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Robb Elementary in Uvalde was integral to Mexican-American equality in the city

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We now have the backstory of Robb Elementary. That's the school in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. The school's history stretches back decades before the gunman stepped inside. And just as a school in your town might tell you a lot about your town's history, Robb Elementary reveals a lot about the town that is mostly Mexican American. When I first heard of this history, it changed the way I thought of Uvalde. So let's hear NPR's Adrian Florido.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: I met Josue Garza at his house a few blocks from Robb Elementary.

Morning.

GEORGE GARZA: Good morning.

FLORIDO: He goes by George, and 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: 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 vandalized 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 lived on the east side and sent their kids to Dalton Elementary. The Mexicans 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. 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: 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.

FLORIDO: Mr. Garza's son, Ronald, 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.

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. Despite that, 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. 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. Officials say Robb Elementary will not reopen. But will this symbol of the fight for Mexican American equality in Uvalde be torn down? The prospect brings Ronnie Garza to tears.

R GARZA: I get emotional thinking about that.

FLORIDO: The community will decide the school's fate 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.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Uvalde, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELIX LABAND'S "PIETERMARITZBURG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.