By Uriel J. Garcia
Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune
The Matas never celebrated Day of the Dead before; this year they built an altar at the grave of 10-year-old Tess, surrounded by family. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, they broke their traditions.
On a gray and cloudy afternoon on Nov. 1, the start of Día de los Muertos, four men carry an altar for 19 children and two teachers slain in the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School. As they walk from the state Capitol, dozens of friends, relatives and supporters, as well as most of the victims’ parents, follow behind.
The crowd is quiet as they march. Photojournalists click their digital cameras. Passersby murmur to one another.
It’s a short walk to the Governor’s Mansion, where the men set down the altar in front of a black steel fence that circles the mansion. The altar is adorned with marigolds and paper sugar skulls and candles surrounding a small Virgen de Guadalupe statue — and the photos of the 19 fourth graders and their two teachers whose absence brought the procession to Austin today.
A state trooper watches from behind the fence as a line of people place marigolds on the altar. When it’s Jerry Mata’s turn, he carefully lays a marigold on the altar, kisses his hand and rests it momentarily on his daughter’s picture.
A mariachi band begins to play “Amor Eterno,” a ballad written by the late singer of Ciudad Juárez, Juan Gabriel. It’s the same song the Matas asked a local singer to perform at their daughter’s burial in Uvalde.
Tess was 10 years old when she died.
Jerry stands with his wife, Veronica, and lifts a portrait of Tess, hiding his face with his daughter’s face.
“Tú eres la tristeza de mis ojos (You are the sadness in my eyes)/
Que lloran en silencio por tu amor (That weep in silence for your love)/
Me miro en el espejo y veo en mi rostro (I look in the mirror and see in my face)/
El tiempo que he sufrido por tu adiós (The time I have suffered for your goodbye)”
He begins to cry.
“It’s like they’re singing right to your heart,” he says. The song has pulled up memories of the day they buried their daughter.
“I just kept asking myself, ‘Why? Why me?’
Día de los Muertos is the beginning of a somber holiday season for the Mata family in the aftermath of the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. In the months since Tess’ death, Jerry, a 47-year-old aviation mechanic; Veronica, a 46-year-old kindergarten teacher; and their 21-year-old daughter, Faith, have had to learn how to cope with the hole in their lives left by the loss of their “sassy, bossy little girl.”
Days that would have been spent watching a movie with Tess, watching her play softball and soccer, or driving to San Antonio to shop are now spent in therapy sessions, marching in demonstrations to demand that politicians raise the age limit to buy AR-style weapons like the one used to kill her, or testifying before lawmakers in Austin or Washington, D.C., to explain how the shooting has affected their family. The sight of other children playing and laughing hurts.
This year, they aren’t planning to celebrate the holidays as much as endure them. Usually the Matas spend the holidays at relatives’ homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, eating breakfast sandwiches, menudo, turkey or tamales, surrounded by a swirl of kids.
They don’t know how they could do that this year.
“It’s like we are missing a piece to our puzzle. The normal things that we used to do, we didn’t do at all this year. In all of us it’s just pure emptiness,” Veronica says. “Even hearing Christmas music is just so heart-wrenching.”
Nov. 2, Uvalde
The second day of Día de los Muertos, families gather at the cemetery on the eastern edge of the city. It’s shaded by lush trees. When passing clouds cover the sun, the air becomes chilly.
It’s 1 p.m. when Jerry’s aunts and uncles arrive to help set up an altar next to Tess’ burial plot. They cover a table with a purple plastic tablecloth adorned with sugar skulls. Small boxes wrapped in bright colored paper display the photos of aunts, uncles and cousins who have passed away, topped by the largest picture: the last school portrait of Tess, framed by an arch adorned with marigolds and paper monarch butterflies.
The altar is decorated with ofrendas — offerings to the dead: Hot Cheetos and Oreos, a jar of pickles, a Starbucks Frappuccino and a package of Maruchan Ramen noodles. All of Tess’ favorites.
Throughout the day, more relatives join Jerry and Veronica at the gravesite, bringing ribbons and pompoms to add to Tess’ altar, setting up lawn chairs to sit for a while. At one point, Veronica and Faith run to a nearby relative’s house to pick up a cooler full of tamales wrapped in aluminum foil.
When they return and rejoin the circle of family, Faith tells them that before she went to bed the previous night, she left a glass of water and some candy on a small altar for Tess at her parents’ house. Then she dreamed that she woke up to see Kit Kat wrappers and a half-empty water glass.
“I have a feeling she ate them,” Faith tells her family.
