Illustration by Jason Stout

We Were Known for Our Rivers

A grieving daughter channels family memories along the Nueces

by Kimberly Garza

The chill of the water hits first—so cold and shocking it’s nearly nuclear. My body feels it before my mind does. I erupt into goose bumps and shivers simultaneously. And then, as my brain registers the icy water, come the yelps. No, not icy—spring-fed. But still.

It’s a warm April day at Chalk Bluff River Resort, and I’m taking my first steps off the banks of white rocks into the forest-green waters of the Nueces River. I have only waded up to my calves, but I can’t stop flinching. I let out little whoops to psych myself up to step further, go deeper. All around me are the sounds of a Saturday in river country: adults setting up tents and portable grills on the banks; scents of seasoned meat and onion; fearless kids swimming through the water smooth as bass; radios blasting Megan Thee Stallion, Morgan Wallen, Selena, and other music that mingles with our chatter, splashing, laughter.

My hometown is 15 minutes away. I grew up on this river and the others like it nearby. I’d jump off rope swings into the water with my sister and my dad, splash my mother—who was usually warm and dry on the rocks—so she shrieked and laughed. All of this on the Nueces now should be familiar. The sounds, the cold. But it isn’t. My sister isn’t with me. My father, like me, has moved away. My mother has been gone six years now. The water is cold, colder than I remember.

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I tell myself to keep moving and fight the urge to turn back to the sun-warmed riverbank. As if you didn’t grow up coming here, I scold myself. As if you didn’t spend hours, days, long weekends, and swaths of summer in these waters. But it’s strange being here today, in the wake of my years gone and the people no longer here and the last 11 months that have profoundly changed me, changed us all. Standing in the river reminds me how far some of us have drifted away.

Perhaps you’ve heard of my hometown. It’s a pretty place, the seat of a county that encompasses the river-veined Hill Country and the South Texas brushlands. We are a middling small town, about 15,000 people. We’re not as tiny as some of our rural neighbors, not as large as others. We are home to a predominately Latino population—about 80%—along with Anglo, Asian, Black, and mixed-race residents. Some families’ roots go generations deep; others, like my parents, find their way here from elsewhere. People know each other. We attend the one high school together. We spot each other in church or H-E-B or classes at the junior college. We chat in line at the post office where my sister collects her Amazon packages every week. We have a hospital and a Walmart. A few years ago, we got a Starbucks; it’s next to the Tractor Supply. We call ourselves “Tree City, U.S.A.”—you can drive down Nopal or Wood streets, for example, to see the ancient oaks that sit in the middle of our roads. We don’t tear them down. We paint their trunks white, install reflectors, and drive around them. Our high school football stadium is called the Honey Bowl.

Where are you from? Texans are used to asking and answering. Fourteen months ago, someone might recognize my answer as the crossroads of America—our town sits at the intersection of US 90 and US 83, highways that eventually lead to both ends of the country. Or they might know us as the hometown of a vice president, a governor, and an Oscar winner. Or perhaps they have heard of us as the spot renowned for our honey, hence the stadium name. Sometimes people heard my town name and recalled visiting the state park to the north of us or the border towns of Del Rio or Eagle Pass to the west and southwest.

But most people who knew my home knew us by our rivers. The Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, all minutes away from town, are three of our most popular and striking in their spring-fed glory. They are as changeable as Texas weather. They can move from swift currents and shallow, rocky runs to dark, deep swimming holes flanked by trees and cliffs. We would go there on hot days. We would rent cabins for graduations and anniversaries, or to take out-of-towners. We knew—and still know—the spots and crossings just for us locals, where four-wheel drive is best, where a drive or a walk along the shifting rocks may be necessary in our blistering summers to find those pools of water tucked away. Fourteen months ago, you may have heard of us for a variety of reasons, or you may not have heard of us at all.

I am from Uvalde.

We were known for our rivers once.

Head north on US 83 from Uvalde and you will find the Frio. A principal tributary of the Nueces, the Frio begins in Real County. It flows southeast through Uvalde, Frio, La Salle, McMullen, and Live Oak counties, extending 200 miles to its mouth on the Nueces near Three Rivers. Garner State Park, with its towering cypress trees and ample campsites, sits along the upper Frio’s banks.

