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UVALDE, Texas — The mourners wore shades of purple Tuesday afternoon as they streamed into Uvalde’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church to say goodbye to Amerie Jo Garza.
It was her favorite color, especially the lighter tones: lilac and lavender.
Her dad, Angel Garza, had asked visitors on Facebook to wear the color to "honor our little hero," described in her obituary as a "kind, caring, blunt, loving, sweet, sassy and of course funny little diva."
Amerie, 10, a fourth grader who loved swimming and drawing and Starbucks and Chick-fil-A and who dreamed of someday becoming an art teacher, was the first of 19 children to be laid to rest Tuesday after the shooting massacre at her elementary school last week. She was shot as she was dialing 911 to help her classmates, her family said.
“She was just taken too early,” said Jesus Alvarez, a second cousin to Amerie, who spoke after her burial Tuesday. He praised Amerie for trying to get help after a gunman entered the school.
“She did what she could to help other kids,” Alvarez said. “She was a hero.”
The Girl Scouts of the USA posthumously gave Amerie one of its highest honors, the Bronze Cross, which is awarded for "saving or attempting to save life at the risk of the Girl Scout’s own life." The organization also honored Amerie at her funeral.
“You could see how much she was loved and how much she’ll be missed and how much her family wants her to be remembered,” said Stephanie Finleon Cortez, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas, who attended Amerie’s funeral Mass.
The tragedy in Uvalde has raised questions about police response and reignited the debate around gun control in the U.S. But in this small community about 83 miles west of San Antonio, it has brought immeasurable grief.
Amerie's funeral Tuesday afternoon was to be followed by a service for Maite Rodriguez on Tuesday night. Wednesday will bring visitations and funeral masses for other students. And so on it will go until the middle of June as this heartbroken community says goodbye again and again to its daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, classmates, students and friends.
Arnoldo Treviño Díaz, a relative of Amerie’s father, said the Rev. Eduardo Morales told those gathered at her burial that they need to put aside anger, come together and love one another. Díaz said the priest said: “She has not left. She is still here. We should not mourn, because she was such a happy person.”
He said he took solace that in her death, Amerie brought family together. He said he met children and grandchildren of cousins and relatives he didn’t know. Díaz, a veteran Marine Corps military police officer, said he saw a friend from his 1995 boot camp who he didn’t know was part of his family.
Still, grief is palpable even outside the churches where services are taking place.
“There are a lot of families who are suffering,” said Arnold Lopez, of San Antonio, the uncle of Xavier Lopez, 10, who died in the shooting. “Who would have expected it to happen here, in this town, in a small community?”
Lopez, who was born and raised in Uvalde and spoke while visiting a memorial for the victims in front of the elementary school Tuesday, said he has taken comfort that his nephew and the other slain children are in a “better place.”
“He’s an angel. All of these kids are angels,” Lopez said.
Also at the memorial was U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who traveled to Uvalde Tuesday to attend mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and meet with Uvalde Superintendent Dr. Hal Harrell, according to his office. It was not clear if he attended Amerie's funeral.
"Today, I am just here as a father, as an educator to express my deepest sympathy with the Uvalde community, with the families of those who perished, both the children and the educators," Cardona said. "This shouldn’t happen. I’m here grieving with them and will continue to keep them in our prayers and be here to support them as much as they need for as long as they need.”
At the Walmart, a large banner stretched from the ceiling with the names of each of the victims. A table with votive candles and each person’s name also stood at the entry. Plastic vases of silk flowers were piled in a box, for sale.
Near the front of the store, a mental health professional offered information about where residents can get counseling.
Later, hundreds of people, some toting umbrellas to shield themselves from the Texas sun, gathered near a large bouquet of pink balloons and a pair of feathery white angel wings and watched as pallbearers lifted Amerie’s tiny casket from a hearse to an area under a large tree where the dirt had been freshly unearthed.
Ana Gonzalez, 62, sat in a walker in the shade of a tree after the service. Gonzalez, of Crystal City, she said Amerie was her first cousin’s granddaughter.
“As I told my cousin, I have spent every night crying until 3 a.m."
Rose Roman, of San Antonio, said she came to support her best friend and her family, who are related to Amerie.
The priest’s words helped them, Roman said.
“She’s alive. She is not dead,” she said, relaying the priest's words that Amerie's spirit continues.
“We are not here to [commemorate] her death. We are here to celebrate her living.”