caitlyne” – Caitlyne Gonzales. But if you saw The New York Times on the day of the anniversary on May 24, last week, Caitlyne Gonzales was on the front page of The New York Times above the fold in a photograph that took up more than half of the page. And she’s dancing at the cemetery. And it’s a way in which, again, Uvalde is saying it’s not like other places and we’re not going away. So I’m really, really so thankful that we were able to get to Uvalde to do this work.

Caitlyne is ten years old, same age as many of the Uvalde victims would be today. Where do you think her passion for speaking out and her courage to do so comes from?

Well, she’s 11 now, and I think if you witnessed the very first time she spoke, which was at a school board meeting soon after the massacre, I think it was just incredibly authentic. It’s that kind of thing that not everybody has. But, you know, some people in her community are calling her a natural-born leader. And I would say that, well, she is a natural born leader.

She would go to school before everyone to help make coffee for the teachers in her Robb Elementary School. She was the one that would greet all of the kids as they walked into classroom. That was her job. So she is a leader. Always has been. But now she’s a leader speaking to Gov. Abbott and law enforcement – heavily armed men with badges. And she’s saying “you don’t deserve to wear your badge.” And one of the sad things that I heard in Uvalde is, some people saying, “well, her parents are coaching her and writing her speeches.” And having spent a lot of time with Caitlyne, that is not happening. But you do have parents that are saying we believe in our daughter and we believe what she’s doing. And this, again, is a particularity of the story of Uvalde.

In the Legislature, the so-called Raise the Age bill was a focus of your reporting. Did activists and supporters in the Legislature feel like they actually had a chance of getting this bill enacted – a significantly better chance than they would have had with other gun related proposals?

Well, I think everybody has their feet on the ground in terms of Texas politics. And I think everybody understood that this was an incredibly tall order for Texas. Now, not such a tall order, for example, for the state of Florida, that after the Parkland shooting, immediately the governor signed a law that said you have to be 21 to purchase an assault weapon. But in Texas, there was movement. You cannot deny that the presence of some of the families who went to Austin week in, week out, talking to lawmakers, making themselves a presence, holding rallies, holding big protests like the one at the end of April that we witnessed… they did get to the point where history was made because no other gun safety legislation has made it to the point where at least the families were able to give testimony on the record in the Capitol.

It did not move. It was not taken to the floor. Both the Senate and the House bills were not approved. And so and as you know, because you’re in Texas, it’ll be another two years. I’m trying to understand what’s going to happen in those two years. And I think that the families of Uvalde and the activist families overall, they are trying to figure this out. But right now they’re still in mourning.

I just can’t get Uvalde out of my mind because having lived through a trauma here – that’s when I developed PTSD, after covering Sept. 11 – I just know that the one-year anniversary doesn’t go away. After the day passes, the intensity of the emotion just gets even deeper. So we’ll see what the families do in these next two years, but I don’t believe that they’re going to be quiet.

As you report on the national level, the Uvalde tragedy is the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. It’s clearly affected a lot of Texans. Certainly, the community has evolved profoundly. But how do people outside of Texas think about the events of that day? How much does it resonate in the public consciousness, especially after so many school shootings that we’ve seen around the country now?

Well, Uvalde definitely stands out on a national scale. I mean, again, The New York Times on the front page above the fold. This is New York. We’re the farthest away from Uvalde that you could possibly be. And The New York Times put this story on the front page and gave it three full pages inside the newspaper. This means that Uvalde is an international story and people care.

I think that the issue is and what I have said, because I’ve spent so much time in Texas in this year and I don’t think it’s going to stop, is that actually the whole country is fascinated by Texas. And I continue to say, do not write off Texas. This is not a state where the politics are cut and dry and decided. I think the politics of Texas are difficult, but they’re fluid, too. And we just saw that because of what happened with the movement from the families from Uvalde.

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