UVALDE, Texas (Nexstar) — As Lalo Diaz paces around the 21 crosses lining Uvalde’s town square, he sees the memories of his friends and their children.
Playing softball with Xavier’s dad. Hosting Lexi Rubio’s brother for daily basketball games with his own son. Walking to class in high school alongside Irma Garcia.
“She was the first person that I identified,” he said. “Because I knew her.”
Diaz is, first, a neighbor. But on May 24, 2022, he was the county coroner. It’s a routine responsibility for a Justice of the Peace in a county of just under 25,000. But in the hours after his friends were massacred at Robb Elementary School, he was the first to identify their bodies as they lay inside their fourth-grade classroom.
“It was a horrific scene,” he said. “The pictures that you see of Robb School when you’re looking at the hallway, you’re seeing those clean floors, green walls. To me, I just see red.”
Diaz is now transforming those scenes of horror into a vision of hope. As co-chair of the Uvalde CISD Moving Forward Foundation, he is a leading voice in the effort to build a new elementary school. As a graduate of the school they will now raze, it’s a deeply personal project.
“It’s tough to think that we’re going to have to move forward. What do we instill in our kids moving forward?” he said. “What legacy do we leave behind? [So] that they know the history of why we have this school, and hopefully provide the best education and the best start to our children.”
The plans promise a gem for a city whose newest school was built in the early 1980s. Lalo envisions a modern campus that “pops with color and energy,” while also memorializing the tragedy out of which it was born.
In the main hallway outside the new library will stand a grand oak tree with 21 limbs — two for the teachers Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, and 19 more for each of their murdered students.
The school will cost about $60 million and relies entirely on private donations. To date, the Moving Forward Foundation has raised more than 70 percent of that goal.
‘Moving forward,’ impossible
Felix and Kimberly Mata-Rubio have visited their daughter Lexi at the cemetery hundreds of times in the last year. Like her headstone, shaded by a baby tree and lined with her favorite yellow sunflowers, the new elementary school will be a physical reminder of their loss.
“There’s no moving forward without our loved ones,” Kimberly said. “I know that we need a new school and the children of Uvalde deserve that. But it’ll be a painful reminder when it goes up. Because this beautiful school is because of murdered children.”
To the parents, ‘moving forward’ can never mean ‘moving on.’ It means carrying their child’s legacy forward and asserting their continued presence in everyday life.
Lexi is still a part of the family in a real, tangible way. Her face is in every corner of their home, smiling and surrounded by her siblings in happier times. Her parents speak to her every day and often see signs of her returning to carry on the conversation.
“We were walking after having lunch in San Antonio and my kids were in the parking lot,” Kimberly remembered. “I took a picture of them and it wasn’t until we got back in the car that I was looking at it closer, at the clouds, that I saw a little yellow butterfly. I was like, ‘Oh, Lexi,’ Lexi’s in a photo with all of my kids, together once again. I live for those signs.”
To them, Lexi’s love is not just in the past, but the present. And they are committed to carrying it into the future. That is what ‘moving forward’ means to them.
“It shouldn’t be moving on and leaving our children behind,” she said. “It should be taking them with you. Taking them with you as change.”
For Kimberly, the second aspect of ‘moving forward’ lies in advocacy. Since the start of Texas’ 88th legislative session, she and other families have spent nearly every week at the capitol advocating for policy change they hope would prevent any other parent from feeling their pain.
Their pain inspired Uvalde’s Democratic state senator Roland Gutierrez to file dozens of pieces of legislation targeting gun safety reform, including safe storage requirements, tighter restrictions on firearms purchased at gun shows, and primarily, raising the age to buy AR-style semiautomatic rifles to 21.
Their calls went unanswered. Not only did none of Sen. Gutierrez’ bills pass, but none of them received as much as a committee hearing.
“We were let down,” Kimberly said. “This session, we went hard. We went hard trying to make some sort of change, some kind of compromise with Republicans in Texas. Raising the age from 18 to 21, that’s not a hard ask. It was disappointing.”
Moving forward, Kimberly promises even more ardent advocacy next session.
“I think we’ll push even harder because we’ll have had some time. We hit the ground running and we’re exhausted. But they should be terrified about that because we put up a good fight and we’re grieving,” she said. “I want to reach moms and dads everywhere. I want them to know our reality. And to choose to fight with us.”
At the cemetery, Kim and Felix imagined ways they can decorate Lexi’s memorial for the commemoration on May 24. They planned for upcoming trips around the country where they will continue their advocacy.
They stayed in a somber stare towards their daughter until it was time to pick up their other children from school. Felix placed a gentle goodbye kiss on two fingers and knelt to give it to Lexi.
As they drove away, a yellow butterfly danced in the cemetery grass.