UVALDE, United States — Ryan Ramirez fought back tears at a Wednesday vigil as he spoke of his "lovable" 10-year-old daughter Alithia, an aspiring artist who was among the 19 schoolchildren killed in a cold-blooded shooting that has devastated a tight-knit community.
As mourners embraced and wept, relatives and friends of those murdered in the latest US school massacre gathered on the bleachers and on the dirt of a fairground arena in the small town of Uvalde.
Some in the crowd of about 1,000 held portraits of the dead, others squeezed stuffed animals and drawings, each struggling to comprehend the unspeakable horror of the previous day.
"I'm just heartbroken right now," Ramirez told AFP and others as Alithia's mother hugged their other daughter.
"She was a real good artist" and aspired to greatness, Ramirez said, flipping through a portfolio of Alithia's colorful paintings as well as birthday cards she drew for her mother.
"My daughter would want everybody that was involved to be strong, and keep it together. That's what we're trying to do."
Religious figures offered prayers at the bilingual vigil, where Governor Greg Abbott gripped Uvalde's Mayor Ruben Nolasco in a long hug.
A grieving Esmeralda Bravo held a photograph of her granddaughter Nevaeh, one of those who died.
"This has no explanation, my granddaughter did not deserve this," Bravo said quietly.
"She was a good little girl, very shy and very pretty," she added. "It means so much to me to have this support from the community, but I would rather have my granddaughter here with me."
Hours earlier and blocks away, Aida Hernandez shed bitter tears as she left mass at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church.
In the small house of worship off Uvalde's main street, the largely Hispanic congregation prayed for the victims of America's worst school shooting in a decade.
"My experience was of horror and pain. I knew the victims. I'm still in shock," said Hernandez, in her sixties.
The town of 15,000 inhabitants, located 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the border with Mexico, was until 24 hours ago like every other small US town: a grid of streets dotted with shopping malls, gas stations and fast-food chains.
But on Tuesday everything changed, when an 18-year-old gunman sowed carnage at Robb Elementary School, killing 19 young children and 2 of their teachers.
The massacre plunged residents into both incomprehension and despair.
"When you teach and you're in the classroom, that's your job to protect them," said Hernandez, who taught at Robb Elementary until she retired 2 years ago.
"They did more beyond what they were supposed to do."
'TOO MANY TIMES'
Rosie Buantel was equally grief-stricken -- but outraged, too.
"I'm sad and I'm angry at our government, for not doing more about gun control," the woman in her fifties told AFP.
"We've gone through this one too many times. And still there's nothing done. They're still debating."
Throughout the day, people in Uvalde made their way to a municipal center, where they could receive psychological support.
On the day of the shooting, many relatives and friends of the victims faced hours of anguished waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones.
In front of the municipal center, in the blazing midday Texas heat, groups of adults and children chatted, coming and going under the watchful gaze of police officers.
Volunteer psychologist Iveth Pacheco had traveled from San Antonio to provide support to those in need.
"It's just one of those situations where you just have to be present," she said. "We have to be ready for the child whatever questions they have, and it's the same thing with the adults right now."
Young Alithia had similar questions last September when she lost a close classmate, Nico, in a car crash in Dallas, her father said.
She processed the grief in one of the few ways that made sense: through art.
The girl made a richly detailed drawing of Nico up in heaven, looking down at the friend he left behind. In Alithia's picture, "he was drawing her down there," Ramirez said.