University of Iowa alum directs ’21 murals’ honoring Uvalde victims

Butterflies in shades of blue, pink flowers and an image of instant Ramen noodles adorn the mural of smiling 9-year-old Eliahna Amyah Garcia in Uvalde, Texas.

Eliahna died on May 24.

She was one of 19 children and two teachers who were killed that day in a shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. It is the deadliest elementary school shooting in America since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

The Eliahna mural was painted by Abel Ortiz, who made Iowa City his home from 1999 to 2002, shopping at John’s Grocery or heading to West Liberty for Mexican food. He was a graduate student at the University of Iowa who earned his master’s degree that spring before heading to San Antonio for work.

The 55-year-old artist is a professor at Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, a position he has held for 20 years this fall. He has lived there for just as long, describing it as a “quiet town” and a “close-knit community,” back when it was best known as the hometown of actor Matthew McConaughey.

As Ortiz was consumed by news of the mass shooting that occurred at Robb Elementary — a school his two children once attended — he said he was struck by the need to take action.

“I was like, well, what can I do? What is in my power? And so I decided to do a mural project,” Ortiz told the Press-Citizen.

Eliahna’s mural is just one of 21 that have popped up around Uvalde throughout the summer, painted by artists in Texas who were forced to help Ortiz bring his idea to fruition.

“Everyone was invited to participate to be part of the mural process”: the family gets involved in the 21 murals

Ortiz didn’t want a single mural of all the victims across the building he owns, he said. There was to be a mural for every student and teacher, spread across the city.

“People can walk from one to the other like a memorial art walk,” he said.

Ortiz needed to find other locations for the murals, buildings with walls large enough to accommodate his vision.

As Ortiz secured a few walls, George Meza, who runs a Facebook group of art collectors and artists, recalled that Ortiz was from Uvalde and reached out to see if they could do something together. in response to the mass shooting.

Upon learning of Ortiz’s idea, Meza offered to help raise money for the project by running an art auction.

Meanwhile, Ortiz had appealed for artists to help paint the 21 murals. Monica Maldonado of the non-profit organization Mas Cultura responded, sharing her many connections with Texas artists and later becoming project manager of “21 Murals”.

They rounded up the artists they needed, each of them doing this as a “labor of love”, while the money raised went to pay for artists’ housing, supplies, etc.

While Ortiz found himself in a conundrum over securing just 14 walls for the murals, a solution came in the form of the St. Henry de Osso Family Project, a ministry providing family counseling, support and educational services.

The remaining murals were to be done on this building, which became “the heart of the project” with the other murals spread around it within a radius of about 5 miles, Ortiz said.

The most important task wasn’t coordinating nearly two dozen artists to come to Uvalde and paint a mural. This involved obtaining consent to paint these portraits of the families and loved ones of the 19 children and two teachers who died.

Ortiz said his team developed a background form the family could fill out that granted consent and invited them to share a favorite photo of their loved one to help inform the designs for the murals.

“We expected that some families might not like the idea, but everyone signed the consent form,” he said.

Nine-year-old Eliahna Amyah Garcia was one of 21 victims of the Robb Elementary School mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.  A portrait of Garcia is seen in Uvalde, Texas as part of artist Abel Ortiz. "21 murals" project, who stands in front of the mural.

Ortiz said most parents didn’t want them to use the photos that had been used by the media. They wanted to choose.

Ortiz painted Eliahna, who left behind her two parents, four sisters, and many other loved ones.

She loved basketball, Ramen noodles, dancing and the Disney movie “Encanto,” according to Tejano Nation, which reported on her funeral in June.

Ortiz painted Eliahna in her jersey, a nod to the basketball championship she won the Saturday before her death. The Ramen noodles she loved are also incorporated into her mural.

Eliahna’s parents joined Ortiz as he worked on his mural.

“I was there sometimes around two o’clock in the morning. But I wanted them to participate, so I had them paint flowers. Aunts and uncles came to paint a flower. The three sisters – (the fourth) is too small – painted a flower,” Ortiz said. “So everyone was invited to participate to be part of the mural process and most of the artists did. with family members.”

Sandra Gonzalez is an art teacher from San Antonio who painted fourth grade teacher Eva Mireles’ mural. She has done public art across the country, but especially in Texas.

“It was probably the most meaningful artistic experience of my life because we use art to heal or to start the healing process,” she said.

Gonzalez’s 18-by-30-foot mural features Mireles smiling brightly with her arms outstretched, holding a sign reading “always strong” with flowers in the lower half.

Eva Mireles was one of 21 victims of the Robb Elementary School mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.  A portrait of Mireles is seen in Uvalde, Texas as part of artist Abel Ortiz "21 murals" project.

Like Ortiz, Gonzalez enlisted the help of Mireles’ family to paint.

The family joined her in painting the flowers, she said. Other parents came to sit on the site, wanting to see the process. They played Mireles’ favorite songs, like that of the popular Mexican rock-pop group Maná, which coincidentally was also among Gonzalez’s favorites.

Community members also dropped by, offering water and food and seeing how else they could help, Gonzalez said.

“I did my best to capture its essence in the mural,” she said. “I’m able to capture the likeness, but I wanted to capture her spirit and the things she loved and all her passions. So I was happy when I found out the family loved the mural, and they gave it to me. said. The girl described it as, “That’s perfect.”

’21 Murals’ to Help Uvalde Community Heal and ‘Serve as Tribute’ to Lost Lives

Beyond the 21 murals, Ortiz coordinated others to be painted with the participation of teenagers and children.

Art therapists will be called in to help children in the Uvalde region participate in the creation of these murals.

Ortiz said one of Eliahna’s sisters was thrilled to get involved with the mural. She told Ortiz she was interested in art and helped him paint part of her sister’s mural.

There is a GoFundMe for the project,, with funds to be used to preserve the murals for years to come. “21 Murals” is nearing completion, with two more to be painted at the time of this publication.

Finally, there will be a dedication ceremony to complete the project.

Ortiz hopes people walk to each mural to experience each life, to ponder the art and the people like Eva or Eliahna. It’s part of the healing process, which is one of the goals of this project, to help heal the community through art, Ortiz said.

“The other aspect was to serve as a tribute, a remembrance, so we never forget the children, never forget the two teachers and we drive around town and we see them and we celebrate them every day,” said he declared.

Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and the arts at Iowa City Press-Citizen. Contact her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.

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