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Texas artists honor the Uvalde victims with 21 murals they hope will help healing

Some of the murals that have gone up in Uvalde in memory of children who were killed at the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.
Jake Morgan/TPR
Some of the murals that have gone up in Uvalde in memory of children who were killed at the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School.

UVALDE, Texas — Artists from across the state have come together in this small southwest Texas town to honor the 19 students and two teachers killed in late May at Robb Elementary School. They've painted giant portraits of each victim with the hope of helping the community heal.

It's a huge endeavor at any time, but most especially during Texas in August.

It's morning time but already sweltering just off Uvalde's pecan tree-lined town square. The artist who goes by the name Uloang, has been up all night painting, to avoid the blistering midday sun.

"I'm half awake!" he said.

A few hours earlier, he'd put the finishing touches on a 20-by-20-foot portrait of Maranda Mathis on the side of an office building. She's one of the fourth-graders killed at Robb Elementary School.

"As I was painting her face, and once I felt like I was getting her smile down, I could see her personality coming through," Uloang said. "And I just kind of felt like, 'Oh, hi, Maranda! There you are.' And I could barely hold it together. Definitely shed a few tears."

The mural is based off her mother's favorite photo of the young girl.

"Her mom mentioned that she loved being in nature, picking up river rocks," he said.

In Uloang's portrait, Maranda stands smiling in turquoise waters. Eleven Koi fish swim around her, a number chosen because she was 11 years old. She holds a brilliant amethyst crystal instead of river rocks, like in the original photo. Uloang said the idea came to him when he was sketching, and when he shared his drawing with Maranda's mom, she had a visceral reaction.

Flowers and gifts are left at a memorial outside of Robb Elementary School.
/ Jack Morgan/TPR
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Jack Morgan/TPR
Flowers and gifts are left at a memorial outside of Robb Elementary School.

"She told me that when she saw that it was amethyst crystal in the sketch, she got chills," he said.

As it turns out, amethyst is Maranda's birthstone and purple was her favorite color. Uloang also added pink water lilies, which he later discovered were her mom's favorite flower.

"And there's been other things just kind of that would just kind of give me chills," Uloang said. "I felt like I was being guided in a way, to be honest."

Overseeing the portrait project is Abel Ortiz, who teaches art at a Uvalde college. As the project's creator, his idea was to make the 21 murals monumental.

"We never want to forget their faces," Ortiz said. "That's why they had to be murals of portraits and not just regular murals."

Ortiz didn't know 21 Texas muralists, so he put out a call for help. Monica Maldonado answered that call. Shortly after the shooting in May, she drove the three hours from her Austin home to pay her respects.

"At that moment, I knew that God was going to use me," Maldonado said. "I didn't know how, but I knew that I would be involved in some way in the journey of healing for Uvalde."

For Maldonado, that journey involved helping find buildings to host the murals and finding most of the muralists, all of whom have volunteered their time.

Uvalde residents have stopped by every day to thank the artists and bring them meals.

One recent afternoon, around the corner from Maranda's portrait, a family stood in front of two side-by-side murals. Veronica Luevonos spoke softly about the paintings.

"That's my daughter's. And that's my nephew's," she said.

Luevanos lost her daughter, 10-year-old Jailah Silguero, and her nephew, Jayce Luevanos, also 10 years old. She remembered her daughter's favorite experiences.

"She loved dancing, playing outside, being around her friends," she said.

Jailah's portrait shows her smiling in her cheerleading uniform, which she wore each Friday during football season. Luevanos said Jayce was a sweet little boy.

"Always had everybody laughing, like Jailah."

A mural in memory of student Jailah Silguero.
/ Jack Morgan/ TPR
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Jack Morgan/ TPR
A mural in memory of student Jailah Silguero.

Artist Ruben Esquivel chose to paint Jayce with his favorite dinosaur ninja, a paper plane and a cup of coffee, like he made for his grandparents every day.

"And this is like his final cup of coffee to them," Esquivel said. "He also used to write them love letters. So the paper plane is this kind of final letter, and it's going to say, 'I love you' on the wing in his handwriting."

Veronica Luevanos says all the portraits are beautiful.

"It brings a lot of joy to us," she said. "A lot of comfort."

She said she plans to visit Jailah and Jayce here for the rest of her days.

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

Jack Morgan