On Wednesdays, the El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde closes at 6 p.m. sharp, and on this particular day, the director wanted to lock up so he could make it in time for a prayer vigil across town.

But about 15 reporters were at the tables, having found a quiet place with reliable internet to work, and children’s book author Chris Scoggin from San Antonio was busy autographing the 300 books he planned to donate to the library.

So Mendell Morgan opened the building’s foyer and welcomed them to stay past closing time.

“We appreciate the outpouring of compassion for our community and the way people I think in a very sensitive way are trying to tell this unspeakable story and to help the community to begin to heal,” Morgan said. “I want to support that.”

Life in the close-knit town of Uvalde changed on Tuesday when a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School and injured many others. Other towns where mass shootings have occurred become synonymous with those tragedies, but people like Morgan are holding on to what they appreciate most about the place they call home — and they want the people paying so much attention to Uvalde now to know those things about it, too.

“I feel I have purpose to be here, and people are very gracious and supportive in every way,” he said.

Uvalde is a city of more than 15,000 people, the seat of a mostly rural county of the same name with a total population less than double that number. The town’s population is majority Hispanic. 

Busy crossroads

Located 80 miles due west of downtown San Antonio and 54 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Uvalde straddles the regions of both the Hill Country and the coastal plains and is a gateway to chaparral country. 

The 7.6-square-mile city is also situated at a literal crossroads where two of the longest highways in the nation — U.S. Highway 90 going east-west and U.S. Highway 83 going north-south — intersect. 

“It’s of course a ranching and farming center, and that’s really what has made it grow over the years,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which oversees the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde. 

But those major thoroughfares keep it busier than other such towns in Texas, he added. 

Both the library and museum are just blocks from where the highways converge. On both sides of Highway 90 there are motels and restaurants, the usual retail outlets, including an H-E-B store and Walmart, a few upscale local merchants and a 66-bed hospital serving several counties.

At El Taco Madre food stand on Evans Street, Mike Palacios sells street tacos, nachos and other Tex-Mex favorites. In recent years, Palacios said, Uvalde has kept crime at a minimum and is mostly a peaceful place. Once a predominately white town, it has become “a melting pot” with a thriving Hispanic community, he said.

“We’re just a small community that sticks together,” said Palacios, who has lived in Uvalde for 14 years. “You’re driving down the road, and the opposite car’s saying hi, and everybody is just real friendly.”

Uvalde is also home to a branch of Sul Ross State University and Southwest Texas Junior College. The city has its own well-developed airport and an active chamber of commerce, founded in 1920. 

Employment in education services, health care and social assistance account for the highest number of jobs (22%), according to the Uvalde Area Economic Development Foundation, followed by agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining (12%). The median household income is $31,185.

Wildlife, both native and exotic, is abundant in the area, feeding a healthy hunting tourism industry. In 2010, the magazine Outdoor Life named Uvalde County one of the best white-tailed deer hunting areas in the world.

Spiritual life is important in the region, Morgan said, with churches of many denominations in Uvalde.

‘Loyal and true’

Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, which serves about 4,000 students and employs more than 730 full-time staff members across eight campuses, has as its motto “Loyal and true.” For many of its residents, the idea that the town’s schools would be anything other than a place of learning and safety was inconceivable.

Celeste Ibarra’s 9-year-old daughter, Aubriella Melchor, attends Robb Elementary and survived the attack by hiding in a bathroom stall.

Until Tuesday, Ibarra felt safe in the community she describes as “very tight-knit.” She grew up in Uvalde. It’s where her family — her mom, brothers, sisters and grandparents — lives.

“We’ve never had to worry about things like this. Everybody knows each other,” she said. “We’re a peaceful, quiet little town.”

Ibarra owns a livestock ranch and a concrete business, while her siblings are in the medical field, some working as nurses and radiologists. For fun, the family travels to nearby Concan, where the Frio River offers tubing and other water activities in the spring and summer.

History and political power

Founded in 1853 as the town of Encina, Uvalde gets its name from Spanish governor Juan de Ugalde, a change made when the city was designated the county seat three years later. 

It was once a major stop on the railroad and was renowned for the huajillo honey produced in the area. In 1905, Uvalde was named the Honey Capital of the World at the world’s fair in Paris.

Two prominent politicians hailed from Uvalde: John Nance Garner, who served as the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dolph Briscoe, Texas’ 41st governor.

Briscoe, a rancher and businessman, was elected governor in 1972 and led the state six years. His mentor was another Democrat, Garner, considered one of the most powerful vice presidents in history. 

“This little town, while Garner was living, had a sort of parade of very powerful and influential people coming to visit,” the Briscoe Center’s Carleton said. “Those two men played huge roles in shaping that county, its destiny and growth.”

Today, the county leans conservative and is represented by Republican Tony Gonzales in Congress and two Democrats, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez and Rep. Tracy King, in the Texas Legislature.

Moving beyond grief

Residents said the lifestyle in Uvalde has always held a unique charm.

“I would say it’s a very nice place to live,” said Gary Heyen, who grew up in Uvalde and returned 15 years ago when he retired. At 81, he appreciates that the town has everything he needs “without the hassle of a big city.”

Heyen played high school football and occasionally attends a game at his alma mater. He ventures out with his wife to nearby Concan to swim or watch people dancing under an open-air pavilion.

Growing up, “it was very easy to be here, easy to make friends, enjoyable,” Heyen said. “I don’t think I could find a better place to live, honestly.”

Now, as Uvalde grieves the deadliest day in its collective memory, the city is feeling the outpouring of sympathy and support from San Antonio and beyond.

“I believe that we will get through this,” said Palacios, the food stand owner. “We are Uvalde and we are Uvalde strong,” he said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Aubriella Melchor’s name.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.

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Raquel Torres

Raquel Torres is the San Antonio Report's breaking news reporter. She previously worked at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and is a 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University.