Mena recalls Robb shooting

Melissa Federspill|Leader-News
Johnny Joe “JJ’ Mena III draws a picture while discussing the events of May 24 inside his classroom at Robb Elementary during an interview at Starbucks.

Johnny Joe “JJ” Mena III, then a fourth-grader in Room 106, directly across the hall from the classroom of Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles at Robb Elementary, remembers the gunfire sounding like a loud banging noise when Uvalde High School dropout Salvador Ramos, armed with an assault- style rifle, began a killing spree. 

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, one day before the 10-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting which claimed 26 lives in Newtown, Connecticut, 10-year-old JJ recalled the events of May 24.

Seated alongside his mother and two younger siblings, JJ described hiding under his teacher’s desk. Teacher Mercedes Salas, like others, had her students watching a movie before the terror took hold. JJ said some of his classmates got under the desk with him and some were in the corner of the room. 

“As soon as the window broke, I knew I was safe once I heard ‘police,’” JJ said, remembering that the noise of the window breaking and glass shattering initially scared him. 

His mother, Moranda Lara, says JJ showed extraordinary courage by helping some of his classmates climb out of a broken classroom window to safety. 

“I got up and I ran to the window. And I helped kids out the window, then I got out,” JJ, who is sturdy in frame, said. 

His class was evacuated to Hillcrest Memorial Funeral Home, across the street from Robb Elementary.

Lara says she asked JJ shortly after the shooting what was going through his mind when he was hunkered down in his classroom.

“He told me he was crying and praying,” she recalled. “When I asked what he was asking God, he replied, ‘I told him I’m not ready to go. I don’t want to die.’

“My son was in total fear for his life and still tried to help other kids,” Lara said. “And the cops didn’t.

“These kids were trying to save themselves. If the cops would have let the parents who were gathered outside go in, they would have stopped it,” she said. “But they were forced to stay outside. They were willing to put their lives on the line, while the cops were standing around. It’s so backwards, it’s unbelievable.”

Lara said she has always carried a firearm, a practice she would like to see more.

“I’d rather have it and not need it than not have it and need it,” she said, adding that she knows mass shootings occur in stores, movie theaters, and other populated areas.

She said she is raising her children with strict rules for gun safety as well as teaching them that guns are for protection and putting food on the table. 

“The only guns that anybody needs are a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun,” she said. “There’s no point to having an AR.”

Melissa Federspill|Leader-News
Johnny Joe “JJ” Mena III, a survivor of the May 24 tragedy at Robb Elementary, with his mother, Moranda Lara and his brother, Jaxxon.

In the days immediately following the shooting, Lara said JJ stayed at his grandfather’s house. 

“That’s his safe place,” she said, adding that being with his grandfather gave him a chance to be quiet and not bothered with questions. 

 “Once he came home, it was just like nothing happened,” Lara said. “I don’t know if it is his brain, protecting him. You can tell when it bothers him. He gets real quiet.” 

Lara said one change she has noticed is that JJ spends more time by himself. She is raising money via a GoFundMe for a treat for JJ. at

“It’s mainly to make him feel special. Tell him that, ‘Even at your darkest, scariest time, you thought of everyone else besides yourself,’” she said. 

JJ, a Uvalde native, will celebrate his 11th birthday on March 28.

Lara says she often thinks about how her life would be if the gunman had turned in the opposite direction, into her son’s classroom.

 “That could be my son’s face being painted on a wall,” Lara said, referring to the mural project which honors the 19 fourth-graders and two teachers killed at Robb.

On her father’s side, Lara is related to the family of Rojelio Fernandez Torres, who died as a result of the shooting. 

On May 24, when she was waiting to be reunited with JJ at the Willie De Leon Civic Center, she ran into her great-aunt who was looking for Rojelio, and she remembers that she tried to reassure her that he was surely on a bus that just hadn’t gotten there yet.

She said when she looks at pictures of Rojelio, it’s hard not to imagine it being JJ. 

“They look so much alike,” she said.