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Día de los Muertos takes on new meaning in Uvalde

Jermya López, 8, Xavier López's brother, and his niece Katalina Mata, 1, play on top of Annabelle Rodríguez's grave which is next to Xavier's on Day of the Dead.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Jermya López, 8, Xavier López's brother, and his niece Katalina Mata, 1, play on top of Annabelle Rodríguez's grave which is next to Xavier's on Day of the Dead.

Día de los Muertos, the holiday that honors loved ones who have passed, resonated in Uvalde, Texas with a deeper degree of tragedy this year after the community lost 19 children and two teachers in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last May.

Families and friends in this predominantly Latino community tried their best to put their pain aside to honor tradition and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have gone – and the lives that were taken by the gunman.

Dozens gathered Wednesday afternoon at the Hillcrest Cemetery, where many of the victims are buried, for a quiet annual mass in English and Spanish.

A mural painted by artist Lizbeth Ortiz and Leticia Santos depicting an altar for the children and teachers who were killed during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
A mural painted by artists Lizbeth Ortiz and Leticia Santos depicting an altar for the children and teachers who were killed during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Kimberly García, Amerie Jo Garza's mother and her step-father Angel Garza, march around the cemetery with others passing by the gravesites on Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Kimberly García, Amerie Jo Garza's mother, her step-father, Angel Garza, and others march around Hillcrest Memorial cemetery and pass by the gravesites on Day of the Dead.
A woman prays during an All Souls Day mass at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
A woman prays during an All Souls Day mass at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Priest Eddy Morales blesses people with holy water during the All Souls Day mass at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Priest Eddy Morales blesses people with holy water during the All Souls Day mass at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery

And many families set up altars covered in traditional marigolds and their children's favorite things beside their graves.

The myth, the legend is today they are here with us.

"The myth, the legend is today they are here with us," said Javier Cazares, the father of 9-year-old Jacklyn Cazares, who was killed in the shooting.

Cazares choked up as he talked about the holiday and his daughter's colorful "ofrenda" full of stuffed animals, photos with family members and some of her favorite snacks to share.

"They're here, dancing around, having a good time with their families," he said.

Amber Alaniz, 21, left, Juanita Cázares, center, and Polly Alaniz, cousins and aunt of Jackie Cázares, help decorate her grave on Day of the Dead on Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Amber Alaniz, 21, left, Juanita Cázares, center, and Polly Alaniz, cousins and aunt of Jackie Cázares, help decorate her grave on Day of the Dead on Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Jacklyn "Jackie" Jaylen Cázares' altar on Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. Other family photos of deceased relatives are placed as part of the altar.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Jacklyn "Jackie" Jaylen Cázares' altar on Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. The altar includes family photos of other deceased relatives.
Photos of Xavier López and Annabelle Rodríguez at Xavier's altar. Xavier and Annabelle were boyfriend and girlfriend and were buried together.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Xavier Lopez's altar included photos of his girlfriend, Anabelle Rodriguez, and him. They were buried together.
Christopher Seiler, who was Makenna Lee Elrod's stepfather, April Elrod, and her son Holden Elrod, 8, help decorate Makenna's altar.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
From left to right: Makenna Lee Elrod's stepfather, Christopher Seiler; her mother, April Elrod; Makenna's brother, Holden Elrod, 8, help decorate Makenna's altar.

April Elrod lost her 10-year-old daughter Makenna in the shooting and made sure her daughter's altar included her beloved Takis chips and Dum-Dum lollipops for people to try.

"It's the first time we've set one up. We're Baptists," she said. "It's not a holiday that we normally celebrate but we felt this year that we wanted to celebrate with the other families."

Butterflies adorned framed photos of Makenna playing softball and riding a horse.

