In Ovaldi, tragedy and food bring community together: NPR


Romy Perez and Elia Zamariba at Perez’s house. The two are among the many organizing impromptu cookouts to prepare meals for victims’ families.

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Romy Perez and Elia Zamariba at Perez’s house. The two are among the many organizing impromptu cookouts to prepare meals for victims’ families.

North Eisenman/NPR

As the residents of Ovaldi grapple with the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, many try to pacify their community with an ancient salve: food.

The townspeople organize their outings to prepare meals for the families of the victims. Gatherings have an impromptu feel. Best friends Romy Perez and Elia Zamariba — both in their mid-60s — learned of one of these plans when they bumped into a friend at Walmart, who told them his family would grill burgers to distribute at a place commonly referred to as “The Mexican Garden.”

We just said, ‘Okay, let’s go! ‘ says Zamariba.

On the way, Zamariba points out a towering oak tree growing in the middle of the road.

“When they were building new homes on either side of the road, they needed to cut the road where the tree was,” she explains. “But that tree has been there years and years – even before their great-great-grandparents probably.”

She adds that in Ovaldi, an acorn is not cut.

This is a place where the roots are important. Many descend from Mexican farm worker families that have been intertwined for many generations, and it seems everyone knows everyone.

This same connection made the mass shooting at Robb Elementary school all the more painful. “It’s just something we just can’t believe,” Perez says. “Uvald! Our little town.”


Romy Perez (left) and other volunteers gather at an impromptu cooking party outside to prepare meals for the families of the victims.

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Romy Perez (left) and other volunteers gather at an impromptu cooking party outside to prepare meals for the families of the victims.

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When they reached the park, the two friends went to a young man in the wood pile in a huge grill.

Zamariba and Perez don’t actually know him. But this way in Uvalde, it takes about two seconds to find out who it is – Jerry Martinez, their friend’s brother-in-law who organized this encounter.

The conversation immediately turns to one of the lives lost in this tragedy.

“You know, shooter? I know his family very well,” Martinez says. “He lived down the street with my mom when he was a kid.”

And because this is Uvalde, they mourn him too – as one of their own.

He was 18 years old. But Martinez frequently refers to him as “that little kid.”

“It’s really sad, all the way,” he sighs.

Perez clicks her tongue – switching between English and Spanish, as many Ovaldi’s Latins do, as she questions the demons haunting him. “He must have been so pissed off for having the kids in it,” she says.


Romy Perez chats with Jesse Ortiz at the grill.

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Romy Perez chats with Jesse Ortiz at the grill.

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Zamariba is worried about the grandmother who was shot by the young man before she went to school. Zamariba and Perez have been friends for years and have known her as Sally.

“Everyone knows Sally. She was extroverted, loves gardening, loves her plants,” says Zamariba.

About a week ago, they circled around Sally’s house to pick up some plants she was selling.

“She’s in the hospital now,” says Zamariba, in a stifled voice. “And we all pray.”

More people are showing up to help pack burgers into paper bags – including Monique Rodriguez. She was wearing a white T-shirt with the words “Uvalde Strong” printed on it. Her 9-year-old daughter, Adeline, is standing by her side, her hair in a high ponytail, and her somber expression.

The girl was in Rob when the shooting started. Rodriguez says that by the time she was finally reunited with her, Adeline was in hysterics.

Days later, Rodriguez says her daughter “has had moments when she just cried.”

Rodriguez tries to at least keep Adeline busy and focused on helping others.

“I do it for her because I know she’s the one who’s really going through something. And I’ll never know because I’m not in her head. And she went through it herself.”

Now, she says, all they can do is work together.

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