For Latinx victims of gun violence — now including families in Texas — grieving can be extra complicated. Here's why.

Uvalde, Texas May 25, 2022- Esmerralda Bravo holds a picture of her grandaughter Naveah, a shooting victim, Wednesday at the Uvalde County Fairplex to honor the fallen victims of a mass shooting during a vigil in Texas. Nineteen students and two teachers died when a gunman opened fire in a classroom yesterday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Esmerralda Bravo holds a picture of her slain granddaughter Naveah to honor the fallen victims of a mass shooting during a vigil in Texas. (Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As the world now knows, 19 children and two teachers are dead after last week's mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas at Robb Elementary School — which came just 10 days after the mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, in which a white teen targeted and killed 10 Black shoppers.

And just like the shootings in Buffalo were searing for Black citizens, the killings at Robb Elementary — a school with a 90% Hispanic/Latino population — cut deep for Latinx people, many of whom were still mourning the October 2019 shooting in El Paso that left 23 people dead, making that one of the deadliest attacks against Latinos in modern U.S. history.

The pain felt by people in Uvalde comes layered with the fact that Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence in the United States, according to research from Everytown, an organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. Over 4,100 Latinx people die from gun violence in America every year — amounting to about 11 deaths each day — while 13,300 are shot and wounded, according to the data.

Even more disturbing, Latinx children and teens are three times more likely to be killed by gun homicide than their white peers, according to Everytown's data. Each year, over 400 young Latinx people die from firearm suicide, which has increased 128% over the past decade — the highest increase among all young people killed by gun suicide.

Another study, from the Violence Policy Center, found that nearly 70,000 Hispanics were killed by firearms between 1999 and 2019 — including 44,614 gun homicide victims and 21,466 gun suicides. (Federal data analyzed for these statistics commonly uses the term “Hispanic," the study notes — meaning people of Spanish-speaking origin, as opposed to "Latino" or "Latinx," which refers to people of Latin-American origin.)

Systemic and cultural barriers

Despite these statistics, some experts say that due to systemic and cultural barriers, the specific needs of Latinx communities — particularly pertaining to victims and survivors of gun violence — often go ignored, under-funded and under-researched, making it difficult for people to grieve and heal.

Those barriers include the lack of Spanish-language resources; anxieties related to one’s immigrant status or the status of a loved one, which may prevent Latinx victims from receiving services and reporting crimes due to deportation fears; a lack of employment or earning a living wage, especially in large immigrant communities, which prevents victims from paying medical bills and/or seeking lawyers; and a lack of mental health services focusing on the specific needs of Latinx communities.

These factors are especially true for the working-class Latinx population in Uvalde, says Jose Alfaro, a gun-reform activist and the Latinx engagement director for Everytown. The area, sitting between San Antonio and the state’s border with Mexico, has a rich Mexican-American history. According to the U.S. Census, Uvalde has over 15,300 residents — nearly 82% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, with about 1 in 5 living below the poverty line.

A family stands together at a vigil for the 21 people killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
A family stands together at a vigil for the 21 people killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“I am grieving with the people of Uvalde,” Alfaro tells Yahoo Life. “School is the last place kids should have to worry about gun violence, especially when it includes members of our community that came to the U.S. in search of a better, safer life. We all deserve to be safe in school, at the grocery store, at our place of work, and in our neighborhoods — no matter our race, immigration status or zip code.”

Decades of generational trauma, he adds, have led to overarching mistrust of political systems and law enforcement. Recent criticism surrounding the city's police response to the Uvalde shooting has created more challenges. “It becomes difficult for families and individuals to process their trauma and grief” which can lead to “long-term mental and emotional health disparities,” he explains.

On Friday, Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the Latinx activist group Fiel Houston, helped organize a massive rally in Houston to protest the NRA's annual conference and to demand stricter gun reform. He says it was only the tip of the iceberg.