It’s not the first time Faith has dreamed of her sister. In August, Faith was asleep in her apartment in San Marcos, where she’s a senior at Texas State University, and dreamed she was in her childhood bedroom in Uvalde when Tess suddenly appeared. “What are you doing here?” she asked her sister in the dream. “How have you been? We’ve missed you, you don’t talk to us. You don’t say anything, like if you’re OK.”
“And then she just started laughing,” Faith says, sitting on the grass next to her sister’s grave. “And she was like, ‘I’m fine. I’m OK. I promise I’m good.’”
Faith and her parents have mourned together since May 24, but at times they have a hard time understanding one another’s pain.
“It sucks hearing Faith say, ‘Why did y’all only have me and Tess. It’s not fair. She’s not going to be able to be one of my bridesmaids,’” Veronica says through tears.
“She doesn’t understand our feelings because we’re the parents,” Veronica says. “But then she said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand what I’m feeling because you didn’t lose your sister. You didn’t lose your brother.’ She’s like, ‘I lost my only sister. When you guys are gone, I have nobody left.’”
“That’s the pain he has caused,” Jerry says, referring to the gunman.
After he leaves, Veronica and Jerry sit in their lawn chairs and she leans against his shoulder. “I don’t want to go back to work tomorrow,” she says.
Just repeating the normal patterns of their lives is a daily battle, Veronica says.
“You have to make yourself get up every morning,” Veronica says.
So that’s what they do.
“It’s not that we’re strong, but we have Faith that we have to still move on for,” she says. “To show her that we’re here for her, too.”
She says some Uvalde residents made comments on social media saying the Matas had stopped mourning and looked fine. She says people may see her and Jerry do errands, shop or go to work, but don’t realize the pain they carry.
“They don’t see that, they don’t realize that, they don’t understand that,” Veronica says. “They think, ‘Oh they’re out and about, they’re shopping.’ What do they want us to do? Do they want us to sit here and just cry every single night?
Thanksgiving Day, Dallas
Every past Thanksgiving, the Matas have split their day between Jerry’s family and Veronica’s family, who mostly live in Uvalde. In the morning, they start the celebration at Veronica’s family’s home. Her grandmother always makes eggs for breakfast and turkey for lunch — and menudo if Veronica’s sister makes the trip from Charlotte, Texas. In the afternoon, they go to Jerry’s family’s house to drink some beers and watch the Cowboys game.
This year, for the first time since 1992, when Jerry and Veronica began dating, they are going to spend Thanksgiving away from Uvalde.
Jerry and Veronica were born and raised in Uvalde, but they didn’t meet until high school, when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman. After seven years of dating, they married in 1999, and Faith was born the following year. Veronica wanted short names for their children and Jerry was a fan of country singer Faith Hill, so that’s the name they chose.
Veronica says Faith was the perfect baby who slept a lot and rarely cried in public. As a child, Faith was a quiet kid who loved to read — she would carry books even to softball practice.
They wanted to have a second child, but for years Veronica couldn’t get pregnant. They had almost given up hope when Veronica learned she was pregnant with Tess.
“We were in a state of shock because we weren’t expecting it,” Veronica says.
Faith initially was upset. She was 10 and says she was already “relishing in the glory of getting everything I wanted.”
After Veronica gave birth in a San Antonio hospital, Faith walked in and the nurse handed Tess to her, saying, “Congratulations, you’re a big sister.”
“I was just in awe of her. I was like, ‘This little thing is going to grow up to be a human,’” Faith says. “It just made me think like, ‘I have to take care of my sister now. I need to protect her at all costs.’”
Unlike Faith, Tess was not a quiet kid. She spoke her mind.
“If she didn’t like what you were wearing, she would let you know,” Veronica says.
Tess grew to be an animal lover. She wanted to be a veterinarian or open a shelter to take in stray cats and dogs. She begged her parents to get a cat, and Jerry eventually gave in and Tess’ aunt gave her a Siamese they named Oliver.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Faith drove home from San Marcos so she and Veronica could surprise Jerry. Mother and daughter ask him to sit down at the kitchen table. They have something to tell him.
Jerry braces himself for bad news.
“Is it negative or positive?” Jerry asks them.
“Just sit down,” they tell him.
“I know you’re not going to want to do this, but it’s too late, I already bought the tickets,” Veronica tells Jerry. “So you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
She takes out her iPhone and shows him three tickets to the Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day.
Jerry’s been a Cowboys fan since he was 6 and his father told him to cheer for the team with the star on their helmets. He’s never seen his favorite team play in person.
Jerry sits quietly, holding back tears. He later says he was both happy and devastated because Tess would not be at the game with them.
“It’s just that feeling that you still have, not having your entire family with you,” he says.
The next day, the family drives to San Antonio to fly to Dallas Love Field then order an Uber to a hotel in Arlington where hundreds of other Cowboys fans are staying. On Thursday, the family gets another Uber to the stadium.
