UVALDE, Texas — Martyn Malic will not walk across a stage for his graduation ceremony in Uvalde, Texas, this Friday after it was canceled in the wake of the horrific mass shooting at an elementary school that left 21 people dead and a tight-knit community reeling in the aftermath.
“If I'm being honest with you, I don't feel safe graduating,” Malic, 18, told BuzzFeed News. He said he knew the alleged shooter and used to play video games with him. On Wednesday, along with thousands of residents, Malic attended an emotional vigil for the shooting victims: 2 teachers and 19 children, who were mostly fourth-graders.
The memorial was held at the Uvalde County Fairplex, a clay-floored space with bleachers that is home to the town’s rodeo and barrel racing events. Many in the predominantly Latino town of just over 16,000 residents wore maroon to the vigil in honor of Robb Elementary’s school colors. A Lutheran church group from Houston brought golden Labs as comfort dogs for locals to pet. Attendees wept during the pastoral speeches and music selections, and high schoolers hugged each other.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz made appearances Wednesday evening. So did Malic’s grandparents, who had planned to attend Friday’s now-canceled graduation and flew in from California regardless to show their support.
“It's just very unfortunate,” Angela Vasquez, 59, said of the shootings in her grandchild’s hometown. “I feel really, really sad and heartbroken for the kids and the families.”
The horrifying tragedy remains too big for many high schoolers to wrap their heads around, particularly when just moments ago they’d been planning Memorial Day BBQs and high school graduation parties. The Uvalde High School graduation, which was to be held at the Honey Bowl Stadium, “will be addressed at another time,” school officials said. The remaining school year has been canceled.
So too was the college football signing ceremony for Eli Barboza, 19, who will join Oklahoma Panhandle State University in the fall. His father, Neftali Barboza, 43, said the trauma from the mass shooting has shifted life for residents in Uvalde.
“Families are not the same anymore, you know?” Neftali, a pastor of a small church, told BuzzFeed News.
Some families have been torn apart in unfathomable ways. Monica Vera, a Uvalde High School student, who just finished her sophomore year, said that her friend’s mom died in the shooting.
“I just don’t really think anybody will fully recover,” Vera told BuzzFeed News. “It’s such a traumatic experience for everybody whether you’re related to somebody that was injured or killed. Everybody’s close here, so it’s hard not to be affected by it.”
Her classroom was sent into lockdown when the shooting took place at the elementary school, with Vera texting her teachers and friends to see if they were OK and sharing prayers with them.
“It’s scary,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going on outside the door or outside the school. You’re just in the class, dark, locked in, and your teachers don’t even know what’s going on. No one has an answer to anything. You’re just sitting there waiting to find out what’s happening. People are giving you information that you don’t even know if it’s true.”
The reunion with her parents later that day was “bittersweet,” she said, because she knew others didn’t get to see their parents again. Her sister Desiree, a senior, was supposed to graduate this week, but the focus is now just on family.
“If I could trade places with any of those kids or teachers, I would,” Vera said, crying. “Without a doubt. I would do it. I wouldn’t hesitate.”
For Ariana Diaz, a graduating senior of Uvalde High School and a Robb Elementary alum, the shooting — which made her feel “distraught” and “disgusted” — was making her reassess her future life plans.
“You see it on the news. You see it happening everywhere. But you never think that it could happen to you. But it can,” she told BuzzFeed News. “And it's horrible.”
Many of her classmates and friends had lost younger brothers and sisters among the 19 slaughtered in a fourth-grade classroom.
And as she prepares to return to a classroom, this time at New York University in the fall, Diaz is already thinking of what she can do to honor those killed in Uvalde.
“I see this more as motivation to advocate for gun control,” she said. “I just hope to gain my higher education when I move to New York and then come back here eventually and be able to advocate better and spread awareness for what happened here.”