"We see a shift in generations," he tells Yahoo Life of the Latinx community. "We have folks that are grown here, that learn how to speak up and know how to be politically active." Espinosa argues that the history of Latinx oppression in the United States combined with a "disconnect" in language and cultural relevance among Latinx communities is creating a larger influx of first-generation activists standing together and making positive change.

"We believe that nobody is going to save us but ourselves," he says. "And so, when something happens to the Latino community, we have to take it on. We have to turn out in the same manner that other communities turn out for their communities."

Many of the barriers Latinx people face during traumatic events are clearly evident. In many cases, when there are no interpreters to support language access, the task is left to bilingual children, forced to report such horrific events to their relatives, which can be even more traumatizing for everyone involved.

Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse LGBTQ nightclub massacre that killed 49 people, remembers witnessing such barriers the night of the killings.

“The shooting at Pulse happened on Latin night,” Wolf, now a gun-violence prevention activist, tells Yahoo Life of the massacre, which at the time was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history (until the 2017 open-fire attack on Las Vegas concertgoers). “That meant that the families of those victims were in many cases Latino, and they were also in many cases immigrants. Some were undocumented.”

Wolf adds, “You could see immediately the barriers to resources that systemically exist. The gatekeepers to financial resources, for instance, the FBI. If you're an undocumented person, you don’t feel very safe to sit down with a federal law enforcement agent and tell them your story so that you can get access to resources. The materials being provided weren't always provided in Spanish, and so people were struggling to find access, because there wasn't language accessibility.”

Similarly, in Uvalde, reported rumors of ICE agents patrolling the area and fears of deportation allegedly kept many families from getting close to the scene — and many of those who did get close were reportedly treated like criminals by police. While there were border patrol agents present due to the fact that it's relatively close the U.S./Mexico border, rumors that they were there for the purpose of arresting undocumented people went unconfirmed.

Still, Espinosa says, it's a testament to the very real threats the community faces. Keeping these fears bottled up, he argues, can have long-term mental health challenges that prevent families from healing, putting them at a bigger disadvantage.

The impact on children and families

Andrea Ocampo, a clinical psychologist at UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, says an added challenge Latin-American parents face is explaining these events to their children, but that it's vital to do so anyway.

“Start the conversation with your child, provide affection, and also ask them about their feelings,” she advises parents through speaking with Yahoo Life. “If we don’t have these conversations, it may seem even more threatening. Also, starting the conversation enables parents and caregivers to understand what their child actually knows about the event and provide more facts and context.”

In these conversations, she adds, it is critical to listen to your child, to “acknowledge their feelings and reactions,” to “empathize with their feelings” and to gently correct any misinformation "in an age and culturally sensitive manner.”

These conversations can be more complicated for families with historical trauma, she adds, especially those who might have fled war-torn countries or other violence. “This historical trauma is passed down through generations and can lead to fear and mistrust as a way of survival,” she explains.

Uvalde, Texas May 25, 2022- A fourth grade teacher at Robb Elementary school consoles her student after a vigil at the Uvalde County Fairplex in Texas Wednesday. The teacher who did not give her name said I told my students to get down and pray after she heard the gun fire. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A fourth grade teacher at Robb Elementary school consoles her student after a vigil in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday. The teacher, who did not give her name, said, "I told my students to get down and pray" after she heard the gunfire. (Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Speaking directly to Latinx families in mourning right now, she says, “Remember that your culture and traditions can be a source of strength. It might be at your church or family where you find emotional support. You are not alone in your grief.”

Espinosa stresses that when more Latinx people vote with their best interests in mind, the more positive changes we can see for families.

"There should be a lot more funding allocated to help our Latino families, seeing that we are the largest growing minority — at least in the state of Texas, if not the United States," he says. "Latino people need to become more engaged not only in voting, but also in advocating, because... whatever comes our way is going to disproportionately affect the Latino community. We need to have our stake in our own game and make sure that we make our voice heard."

Alfaro agrees, adding that in order to address systemic and cultural barriers, politicians and local leaders “need to meet Latinx communities where they are” in order to “get a better understanding of how Latinx communities conceptualize gun violence.”

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