It’s raining, so Jerry wears a hoodie over his camouflage Cowboys jersey. Veronica wears her blue jersey, and Faith wears her white jersey. As they walk into the stadium, Jerry has a smile on his face. It was “like a kid walking up to a place that they’ve always wanted,” Veronica says.
Before taking their seats, they buy popcorn, nachos and drinks from the concession stand. Jerry enjoys the camaraderie of other Cowboys fans.
In the first half of the game, the Giants are beating the Cowboys by six points. But in the third quarter, the Cowboys score two touchdowns. Jerry high-fives other fans after each touchdown.
Surrounded by thousands of cheering fans, there are moments when Jerry zones out, staring off into space, imagining and wanting Tess to be with them at the game.
“It’s like 95,000 people just yelling, and you see them all having fun and stuff,” Jerry said after the game. “People don’t know what you’re going through — not that they should, but you just try to have as much fun as you can, as much fun as your mind lets you.”
Six months after Tess’ death, Jerry is able to snap out of those emotional moments and not let the sadness consume him. He enjoys the rest of the game. The Cowboys win 28-20.
After the game, the family return to their hotel room, order chicken fingers from Raising Cane’s through Uber Eats and go to bed.
Tess loved Christmas.
Usually, on Christmas Eve, the Matas would wake up early and let Faith and Tess open one gift each. They then had breakfast at Jerry’s mother’s house — menudo and tacos — and the cousins played board games. In the evening they would visit Jerry’s aunt’s house; listen to Christmas music along with oldies and Tejano songs; eat tamales, cheese dip and sandwiches; and socialize until after midnight.
The following day, the family would wake up early so the girls could open the rest of their gifts. Then they’d move the living room furniture out of the way, lay two mattresses on the floor and spend the day watching Christmas movies and eating popcorn and pickles.
“That’s how we usually spent Christmas, ever since Tess could walk and talk,” Veronica says. “As soon as she could tell us what she wanted, that’s what we did.”
This year, during the second week of December, the family returns to the cemetery.
They decorate Tess’ grave with LED Christmas lights, paper Santa Clauses, candy canes and two miniature Christmas trees.
About a week later, they fly to Washington, D.C., where state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, had invited them to testify before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
On Dec. 15, Faith sits at a table as part of a panel of witnesses, mostly men — including Guitierrez and Roy Guerrero, a Uvalde physician who knew and treated many of the children killed in the shooting — while her parents sit behind her in the audience holding a picture of Tess.
Two weeks before her 22nd birthday, Faith is speaking for the family because her father says he “wouldn’t know where to start” and Veronica knows she wouldn’t be able to speak without breaking into tears.
During his testimony, Guerrero plays a recording of children’s screams from inside Robb Elementary School. The doctor says a parent shared the recording with him. Faith, Veronica and Jerry listen with dismayed looks on their face as Jerry clutches the photo of Tess.
“This is the shrill screaming of kids trying to get out while their classmates are being murdered,” the doctor says.
The doctor had asked the Matas permission to play the recording during his testimony, so the family knows what’s coming. Still, “hearing it hit us really hard,” Veronica said after the hearing. Faith wonders whether her sister screamed like that during the shooting.
Faith was initially nervous to speak to members of Congress, but she overcomes her anxiety. She knows this is important. She and other panelists — including a survivor of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed 26 lives exactly 10 years before — are trying to convince Congress to adopt stricter gun laws.
“My parents lost their youngest kid. I mean, how do you not look at us or the other families of mass shootings and not feel for us?” Faith tells the committee members. Their reaction during the hearing is a microcosm of the nation’s gun debate: The Democrats are sympathetic to changing the law while Republicans are opposed, saying it takes away rights from law-abiding citizens.
“I’m here in Congress to tell my sister’s story and talk about how she passed away,” Faith says later. “It’s just hard.”
They return to Uvalde. Days just before Christmas, Veronica runs into Gloria Cazares, the mother of 9-year-old Jacklyn Cazares, one of the May 24 victims. Cazares invites the Matas to join them for Christmas Eve at a cabin in Leakey, a town north of Uvalde.
The families, who have grown close since the shooting, share stories of Jacklyn and Tess. They eat pozole for dinner and call it a night.
“Some may say it was a boring day, but for us, it was exactly what we needed,” Veronica says.
The next morning, the Matas drive back to Uvalde. It’s Christmas Day, but there’s no opening of presents, no mattresses on the floor, no movies. Veronica washes clothes while Jerry and Faith help clean around the house.
“We just wanted it to be a normal day,” Veronica says. “We didn’t really want to think about it too much.”