The 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was mourned as an unspeakable act of violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. But what was perhaps less audible was the fact that Latinxs, particularly Puerto Ricans, who represent more than one million of the state’s population, were disproportionally affected. In the wake of the tragedy, a group of Puerto Rican women came together to demand translation and mental health services for survivors and their families. This article details their public refusals to be silenced from the public imaginary of mourning and loss. It also considers how the multiple subject positions of Puerto Ricans shape belonging both locally and across transnational borders. In doing so, the author makes the case for an intersectional analysis of mass violence, mourning, and resistance, in order to generate inclusive spaces and a more just vision for the future.
On June 12, 2016, at 4:17 a.m., I awoke to the sound of a BBC alert on my phone that read: “Florida police confirm multiple injuries from shooting at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub, warn people to stay away.”1 My eyes were heavy. I sighed and went back to sleep. Gun violence has become increasingly normalized in the United States. Since 1966 there have been 190 public mass shootings in the United States, including several high-profile cases, such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Sutherland Springs, Charleston, Las Vegas, Parkland, El Paso and, more recently, Buffalo and Uvalde (Peterson and Densley 2021).2 It was not until later that morning that I realized the magnitude of the shooting: forty-nine dead and fifty-three wounded.3 The news that the gunman was Muslim and used an assault rifle proliferated discourses of terror that surround racialized populations in the post-9/11 moment (Rana and Rosas 2006) and reignited debates around gun reform. But while the event was rightfully condemned as an act of violence against the LGBTQ+ community, there was little to no mention in those early reports that it also happened to be “Latin Night.”4 As the images and names of victims flashed across the television screen, I felt the uneasy transition from grief to anger. Eighty percent of the victims were Latinx, and nearly half, twenty-three of the forty-nine, were Puerto Rican. If you had any doubts, all you needed to do was walk around the city in the days following the attack. Symbols of Puerto Rican and Latinx identity covered the expansive lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and adorned the path to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where victims and survivors were treated (fig. 1; see also Torres 2016). The Puerto Rican flag tied around the bark of a tree, the prayer candle to a patron saint lit near a beloved’s photograph, and messages of love and solidarity chalked on the sidewalk in Spanish—these material expressions at once disidentified with the whiteness of queer identity and stood in stark contrast to the erasure of queer Brown and Black lives from the public stage of loss and mourning.
On the day of the shooting, I came across a post on the blog Orlando Latino titled “Latinas Translate for Victims’ Families” (Padilla 2016b). It described how a “group of Latinas” came together within hours of the tragedy to coordinate translation and mental health services for victims’ families and survivors. The core group of women, whom I would later learn were primarily Puerto Rican, drew on their networks to form a coalition of Latinx organizations, which led to the eventual founding of “Proyecto Somos Orlando” (We Are Orlando Project).5
Drawing on feminist scholarship, particularly that of Black, Indigenous, and Women of Color feminists, this article describes the conditions that led to its creation and details the activist efforts of these women. In her introduction to Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed (2017: 1) describes feminism as a word that “brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish us. It brings to mind women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds.” Historically, Latinas in the United States have done just that—from labor organizing (Ruiz 1998; Zavella 1987) and involvement in organizations such as the Young Lords (Fernández 2020; Morales 2016; Wanzer-Serrano 2015) to quotidian claims to human dignity and respect grounded in family and community (Benmayor, Torruellas, and Juarbe 1997; Bermudez 2020; Hardy-Fanta 2002; Pardo 1998; Segura and Facio 2008). Latina feminisms have also attended to the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, providing counternarratives to Latinx heteronormativity (Acosta 2013; Blackwell 2011; Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983; Baca Zinn and Zambrana 2019).
This article is about Puerto Rican women who have “stood up” and “spoken back.” It is about the continued salience of intersectionality—a framework for understanding how human experiences of oppression and privilege are shaped by a variety of interwoven factors, including race, gender, class, and sexuality (Crenshaw 1989; Collins and Bilge 2016)—for projects located at the crossroads of migration, mourning, and activism. I argue that the language of crisis—what I refer to as the silences surrounding catastrophic events and moments of violence, chaos, and disorder—generates public refusals that speak to the ways that those at the margins contest intersecting forms of oppression. I begin by providing a brief overview of the migration of Puerto Ricans to the Orlando metropolitan area. I then engage in an analysis of the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender, pointing to the institutional and cultural factors that reify heteronormative whiteness and create the desire for “safe spaces” such as Pulse. Lastly, I conclude by foregrounding the activism of Puerto Rican women in Orlando, who refused to be silenced.