The 60-mile Sabinal River runs nearby, beginning in the limestone slabs of Bandera County and Lost Maples State Natural Area up north. It moves southeast to the Balcones Escarpment, crossing through Utopia and its watercolor-perfect Hill Country landscape, and continues west to the Frio. It was once called Arroyo de la Soledad, Spanish for “stream of solitude.” In 1854, a settler named Thomas B. Hammer established a stage stop on the solitary river’s east bank, the origins of what is now the town of Sabinal, east of Uvalde.

At 315 miles, the Nueces is the longest of Uvalde County’s rivers. It begins in Real County, too, and eventually winds down to the Coastal Plains region, emptying into the Gulf near Corpus Christi. The Nueces has held many names, many roles. The Coahuiltecans called it Chotilapacquen. It was called San Diego, too. Once it was the boundary line between the Spanish-ruled provinces of Nuevo Santander and Tejas. It was also hotly contested territory after the Texas Revolution, before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 established the international border where it remains today—along another river.

I grew up knowing the term “river” as interchangeable, all-encompassing. I’m going to the river. That could mean the Frio, which includes Garner or the community of Concan, a tourist hot spot. It could mean the Nueces, which includes Chalk Bluff or crossings like Haby or Nineteen Mile. River is colloquial, a word every local knows and uses. It’s any corner of the water ready for respite and recreation, for fun and family.

“Girls,” I heard my father calling from the bottom of the stairs to my sister and me so many Saturdays and summer mornings. “Want to go to the river today?”

“Anak ko”—my mother now, louder, shriller, cheerier, using the Tagalog term for “my child”—“get up! Let’s go to the river.”

We would then decide between the Nueces or the Frio, which were closest. We chose a crossing, a corner. Most days we brought water and sodas and made sandwiches or picked up a box of Church’s fried chicken for lunch. Somedays, especially when my mother’s family was visiting from Galveston, we loaded our car with the Filipino dishes she had cooked: stainless steel pots brimming with pork adobo and beef mechado and, inevitably, an electric rice cooker full of steaming jasmine rice. I climbed many rocks with a rice cooker in my arms, pressed against my bathing suit as I stumbled past people I knew along the river—any river.

Like Uvaldeans, the ancient Greeks held rivers in high regard. Greek myths describe the Styx as a body of water where souls of the dead are ferried across to the underworld; the Lethe, where they drink to lose all memory of their lives; the Mnemosyne, where they drink to regain them.

How many of us would love to have a Lethe, where we can sip from the cool water and let painful memories slip away? Lose hurt, lose loss. Imagine a river that keeps those memories until we are ready to swallow them down and bear them again.

In Uvalde, more than rivers hold reminders now.

The makeshift memorial in the city square, amid the county courthouse and the post office and the historic opera house where my friends performed South Pacific and Oliver Twist when we were kids.

The large stone with a metal sign bearing “Uvalde, Texas,” and its symbol of an oak tree as you enter the city limits from US 90 East, flanked now by 21 white crosses.

The flowers and photos and handmade cards in Hillcrest Cemetery.

The tall black security fences that line our schools now.

The murals, swirls of bright and joyful colors, with smiling and beloved faces.

Bumper stickers and T-shirts: “Uvalde Strong.”

So many memorials for what we have lost and what we never wanted to carry.

Nine years ago, I sat in spring water 5,000 miles away from Uvalde, at a Catholic sanctuary in Lourdes, France. I was visiting Europe with my family, and we had stopped here for my mother. A lifelong devout Catholic, she wanted to bathe in the spring that was believed to be healing, blessed by the Virgin Mary. When my mother asked us to sit in the water, too, we did. It was warmer than the rivers back home, smelling of rock and minerals from the grotto. I sank into the water and imagined cancer cells flushing out of my mother’s body. Washed clean. Swept away.

We would have three more years with her. The water gave us that, at least.

Rivers are places of forgetting, of memory. But they are also places of healing.

The use of rivers and water in therapeutic practices is millennia old, employed by nearly every Indigenous culture known around the world. The term “river therapy” refers to the practice of swimming in a river or walking near one and drawing positive benefits and relief from the space and its elements. River sounds are used in relaxation training systems to soothe and calm people. Studies have shown that just listening to a river can alleviate stress.

The term “spa” derives from the Latin phrase sanitas per aquas—” health through water.”

