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Dia de Los Muertos resonates deeply with the Uvalde community this year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Uvalde, Texas, last night, the community marked Dia de los Muertos, the first one since a gunman killed 21 people at Robb Elementary School in May. As Texas Public Radio's Joey Palacios reports, families made sure all their loved ones' favorite foods and other things were there as they welcomed back their souls for the evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Hillcrest Cemetery glowed with candlelit gravesites, flying paper lanterns and twinkling lights strung across ornately decorated altars. Mariachis serenaded the family and grave of 9-year-old Jacklyn Cazares, who was killed along with 18 of her classmates and two teachers.

JAVIER CAZARES: The myth, the legend, whatever, it's - today they're here with us, here, dancing around, having a good time with their families.

PALACIOS: That's Jacklyn's father, Javier Cazares. It's believed that during Dia de los Muertos, the souls of the departed return. Cazares says his family has marked the holiday for several years, but this time is different.

CAZARES: Having all these children and teachers here at the same time, you know, it hurts that much more. It means that much more. So we want to celebrate their lives.

PALACIOS: Cazares encouraged the families of the other Robb Elementary School victims to come together this night and build altars, or ofrendas. Early in the evening, he called for 21 seconds of silence and read the names of all 21 people that were killed.

CAZARES: Remember Uziyah "Uzi" Garcia, Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, Xavier Lopez, Makenna Lee Elrod...

PALACIOS: Makenna Elrod's mother April said her family doesn't normally celebrate Dia de los Muertos, and this is their first altar.

APRIL ELROD: We've never set up one before. We're Baptist, but we wanted to participate this year.

PALACIOS: She made sure McKenna's altar included her favorite Dum-Dums lollipops and spicy Takis chips.

ELROD: Which were her favorite, even though I hardly ever let her eat them because I'm like, they're terrible for you. But they were her favorite.

CAZARES: Nearby, Ana Rodriguez placed an urn with her daughter Maite's ashes on her ofrenda. There were also her daughter's signature green Converse sneakers with a black heart she'd drawn on the toe. Maite was identified by green Converse after the shooting. As the evening turned into night, hundreds of people stayed on in the cemetery, in no hurry to leave the souls they came to celebrate. The mariachis continued to belt out ballads.

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CAZARES: Although Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of life, for Leticia Arizmendi, the grandmother of 9-year-old Ellie Garcia, it also hurt because the lives of Ellie and the others, lost some five months ago, were cut so short.

LETICIA ARIZMENDI: She didn't even get to be 10. And to me, it's brought a whole lot of emotion back.

PALACIOS: Arizmendi says she knows that the dead coming back to visit on Dia de los Muertos is supposed to give you comfort.

ARIZMENDI: But to me, I've had a couple of, like, rough days.

PALACIOS: As Arizmendi and families continue to feel the pain, they know at least that the Dia de los Muertos tradition ensures that the memories of their loved ones, the Robb victims, will be passed down from generation to generation. For NPR News, I'm Joey Palacios in Uvalde.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "MEDITATION 22") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joey Palacios