As Abel Ortiz followed the evening news about the horrific killing of 21 of his fellow Uvalde, Texas residents nearly a year ago, he knew that he would have to do something. Inaction was not an option. He knew two of the families who lost their children that day, and his two children had attended Robb Elementary where 19 children and two teachers had been murdered.
As an artist, Ortiz’s thoughts turned to painting a mural dedicated to the memory of those lost to this
senseless tragedy. The healing idea came from his 1st grade tramatic experience where pencils and crayons helped him calm his fears of a new life in the United States. Soon, with the help of community activist Monica Maldonado and mental health professional Dr. George Meza, Ortiz committed to recruit artists to paint 21 murals in downtown Uvalde to honor the memory of those who lost their lives on May 24, 2022.
Abel Ortiz came to Uvalde by way of Zaragoza, Coahuila where he was born. His family emigrated to the United States when he was seven and his father worked on an Ozona ranch in West Texas. He attended a nearby elementary school. After his parents divorced, his mother moved the family to the border town of Del Rio, Texas where he finished middle and high school. Following high school graduation in Del Rio, Ortiz worked for several years at a local Holiday Inn cleaning and making small repairs.
Desiring to do something more meaningful and interesting, Ortiz left to study art at San Antonio College [SAC]. There he met fellow art student Cruz Ortiz and learned about the work of artists Jesse Trevino, Adam Hernandez, and Jesse Amado. He earned more than 100 hours at SAC before transferring to UTSA. Ortiz’s excellent academic record at UTSA earned him a
scholarship at the University of Iowa where he first completed a Master’s in Art, followed by a Master’s in Fine Art the following year. He found a teaching post at Southwest Texas Junior College in 2003 and is now an Associate Professor of Art at that campus.
Abel Ortiz connected with Dr. George Meza, a Los Angeles based Clinical Psychologist and an avid Chicano
art collector, soon after the school killing, and they began planning how to raise funds to complete the 21 murals. Dr. Meza had learned of Ortiz’s plans to dedicate the murals to honor the Uvalde victims and reached out to him through social media. Dr. Meza organized an online auction of Chicano Art throught his Facebook group called Collectors of Chicano/LatinX Art & Allies. After raising $30,000, Ortiz and Meza reached out to Monica Maldonado of Austin to help. She organized another GoFundMe and raised over $12,000. She helped by identifying artists for the Uvalde project and served as Project Manager. Toward the end of the project, the Kelly Clarkson TV show donated $10,000 to help complete the murals.
Monica Maldonado, who founded the nonprofit MAS Cultura organization in Austin, was raised by an immigrant single mother. She noted on her website that her “inspiration is fueled by early childhood struggles.” She added that cultural preservation and celebration of Latino culture begins with accessibility and representation. Maldlonado’s first art project in 2019 involved curating a pop art event showcasing photography of Austin’s Lowriders. Throughout 2020 and 2021, she organized murals, initiated events and programming, and volunteered in areas identified as underserved.
While working in Austin’s real estate industry,
Maldonado identified weak links among artists needing resources to enhance their trade. Maldonado’s desire to support and showcase the work of emerging and underrepresented Latino and Black artists led her to establish MAS Cultura in Austin. In 2021 she served as the Project Manager of Austin’s Inaugural Latino Art WKND, a three-day experience showcasing art from 65 Latino artists.
Maldonado wanted to be sure that the Uvalde families gave permission for the murals and that they would be involved in addressing the direction and focus of the art works. The mural team waited until the last funeral to start
reaching out to the families to attain permission in writing for the murals. The grieving families were asked to provide a list of their loved one’s favorite things and images they wanted to feature. Once permission was granted, Maldonado assigned each artist a subject. In every mural the focus is on the individual. In each mural of the 19 children, the child is surrounded by valued objects, such as a basketball, a team sport shirt, a teddy bear, or a pet.
The mural by Abel Oritz of Eliahna ‘Ellie’ Amyah Garcia portrays the child holding a basketball and wearing a shirt with the word “Champion.” In a mural by Silvia Ochoa and Courtney Jimenez, Makenna Lee Elrod is shown with her dog and a favorite horse. A mural of Jose Manuel Flores Jr. by Albert “Tino” Ortega shows the child’s love of baseball. Young Flores wears #6 on his uniform in the mural. Eliahna Torres is standing next to the words, “My Forever #4.” Her cat sits near her feet, and she is surrounded by sunflowers and butterflies.
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong of the book Art as Therapy, suggest that “Art validates our sorrow.” Art can provide a different perspective or vantage point from “which to survey our own sadness and find a way to deal with it.” Art, they argue, helps us to “complete our own
unformed thoughts and ideas.” The authors found that art has the capacity of recording and preserving emotions.
Once the project was under way, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. sent researchers to document the mural project and hired San Antonio photographer Al Rendon to record in film and video the painting process. Abel Ortiz told Smithsonian researchers that “The idea [is] to heal, at least to begin healing, to cope
with the tragedy, or begin to cope with it, and to pay tribute, and to always honor the victims as a remembrance.”
Jack Morgan of Texas Public Radio observed that “The school shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School not only stole children and teachers, but also a community’s sense of itself.” Morgan saw the artistic effort as one that would help heal the Uvalde residents. Houston artist Anat Ronen, who painted the mural of Tesa Maria Mata, told Morgan: “No amount of murals can ever change what happened. But the murals might affect the way forward, if only slightly. Art doesn’t change the horrific nature of the tragedy, but it helps people to cope with it, maybe as they try to continue with their lives.”
The artists put their hearts into their paintings. Texas is known for its scorching summers, and Uvalde temperatures sometimes reach 110 in July and August. Uloang, an Austin artist, referred to the heat in the middle of the day as “unberable.” He told reporter Morgan that he would arrive at the Maranda Gail Mathis mural site he worked on at 6 a.m., work until noon, come back at 7:30 p.m. and work until past midnight. He noted “and last night we were here till 5 a.m.” Nearby communities donated food and equipment. Moises Valdez in Carrizo Springs provided lift equipment every weekend over the summer of the mural project.