Photo credit: The Texas Tribune | Kylie Cooper

By Uriel J. Garcia

The Texas Tribune

UVALDE — On a hot Saturday morning in June, Javier Cazares drove to Austin with his wife and 17-year-old daughter to join hundreds of demonstrators at the state Capitol in demanding lawmakers adopt stricter gun laws that could help prevent another mass shooting.

Cazares, 43, said he wanted to blend in with the rest of the demonstrators. Political activism wasn’t in his nature. He didn’t even vote in the 2020 presidential election.

“I was that person that would say, ‘Nothing is going to change, my voice and my vote doesn’t count,’” he said.

Then one of the demonstration organizers recognized him as the father of 9-year-old Jacklyn Cazares, one of the students killed in the Robb Elementary shooting less than three weeks earlier by an 18-year-old gunman. The organizer encouraged the family to speak to the demonstrators.

His daughter, Jazmin, quickly agreed. Then a nervous Cazares, wearing a military dog tag from his neck bearing his slain daughter’s fingerprint, mustered up the courage to address the crowd.

“I promised my daughter at the hospital that we were going to fight, and we’ll keep on fighting until something is done,” he told the crowd.

That day marked Cazares’ political awakening. First, he and his wife helped register people to vote in Uvalde. But that wasn’t enough. Now he’s decided to run as a write-in candidate for Uvalde County Precinct 2 commissioner, challenging Uvalde Police Department Lt. Mariano Pargas Jr., who is running for reelection and was the acting police chief the day of the May 24 shooting.

The deadliest school shooting in Texas history has politically activated a lot of Uvalde residents.

In the months since the shooting, families of the 19 students and two teachers killed have packed City Council and school board meetings to demand increased school security and the firing of the police officers who waited more than an hour at the school before a Border Patrol tactical team arrived and confronted the gunman in a classroom, ending the massacre.

They have also traveled to Austin and Washington, D.C., to testify before lawmakers and urge them to adopt stricter gun laws — such as raising the minimum age to legally purchase AR-15-style rifles from 18 to 21.

A day after the shooting, some Uvalde mothers formed a group called Fierce Madres to pressure the school board to fire Pete Arredondo — the school district police chief who was among the first officers to arrive at the scene — and advocate for political candidates who support stricter gun laws. The school board fired Arredondo on Aug. 24.

“These families that had to bury their children have turned into activists. They turned their pain and grief into something productive,” said Angela “Angie” Villescaz, the founder of Fierce Madres who attended Robb Elementary as a child.

One of the group’s members, Eloisa R. Medina, will serve the rest of Arredondo’s four-year term on the Uvalde City Council. Arredondo, who was elected in a May 7 election, surrendered his seat after not attending three consecutive council meetings following the shooting. Medina, who had never held political office before, won the seat by default after the other candidate dropped out of the race and the city canceled a special election.

“I think as long as things are calm in communities like Uvalde, residents are trusting that their elected officials are taking care of their children or are actually making the best decisions they can for the school district,” Villescaz said, “but when you see this epic failure, you have no choice but to face reality and be like, ‘Wow, these are not really good leaders.’”

Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy | The Texas Tribune

Elected officials resist pressure to change gun laws

The surge in political activism in Uvalde has mirrored what happened in other cities that experienced mass shootings — such as Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old gunman entered his former high school and killed 17 people in 2018. Some Parkland students, such as X González and David Hogg, led nationwide campaigns against gun violence and in support of stricter gun laws.

The student-led movement resulted in Florida passing a law raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle in the state to 21.

Becoming politically involved can be part of the grieving process for survivors, said Ronna Milo Haglili, a psychologist in San Francisco who has studied the connection between traumatic experiences and activism. It can also serve as an attempt to help “break the chain” of future trauma, she said.

“People wanted to prevent the suffering that happened to them from others,” she said. “I find it to be an indication of the greatness of the human spirit because it’s not a path that every person who has endured suffering would choose.”

Cazares said that’s a big motivation for his newfound political activism. It’s too late to bring back his daughter, he said, but he hopes that with his advocacy, he can help save people from another mass shooting.

“It’s not something I wanted to do, it’s something I was forced to do,” he said. “There have been too many deaths. It needs to stop.”

Uvalde residents have seen their activism make an impact locally. But their bigger goal — convincing state leaders and Republican members of Congress to tighten gun laws — is a much more difficult struggle.

Arredondo was fired after relentless community pressure. And when a group called Medina Area Friends of NRA in nearby Hondo planned to hold a raffle with an AR-15 rifle as the prize at a city-owned venue, families of Uvalde victims — including Cazares’ daughter Jazmin — demonstrated during a Hondo City Council meeting before the Aug. 6 fundraiser. After council members heard heated comments from the family members, they voted to revoke the rental agreement with Medina Area Friends, canceling the event.

Photo credit: Evan L’Roy | The Texas Tribune

Alfred Garza III, whose 10-year-old daughter, Amerie Jo Garza, was killed in the Robb Elementary shooting, said he hopes the energy can be sustained. He said he wants Uvalde residents to continue putting pressure on elected officials to adopt stricter gun laws.

“They know these things need to get done and they just haven’t done anything about it, and it pisses me off because you ask this question about gun reform and they just talk about something else,” he said. “My daughter’s life is more important than their position in office.”

Similar calls have come after previous Texas mass shootings — Sutherland Springs in 2017; Santa Fe High School in 2018; El Paso, Midland and Odessa in 2019 — and Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s Republican leadership have instead pushed to loosen restrictions on firearms, including a 2021 law allowing Texans to carry firearms without a license or training.

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