Uvalde is no longer known for rivers but for tragedy. We are part of a terrible tradition of Texas towns with this fate, among places like Santa Fe, El Paso, Sutherland Springs, and Allen. Since the massacre of May 24, 2022—the murder of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary—we have seen our unraveling, our sorrow and our rage, broadcast to the world. We have watched our town’s name, the names of our neighbors and families and friends, carried on a current farther away from us. We grieve, even today. Some part of Uvalde always will.

But the rivers are still here, the moments of respite in the waters around us.

I hope the healing is coming, too.

The summer after my mother died, I drove down from Denton, where I was attending graduate school, and spent two months with my dad in Uvalde. I slept in my old room and helped him in our garden and around the house, sorting through her things. We had breakfast nearly every day at Ofelia’s, a Uvalde staple where friends and his former patients stopped by our table for hugs and chats, where people I’ve known most of my life still call me mija. He and I watched movies together at night. After he’d go to sleep, I’d call my sister in Austin and cry.

During the days when he was on call at the Uvalde hospital, I went to the river.

I’d go to one of the quiet crossings of the Nueces off State Highway 55, where locals gather. In the early morning, during the middle of the week, I was usually the only one there. I took a towel, a hat, a thermos of water, and a book. I walked over rocks to a spot tucked away from the main road. I spent hours in the perfect chill of the clear water. Minnows nibbled at my toes. After months of so much heaviness, I floated, raised up by the river.

Near the end of her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden loss of her husband, Joan Didion writes, “I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. … Let go of them in the water.Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

Water has memory. The river remembers, long after we are gone, after the road has been raised over the crossings and the tourists have packed up their chairs and coolers, after our loved ones have left us too soon. I believe some unseen part of us remains in places like the Nueces and the Frio, where we found joy, jumped off rope swings, dove deep.

It does not make it any easier. I hold onto it anyway.

The rivers keep these memories for me:

My father learning to scuba dive in the Nueces. On Saturdays, we drove to Chalk Bluff so he could don his gear and join his class at the bottom of the riverbed, some 10 feet below the surface. My sister and I held our breaths and swam down to wave at him, and he would take his mouthpiece out and share his oxygen with us. The air felt chilled, sparkling in my chest as I inhaled.

My family floating the Frio. We would pick out inner tubes to rent from the stacks that rose in high, shaky piles behind the country store. We’d get enough for each of us and one extra to hold the cooler of drinks. Then we’d drive to the launch point on the upperRiver Road crossing and hoot with delight as we jumped in the water and let the current carry us away. I knew the bends of the river, the places where the rapids picked up, where sharp rocks and branches waited beneath the surface. I looked for the shape of water moccasins on the surface. The sun would burn our skin, rubbed raw beneath our arms from the tubes. My face felt like it would crack from smiling so hard.

A senior at Uvalde High School jumping into the murky Leona River in the middle of town as a stunt. He recorded it for the student TV station, broadcast it that Friday. We watched it play on our classroom TV and when he leaped—slow motion into that germy water—my fresh-man homeroom collectively shrieked.

Four-wheeling with friends as a teenager at one of the hidden crossings of the Nueces. We rode in a Jeep with no doors and hip-hop on the radio, the rocks shifting and grinding beneath the wheels, the cold water splashing up and across. My friend’s hand steadied me as we leaned and accelerated, as I clung on for my life. I was afraid but thrilled at the risk, my own audacity. So much unknown stretched ahead.

My mother standing on a boulder at the edge of the Frio the summer before she died. The water was at a rare height and running fast from recent floods. “Be careful!” we called as she clambered barefoot from the sturdy ground to the boulder, still in the blue and white dress she wore for church that morning. She was frail already, losing weight. I watched her from the water and knew how easily she could slip and fall, shatter. But she ignored our calls. She was like that. She stepped onto the boulder, balanced herself. When she turned to face us, she raised one arm triumphantly, struck a ballerina pose, and beamed. She gazed out at the water, watching the river flowing swiftly before her and past us and out of sight.

Climbing rocks at the river—any of them, all of them—with a rice cooker in my hands.

The chill of the water hits first—the shock, it seems, will never go away. But it does, eventually. We adapt to the new sensations. Uvalde knows this, but we are still learning.

Before me, the chalk cliffs and lime-stone bluffs echo with the sounds of a Saturday in river country. Kids laugh in the deep part of the water. Beside me, a woman wearing a maroon Uvalde Strong shirt shields her eyes from the sun, and I step forward. Around us, the river moves. Keeps moving.

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