By now the American public is familiar with the tragic events of June 12. The country awoke to the news that yet another mass shooting had taken place, this time at an Orlando night club: Pulse. As the hours passed, an increasingly familiar roster of details pieced together a grisly story. A lone gunman with high-powered weaponry. A stand-off with police. Frantic texts and phone calls. A hostage situation. Unbelievable acts of bravery. Forlorn mothers. Devastated friends. What had begun as a commmonplace Saturday night outing to a popular LGBT club hosting its regular Latin night would become the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, resulting in at least 53 injured and 49 dead.
That last number would capture the imagination of a country in mourning. Individuals and organizations, businesses and community leaders mobilized to lend their support with everything from blood donations and food for those waiting in line to help moving cars whose owners were not coming back. LGBT groups organized impromptu vigils from towns as close as Tampa and Miami Beach to cities around the world, including London. Half way through national Pride month, festivals across the country increased security and paid their respects.
Wilton Manors’ Stonewall Parade and Street Festival coordinated with Latinos Salud to hold a special procession before the parade. In near silence, 49 participants dressed in white carried signs, each with the name of a shooting victim. The Human Rights Campaign in conjunction with Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, director and producer Ryan Murphy and 49 celebrities created a video in honor of the fallen. At the end of the 18-minute tribute video, viewers are directed to take action by visiting healorlando.org to donate, volunteer or assist in other ways like contacting legislators to push for passage of LGBT protections as well as gun violence prevention measures. Well-wishers and loved ones adorned 49 crosses that became part of a make-shift memorial near the emergency room of the Orlando Regional Medical Center, where most of the victims were taken. A month later, the crosses were moved to Orange County Regional History Museum in an effort to promote healing in the city. An unlikely coalition of gun-control advocates that included groups as varied as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and Unite Here — which represents hotel, airport and gaming employees — staged a 49-hour sit-in at Senator Marco Rubio’s Orlando office. Protesting an hour for each victim, they wanted to call attention to inaction on gun-control reform.
“Our community understands being discriminated against, understands attacks against it,” says Herb Sosa, one of the founders of the Unity Coalition|Coalición Unida and currently that organization’s volunteer executive director. “We certainly won’t forget. And we will keep the memories of all those individuals alive. We have to, because those are real people. They weren’t numbers. They weren’t statistics.”
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Dr. Stephen Fallon, executive director at Latinos Salud, works with young, gay Latino men daily. Like so many others, he was touched by the massacre and frustrated at the hate that caused it. But he was also concerned that with all the coverage the tragedy rightfully received, almost none of it elaborated on the Latino aspect of the story. He said his organization raised the issue at the United with Orlando event held by the city of Fort Lauderdale and at the Memorial at the Museum gathering at the NSU Art Museum. “We felt that the media’s initial silence was deafening, regarding the gunman’s targeting a Latin gay night,” he says. But before long individual stories started telling a more colorful tale of who these people were beyond simply being victims.
Social media is an equalizer that can take a story that would otherwise have a single narrative and give voice to all those who want to add their piece to it. In that way, we have come to learn that Stanley Almodovar III wasn’t just a brave soul who pushed people out of harms way that evening. He loved to try out different looks, often changing his hair color and style. Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez had purchased his first home last spring, and Deonka Deidra Drayton expressed herself by writing poetry. Together for 16 years, Juan Pablo Rivera Velazquez and Luis Daniel Conde owned a hair salon. They also died together on that fateful night. As did Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon and Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, who met at a perfume shop, fell in love and had an eight-year relationship. Javier Jorge-Reyes loved fashion, and Shane Evan Tomlinson was the lead singer of a band. Brenda Lee Marquez McCool was dancing salsa that night with her son, something she loved to do. Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz was also an avid dancer, and Franky Jimmy De Jesús Velazquez had even been able to travel the world thanks to that very talent. Juan Chavez-Martinez was a kind man and a housekeeping supervisor, beloved by those who worked with him. Jerald Arthur Wright had a dog named Rusty, and Antonio Davon Brown did a tour of duty in Kuwait. Miguel Angel Honorato was a big soccer fan and a father of three boys.
Several had moved recently with dreams and goals in tow. Anthony Luis Laureano Disla moved from Puerto Rico to pursue his dream of becoming a choreographer, while K.J. Morris had moved from Hawaii, working to help her family. Alejandro Barrios Martinez was learning English, having just moved from Cuba two years ago.
Edward Sotomayor Jr. was the person responsible for coordinating the first-ever gay cruise to Cuba. Frankie Hernandez had a tattoo on his arm that read love has no gender. Akyra Monet Murray was 18 years old and had just graduated high school, third in her class. She was headed for college on a full scholarship. Joel Rayon Paniagua worked in construction to help his family back in Mexico. Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega was an assistant producer on Telemundo’s “La Voz Kids.” Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan was treating herself to a night out with friends after having her second baby — that baby was three months old. Pop music fan Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez was in Orlando for a Selena Gomez concert. Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez was studying health care management and loved Saint Bernards. Mercedez Marisol Flores studied literature. Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz loved drawing. Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala had recently become a first-time home owner. Paul Terrell Henry was a self-taught piano and organ player. Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado had a 5-year-old son. Tevin Eugene Crosby was a young business owner with 20 employees. Amanda Alvear was studying to be a nurse. Eddie Justice was an accountant. Angel Luis Candelario-Padro loved to help people get in shape as a Zumba instructor. Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez and Oscar Aracena-Montero had just come back from their vacation to Canada. They were among several couples who died together that night. Young Jason Benjamin Josaphat was just 19 and had been on the cheer squad in high school. Leroy Valentin Fernandez loved to blast Adele at work. Enrique Rios Jr. attended church regularly and was in town to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Darryl Roman Burt II had just completed his masters degree. Cory James Connell was working toward becoming a firefighter. Martin Benitez Torres was a pharmacy student. Luis Vielma worked at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where staff and park guests gathered outside Hogwarts castle to raise their wands in his honor. Omar Ocasio-Capo wanted to become a professional dancer and actor. Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera had gotten married less than a year ago. Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew Leinonen were madly in love. They too died together at Pulse.
Not long after the initial news reports, survivors were able to share their harrowing stories, as well. One of the first to do so was Angel Colon, who tried to flee with a friend and was shot three times and trampled. He was shot two more times before being rescued by an unknown officer who had to drag his body across broken glass to get him to safety. His unlikely story of survival painted a vivid picture of the dread felt by those who spent hours trying to escape the scene and the heroism and dedication of the cops, first responders and medical teams that set the stage for healing to begin in earnest.
“These were families,” says Sosa. “These were sons and daughters and cousins and neighbors and coworkers.” And that is how they will be remembered.
May those who left us rest in peace, and may those fortunate enough to survive continue to share their stories. The best way to pay our respects is to listen and pass on a message of love. #WeAreOrlando
Send a Message of Hope
Our hearts were broken on June 12, and even with all the monetary donations that poured in and time that was volunteered, people need to make a connection. You can share your message of love and hope at weareorlando.org/message-of-hope.html
Latin night at just about any night club around the world invariably means one thing: dancing. Many artists already know their work promotes healing, so dance for life, dance for the joy of it and visit keepdancingorlando.com to share your moves.