On May 24, residents of Uvalde somberly marked one year since a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in the south Texas town. There was a 77-minute vigil—marking the amount of time law enforcement waited outside a classroom before confronting the 18-year-old gunman as the screams of children inside faded away into a deadly silence—at a memorial site.
The Texas Tribune wrote, “In the year since the massacre, law enforcement officials involved in the shooting’s response have faced few consequences, a criminal investigation has not been completed and families have continued mourning—some sharing their grief while advocating for stricter gun laws.”
Relatives of the murdered children and teachers visited the Texas Capitol repeatedly to urge lawmakers to pass legislation to help prevent more mass shootings, but the Republican-controlled Legislature has yet to pass a bill raising the minimum age from 18 to 21 to purchase certain semi-automatic rifles, including the AR-15 used in the Uvalde massacre that the gunman legally purchased just days after he turned 18. Texas lawmakers have actually loosened gun regulations in the year since the Uvalde school shooting. Last September, Texas residents were granted the right to own and carry a gun without a license or permit.
But Uvalde residents persist in their efforts to demand accountability from law enforcement agencies for what happened a year ago and to speak out in support of gun safety regulations, not only in Texas but around the country. One local grocery store handed out small teddy bears with the inspirational motto, “Uvalde strong.” And local residents can draw inspiration from the struggle waged more than 50 years ago by a previous generation, when Uvalde became the epicenter of the Chicano civil rights movement.
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Back then, hundreds of Uvalde students held a six-week walkout to protest discrimination against Mexican American students. The walkout was triggered by the firing of Josue “George” Garza, one of the only Mexican American teachers at Robb Elementary School.
The Texas Tribune produced this video about the 1970 protest just weeks after the school massacre:
The 1970 Uvalde school walkout took place during the heyday of the Chicano civil rights movement (1962-1978). During this period there were at least 39 walkouts by Mexican American students in schools from Los Angeles to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. Some lasted only a day, others lasted a week. But the Uvalde school walkout was one of the longest ever in the U.S., lasting six weeks—from April 14 until the end of the school year on May 21.
In 2016, the Voces Oral History Center at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication interviewed students and parents involved in the Uvalde walkout. The quotes and background in this story were taken from these interviews unless otherwise noted.
the roots of the problem
Olga Muñoz Rodriguez and her family moved from a Mexican border town to Uvalde in the early 1950s, when her father found a better job opportunity as a blacksmith. Rodriguez was a young mother working for the telephone company when the walkout began. Her son was not yet school-age, but she had experienced the discrimination faced by Mexican American students while she attended Uvalde High School. She noted that Mexican American parents had been complaining to the local school district for years about issues including poor maintenance of the schools their children attended:
“Dalton (the Anglo school) got landscaping, paved driveways, the grounds were kept. Robb (the Hispanic school) had minimal maintenance. The bathrooms were in really bad condition; there weren’t enough teachers that spoke Spanish.”
Jose Aguilera, a high school student who participated in the walkout, said the Latino community was particularly concerned about the lack of Mexican American teachers and a ban on speaking Spanish in school. Bilingual education was not available at the time. Aguilera recalled how a teacher punished him for speaking Spanish during recess:
“(One teacher) grabbed me by the ear, dragged me to a wall, and ... on the wall of the building she drew a circle,” Aguilera said. “She told me to put my nose on that circle. She drew it right at the height where I had to sort of tippy-toe to stay there, and I had to put my nose there as punishment for speaking Spanish. I was there for the whole half-hour we had for recess.”
Another walkout participant, Sergio Porras, said that if students were caught speaking Spanish in class, teachers would have them roll up a pants leg and then hit them with a ruler in front of the class.
“I think there was a consensus as far as being treated equally” among the protesting students. “If you had a primary language, that you would be allowed to speak that language. That was mainly what I was looking for,” said Porras, who, like many other students, spoke Spanish at home.
The catalyst for the walkout came in April 1970 when the school board declined to renew the contract of George Garza, who had been teaching at Robb Elementary School since 1965. As one of the few Mexican American teachers, he had become a popular advocate for Spanish-speaking parents in a school system that practiced de facto segregation.
His advocacy did not sit well with the school’s Anglo principal. Garza had begun studying for a master’s degree and the principal considered him a threat to his job and sought his dismissal.
“That was like a climax to a chain of injustices that had been occurring,” Garza, a U.S. Army veteran, said. “The younger people were kind of fed up, those coming back from Vietnam. (They said) ‘We’ve been fighting over there and getting shot at, and here we come to the same (discriminatory conditions).’ So there was a walkout.”
the call for a walkout
Alfredo R. Santos, a member of the activist Mexican American Youth Organization, said the calls for a walkout began immediately after an April 13 school board meeting which denied Garza a hearing on his dismissal. Santos had dropped out of high school a year earlier. Hundreds of students began walking out of the high school and middle school the next day.
"The walkout shocked a lot of people,” Santos said. “The walkout made a lot of us very proud. You know, finally somebody had stood up and said something and did something. Somebody had to go first. And it just so happened, it was us."
Santos used his van to help support the walkout, delivering food and students to a makeshift “Freedom School” set up at a local church by Volunteers In Service to America, known as VISTA, a program set up as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
On some days, more than 600 students would march in picket lines. And there was one other thing Santos and others noticed—and it’s a striking contrast to the response by law enforcement to the Uvalde school shooting. “There was a big police presence,” he said. “I wasn’t intimidated.”