Makenna Lee Elrod's photo of her in a horse at her altar.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Makenna Lee Elrod's photo of her in a horse at her altar.
Julian Moreno, 81, he was a pastor at the Primera Iglesia Bautista for 50 years. Moreno was Alexandria "Lexi" Aniyah Rubio's great-grandfather and said it is very difficult to attend church after Lexie was killed because it reminds him of her since she attended that church.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Julian Moreno, 81, a pastor at the Primera Iglesia Bautista for 50 years, and Alexandria "Lexi" Aniyah Rubio's great-grandfather. He and Lexi attended the same church and he says it's difficult for him to go, since she died.
Alexandria "Lexie" Aniyah Rubio's favorite food and things at her altar on Day of the Dead.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Alexandria "Lexie" Aniyah Rubio's favorite foods and things at her altar on Day of the Dead.
Faith Mata, Tess M. Mata's sister, left, remembers her sister along with Lexie's family in gray t-shirts and her parents Veronica Mata and Jerry Mata.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Faith Mata, left, remembers her sister Tess M. Mata along with Lexie's family, in gray t-shirts, and her parents Veronica and Jerry Mata.
Ana Rodríguez, Maite Rodríguez's mother, fixes a beanie hat that belonged to her daughter before she places it on top of her daughter's urn at her altar.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Ana Rodríguez, Maite Rodríguez's mother, places her daughter's beanie on top of the urn that contains her ashes.
Maite Y. Rodríguez's shoes displayed on her altar at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Maite Y. Rodríguez's shoes displayed on her altar at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.

Ana Rodriguez, mother of 10-year-old Maite Rodríguez, set her daughter's ashes atop her altar next to a pair of Maite's signature green Converse sneakers.

Hundreds of Uvalde residents had trickled into the cemetery by mid-afternoon.

As darkness fell, mariachis began to play and belt out ballads into the night, as most people were in no hurry to leave the cemetery and the souls they came to celebrate.

Eva Mireles' grave is seen decorated on Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Eva Mireles' grave is seen decorated on Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
Adalynn C. Ruíz, 23, Eva Mireles' daughter, serves her mother's favorite wine in front of her grave.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Adalynn C. Ruíz, 23, Eva Mireles' daughter, serves her mother's favorite wine in front of her grave.
A mariachi group plays during Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
A mariachi group plays during Day of the Dead at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
Tess Marie Mata's altar along with other family member pictures at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery on Nov. 2, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Tess Marie Mata's altar along with other family member's pictures at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
Jackie Cázares' offerings of her favorite food are seen on her altar.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Jackie Cázares' favorite food displayed on her altar.

One family settled in to watch the Houston Astros play in the World Series on a TV they set up. Another family watched the movie "Coco", about a Mexican boy who has an adventure on Dia de los muertos.

In the Uvalde town square, there was more food and music organized by lifelong resident Katie Fulton.

"All my life I've lived here and I don't think there's been any kind of celebrations like this," she said.

Adalynn C. Ruíz, 23, shakes Beto O'rourke's hand, the democratic candidate for governor of Texas at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Adalynn C. Ruíz, 23, shakes Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke's hand at Hillcrest Memorial Cemetery.

Fulton described how people in Uvalde often travel to nearby cities like San Antonio to join in their Día de los Muertos celebrations. This year, they could do it at home.

And Fulton hoped that for this one evening, the community, torn apart by the shooting and the controversy that has followed, could unite around the holiday.

"We can all just be one with this celebration," she said.

A thought echoed by Cazares, Jacklyn's dad, who organized the cemetery event.

"We're all hurting but at the same time, we're happy because we're here together," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tess Marie Mata's offerings of her favorite food.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Offerings on Tess Marie Mata's altar included her favorite foods.
People make bracelets with beads, one of Jacklyn "Jackie" Jaylen Cázares' favorite activities next to her grave on Day of the Dead on Nov. 2, 2022.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
People make bracelets with beads, one of Jacklyn "Jackie" Jaylen Cázares' favorite activities, next to her grave.

Verónica G. Cárdenas
Joey Palacios
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
Dan Katz
Estefania Mitre
Estefania Mitre (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for social media who works with visual elements to amplify stories across platforms. She has experience reporting on culture, social justice and music.