As Monica, one of Somos’ cofounders put it, “The Latino voice was not part of the narrative and no nos dio la gana [we didn’t feel like it] to keep quiet.”6 Ultimately, Somos emerged as a critical response—a reminder that we, too, are Orlando.
Field Site and Methods
“We know that it didn’t have to be Latin night for it to be mostly Latinos in that club,” said Mariana, one of the cofounders of Somos, as we sat outside a Dunkin’ Donuts not far from where Pulse stood, now shuttered. To understand the depth of Mariana’s statement, we must understand something of the history of Puerto Rican migration, given the effects of U.S. imperialism on labor, the economy, and other facets of social life. Puerto Ricans have been colonial subjects of the United States since 1898. The passage of the Jones Act of 1917, which conferred U.S. citizenship on Puerto Ricans, and economic changes resulted in increased migration from the archipelago to the United States following World War II. While Puerto Rican migration to the United States has been well documented in traditional diasporic locations, such as New York and Chicago (Fernández 2012; Pérez 2004; Ramos-Zayas 2003; Rúa 2012; Sanchez-Korrol 1983; Whalen 2005), less attention has been paid, until recently, to the diaspora of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. South and central Florida.
The migration of Latinxs to the South has led some scholars to refer to the region and its changing demographic landscape as the “New South”; however, the migration of Latinxs to the South is not new. The movement of Latinxs into the South spans back to the early twentieth century with the recruitment of workers for agriculture, manufacturing, and other industries (N. Rodriguez 2012; Weise 2012).7 Puerto Ricans were similarly recruited for positions in the agriculture, factory, and garment industries, as well as the cigar-making industry in Tampa (Duany and Matos-Rodriguez 2006). But there were other push-and-pull factors that contributed to the migration of Puerto Ricans to Florida, including the recruitment of Puerto Ricans for the military as early as the 1940s and of Puerto Rican engineers by NASA in the mid-1970s (Silver 2010). Orlando also experienced a surge in migration from Puerto Rico with the opening of Walt Disney’s theme park in 1971, which brought jobs and increased real estate speculation in the area (Delerme 2014). By 1980 the Puerto Rican population in Florida had tripled (Duany and Silver 2010). More recently, the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, which is characterized by a $74 billion debt, and Hurricane Maria have contributed to a population loss on the archipelago, which is arguably experiencing its largest exodus to the United States since the Great Migration of the post–World War II period.8
Florida, and central Florida in particular, has emerged a top diasporic destination for Puerto Ricans. There are approximately 1.2 million Puerto Ricans currently residing in the state and over 300,000 living in the Orlando metropolitan area, where my fieldwork was conducted (Noe-Bustamante, Flores, and Shah 2019). While the recent important works by Simone Delerme (2020) and Patricia Silver (2020) have provided much-needed insight into the racial and political landscapes, respectively, of Puerto Rican Orlando, this article is part of a larger ethnographic project that examines the activist efforts of Puerto Ricans in Orlando around moments that are conceptualized in the public imagination as crisis. It draws on data collected through traditional anthropological methods, such as participant observation of town halls, vigils, and grassroots and nonprofit organizational meetings and other events, as well as select conversations from forty-eight semi- and unstructured interviews with Orlando activists and residents.
According to Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (2016), “Queer-Orlando-América is an extension of so many Latin American cities as sites of contention, where to be LGBT is both celebrated and chastised—no more, or less, than homophobia in the US.” In other words, to say that “we know that it didn’t have to be Latin night for it to be mostly Latinos in that club” is to say that Pulse was a diasporic tragedy—not only in the overwhelming number of Latinxs and Puerto Ricans affected in Orlando, but also in the ways it revealed the transnational linkages to Puerto Rico, particularly with regard to sometimes harmful conceptions of gender and sexuality.