Helicopters patrolled the skies. The Texas Rangers were called in. Elvia O. Pérez, a high school senior, recalled walking into a building where the school board was meeting and looking up the barrel of a Texas Ranger’s rifle.
“They were on the roof with guns pointed down at us. That was harsh. I thought, 'Gosh, this is America. We have the right as citizens to speak up and speak out.' And I just didn’t understand that. That was the one thing that I remember very, very clearly, and it was painful,” Pérez said. “We weren’t asking for anything radical. We were asking for help for the kids.”
The students came up with a list of 14 demands that the all-white school board refused to discuss while the walkout continued. These included hiring more Mexican American teachers, offering more courses and textbooks relating to Chicano history, and replacing the Robb Elementary School principal with a Mexican American educator.
The walkout caused tension with the local Anglo population, which included descendants of German immigrants who had settled in the Texas Hill country in the decades after the Civil War. White residents viewed the protest as a threat to their position in the town.
Uvalde’s population today is more than 80% Mexican American, but a half century ago its population was more evenly divided. Olga Muñoz Rodriguez, the secretary of the Mexican American Parents Association (MAPA), was tasked with writing letters to the local newspaper “to express our side.”
After MAPA was formed, some German-American parents formed the German-American Parents Organization, and one member wrote to the newspaper that if Hispanic parents “didn’t like their children being discriminated because of the difference in their skin, he recommended that parents powder their children’s faces before they sent them to school,” she said.
Rodriquez responded in kind with a letter that said, “If you don’t like being in a community with Mexican-Americans, I suggest you hitch up the old covered wagon and go back East and row your boat back to where you came from.”
Alfredo Santos, writing for Ibero Aztlan in 2021, noted that there were Mexican Americans in Uvalde who did not support the boycott. There were concerns that parents risked losing their jobs, students would lose an entire school year, and that some protest supporters were too radical. Santos wrote that there was increased pressure to end the walkout:
The local draft board began obtaining a list of those students who were participating in the walkout and reclassified them from 4F to 1A which meant they were immediately eligible to be drafted. At the time the war in Vietnam was going on and induction into the military almost guaranteed deployment to jungles of South East Asia. During the Vietnam War, a total of 10 servicemen from Uvalde were killed. All ten were Mexican American. It was not lost on the community what the draft board was up to and how it operated.
Santos said this led him and two other friends to leave Uvalde for California after their names were registered for the draft, even though he had not yet turned 18. He ended up working under Cesar Chavez as a labor organizer for the United Farm Workers before returning to Texas.
The school board refused to negotiate with the students on their demands. As punishment, walkout participants were either held back a year or kicked out of school, according to Santos. Many of the seniors who took part left town to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Garza lost his job as a teacher but started a real estate company. He ended up being elected to the district school board. In 1996, he was elected mayor of Uvalde, serving several terms. Garza ran for mayor again in 2020, but narrowly lost to conservative Republican Don McLaughlin.
the struggle continued
Despite losing the walkout battle, Uvalde residents did not give up the struggle. In August 1970, Genoveva Morales filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of her children against the Uvalde school district. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) represented Morales in the lawsuit, which claimed that the district systematically discriminated against Mexican American students.
In 1971, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit. MALDEF appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the earlier decision in 1975 and found the school district to be in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Supreme Court refused to hear the school district’s appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.
The school district was placed under a desegregation order. In 2008, MALDEF, Morales, and the school board signed a consent order recognizing the progress that the school district had made to remedy the discrimination alleged in the lawsuit. But it was not until 2016 that a new school board took the necessary steps to bring the lawsuit to a close and sign a final agreement with the plaintiffs.
Today, the town’s middle school has been renamed Morales Junior High after the parent and activist who brought the lawsuit. The El Paso Times reports:
"While people who lived through the event have different interpretations of its results, it is undeniable that the Uvalde walkout was a major milestone for ethnic relations and ethnic identity," Vinicio Sinta, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, told the El Paso Times. "The walkout generation was more assertive about their rights and was not afraid to demand equal treatment, even at a high personal cost. Some participants in the walkout we spoke to went on to become very active in local politics, health advocacy and other leadership positions."
But the response from Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott and other officials to the Uvalde school shooting reflects the discrimination and inequality that exists in Texas today. Russell Contreras, the race and justice reporter for Axios, told The Texas Standard:
“There’s a vast inequality. It continues, unfortunately, in Texas, where I’m from. … The city government may have changed, the makeup of school boards may have changed. But Texas has not had a Mexican American governor. The inequality remains, and there’s still work to be done. So the spirit of the walkout lives on.”
When Garza first came to teach at Robb Elementary School in 1965, the school was in bad shape after years of neglect. Garza raised money to make the school a place the students could take pride in by adding a basketball court and a track. He also planted baby pecan trees on the front lawn, and paid his students a quarter each to water the trees. Beneath those now fully grown trees, mourners built a makeshift memorial for the victims of the school massacre. Robb Elementary is slated to be torn down. The site is expected to be turned into a memorial park, but residents would like Garza’s pecan trees to be saved, NPR reported.
In October 2022, Garza told central Texas TV station 25 ABC about the feelings he has when he sees the memorial that has sprung up around the trees he planted almost 60 years ago. "My happiness was here, when I drive by it's now sadness," Garza told the TV station. "But those kids, I want them to know they are champions, Uvalde is full of champions."