Caitlyne Gonzales should not be a finalist for The Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year. Her name should not be familiar to people across the state. She should not be haunted by evil dreams every time her mother wishes her “good night.” She should not have a habit of visiting the graves of classmates. She should still be under the innocent, fifth-grade impression that, as she told classmate Marley Arellano this summer, the president of the United States is named Joe Byron.
But in Caitlyne’s life, and the lives of thousands of Texans affected by gun violence, what should be is shattered, and what should never be has become horrifyingly real.
Caitlyne is a survivor of the school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde on May 24. That day, she huddled in the corner of Room 106, holding Marley’s hand, listening to a gunman execute 19 of their classmates and two teachers across the hall, saying “good night” as he pulled the trigger.
Caitlyne knew all the victims, and since that awful day she has spoken for them. She demanded accountability for the law enforcement personnel who loitered for more than an hour in the school hallway listening to gunshots. She visited the nation’s capital and asked lawmakers to pass gun reform so that her nightmare might not be visited on others. She kept the memory of her classmates alive, speaking at rallies and memorials, visiting the shrines and murals created in their memory, decorating their graves.
Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox called her “Robb’s most public survivor, a voice for her friends who were dead and for those who were alive but too daunted to say anything … a 4-foot-8, 75-pound embodiment of the maroon ‘Uvalde Strong’ flags flying all over Texas.”
Standing before senators, a school board and hundreds of grieving Texans, Caitlyne shouldered a burden that should never have been hers and seemed much too large for someone in sneakers and a hair bow. The father of one of the victims captured her fierceness brilliantly when he tweeted a photo of Caitlyne speaking to the Uvalde school board along with another of the “Fearless Girl” sculpture facing down the Charging Bull statue in New York.
For most 10-year-olds — indeed, for most adults — the trauma she lived through might have been enough to ruin a soul, to curl up a promising young life in a ball of anxiety, anger, confusion, escapism and self-harm. Indeed, Caitlyne will have to deal with post-traumatic stress for years to come. But Caitlyne sees herself as a “helper,” Cox reported, so her response to tragedy has been to do what she can for others. In that way, she represents the community of people who have supported one another over the last seven months, through the aftermath of tragedy, through the funerals, through a media frenzy, through Día de los Muertos and the start of a school year and the first holiday season without loved ones.
It’s too much to expect Caitlyne Gonzales to facilitate the healing our state needs or the gun reform our politicians ignore. For us to burden her with that expectation would only serve to compound her loss. Her nomination here should be read as a note of gratitude for the strength she has already shown, not an appointment to the role of Uvalde spokesperson. Caitlyne needs to be a kid in 2023.
But before 2022 ends, we’ll thank her for speaking up. She should not be a finalist for Texan of the Year, not for her ties to a tragedy. But for her grace, courage and maturity beyond her years, she is.