“Shhhh” is not a sound you will hear at the El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. Since the tragic massacre at Robb Elementary School on May 24, the public library has been filled with the boisterous voices of kids playing in the children’s book area, the yaps and cries of rescue dogs during a recent event, and the fans of superhero-themed bounce houses in the 30-foot rotunda during a mid-June festival.
On Saturday, the sounds of San Antonio musician Rudi Harst singing and playing guitar could be heard while spouse Zet Baer and her colleague Joan Frederick, both visual artists, gently guided youngsters applying watercolors and layers of colorful sticky tape to sheets of blank paper, creating playful collages.
Harst wandered amid the tables and improvised lyrics about what he observed. “There sits Seth with a big brush! One day in the library, nobody says ‘hush.’”
In another part of the expansive building, poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Jenny Browne led an open poetry workshop, asking kids to bring thoughts to mind, then form them into words on index cards.
After receiving guidance from Browne that “softness,” “teachers,” and “memory” are all good words for poems, 11-year-old Sarai read her poem aloud: “Llamas remind me of my third teacher, but dogs remind me of my fourth, so when I think of animals it makes me happy.”
As the Poetry Foundation Young People’s Poet Laureate and the friend of an Uvalde resident who lost his grand-niece Layla Salazar in the shooting, Nye felt driven to contribute to the traumatized community in any way that might help.
She heard from a friend that San Antonio scholar Ricardo Romo had made a connection with El Progreso Director Mendell Morgan, who sees the library as a community resource and gathering spot for anyone in need of focused distraction and positive energy.
“I view the role of the library as a civic and cultural center, a hub for the community,” Morgan said.
At first, Morgan thought he should close the library out of respect for suffering families, “but then I thought, no, that’s not going to help them. … The best way to help them would be to try to have the library as a safe haven, a refuge, a respite, a place to get away because many of us find wonderful escape through reading. It’s a way to grow, to get information to get outside ourselves and outside of our circumstances.”
Watch: San Antonio mariachis travel to Uvalde to offer songs for healing
A troupe of 40 San Antonio mariachis performed in the nearby town of Uvalde to memorialize victims of the shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Urged on by Romo’s suggestion, Nye rounded up a group of artistic friends to hold a creative and visual healing arts workshop, free and open to all. By early afternoon on Saturday, more than a dozen kids of various ages had crowded around tables piled with craft materials including markers, feathers, colored pencils, scissors, and books and magazines for collage scraps.
Jayce Carmelo Luevanos is one of the 19 slain Robb Elementary students whose names adorn the “tunnel of love” in the library’s entrance hall, a makeshift memorial and repository for gifts and cards sent to Uvalde from across the U.S. Luevanos’s 8-year-old friend Pedro watched as his siblings and other kids busily crafted, collaged and painted. Noah, 11 and ready to enter sixth grade, made a miniature hat out of a peace sign, adorned with orange tape and dyed bird feathers.
Earlier, 7-year-old Brandon, who had been set to attend second grade at Robb Elementary before the decision to shutter the school, painted a colorful bird that he said wanted to eat a dinosaur.
When his grandmother Dianna Diaz brought Brandon to Nye and Browne in the poetry room, the bird’s hunger softened to an appetite for the more traditional avian fare of worms.
Browne and Nye said the point of the workshop is not to have expectations about specific results, but only to create the conditions where creativity can help a person process their thoughts and feelings. One purpose of poetry, Browne said, is to “find some silence where you can hear yourself think.”
Nye said they also had no expectations about how many community members might show up for the workshop, or what they might get out of participating. “Maybe good things will happen for us tomorrow because of today,” she said.
Sitting with Mendell over a loaded veggie pizza as the poetry portion of the workshop subsided, Browne suggested that it might be interesting to have the poetry and healing workshops continue after the intensity of the past months subsides. Nye heartily agreed. “We could come back!” she said.
“Please,” Morgan said, without hesitation.