The Queering of Sexuality and Gender
Following the shooting, proclamations of solidarity and denouncements of homophobia were heard around the world. But less audible were stories like that of a father in Puerto Rico who refused to accept his son’s body from the morgue because he was gay (Padilla 2016a). These stories are far from exceptional, as are the increasing incidents of violence against LGBTQ+ people, especially trans People of Color (Rodríguez-Madera et al. 2017). In 2020 alone, at least six trans or gender-nonconforming people were murdered in Puerto Rico, prompting calls from activists for the declaration of a state of emergency on the archipelago (Jackson 2020). Their names were Michellyn Ramos Varga, Alexa Negrón Luciano, Penélope Díaz Ramírez, Serena Angelique Velázquez, Layla Pelaez, and Yampi Méndez Arocho. Nearly a decade before, a teenager by the name of Jorge Steven López Mercado was found decapitated, burned, and dismembered on the side of the road in Cayey, Puerto Rico (El nuevo dia2009).9 While such instances of brutal violence capture the everydayness of homophobia and transphobia, they also demonstrate the need for intersectional transnational and translocal perspectives that take into account these and other forms of oppression beyond a U.S. context (Torres 2016).
The growing and diverse field of Puerto Rican queer studies has much to offer in this area, engaging with the various dimensions of discrimination and queer identity formation, activism, cultural production, gender, as well as their connections to colonialism, both in Puerto Rico and its diaspora (Crespo Kebler 2003; La Fountain-Stokes and Martínez-San Miguel 2018; Negrón-Muntaner 1999; Rivera-Velázquez and Torres Narváez 2016; Torres 2008).10 For instance, in his recent book, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (2021) employs the term transloca to capture the movements, displacements, and disidentifications of Puerto Rican drag and trans performers and activists across local and global contexts. Such approaches enrich a queer reading of sexuality in gender and migration research, uncovering the various ways and geographies in which “sexuality is disciplined by social institutions and practices that normalize and naturalize heterosexuality and heterosexual practices including marriage, family, and biological reproduction by marginalizing persons, institutions, or practices that deviate from these norms” (Manalansan 2006: 225), as well as how these conventions are resisted. In dialogue with this body of research, this section introduces the narratives of two young people, Alejandra and Xan, to discuss how sexuality and gender are disciplined, given the negotiation of identities in movement (Carillo 2004; Povinelli and Chauncey 1999).
Alejandra was a soft-spoken, colored-pencil artist from Ponce. While she lived most of her life in Puerto Rico, she previously spent brief periods of time in Boston and in other parts of Florida because of her parents’ employment. She was studying at a Catholic university in Puerto Rico, when she decided to leave for the United States out of fear of being outed as a lesbian. Although devastated by the tragedy at Pulse, Alejandra posited that, while there was still more work to be done, it had opened the door for more dialogue regarding sexuality in Puerto Rico.
“It’s still very old-fashioned, like back in my grandma’s days,” Alejandra explained, when we met outside for coffee before her shift at work. “You’re a failure if you’re not married by a certain age and have kids by a certain age. The concept of making it as an adult, especially for women, is to find a husband and have kids before thirty. So, if you don’t have a boyfriend or a husband, they always have that saying of like, ‘Te vas a quedar jamona,’ which means—I don’t know how to translate it in English.”
“Like an old maid?” I asked.
“Exactly. It’s a little bit more unfair for the women in the community and that goes even deeper as Women of Color in our community. There are things that I didn’t go through because of my light skin, that my dark-skinned friends went through. But then that coin flipped at some point because of traveling back and forth, I wasn’t able to belong to just one. I kind of like meshed both cultures and I was seen as the gringa back home and not American enough over here. . . . But when it comes to the gay community, growing up that was a big no-no.”
The term jamona, referenced by Alejandra, is the equivalent of a spinster or old maid. Translated literally as “ham,” it is used to refer to a woman who is unmarried and “old,” and oftentimes perceived to be unattractive or overweight. The figure of the jamona appears in Esmeralda Santiago’s (1994) autobiographical book, When I Was Puerto Rican. In a chapter titled “Why Women Remain Jamona,” the protagonist Negi (Esmeralda) takes a trip with her father to visit her grandmother in Santurce. Along the way, they stop at a market where Negi sees a woman with a “long, mournful face, horselike, her large eyes almond shaped, the corners pointed down as if weighed by many tears” (88). She notes a “cold” change in the atmosphere. After whirling around on a counter stool at an alcapurria (stuffed fritter) stand, Negi falls to the ground. “Jesus doesn’t love children who don’t behave,” the woman tells her, as the man behind the counter shoos her away. He turns to Negi’s father to say, “That’s what happens to women when they stay jamonas” (88). After finishing their meals, Negi and her father speak, as they continue their journey:
“Papi, what’s a jamona?” I asked as we left the market, our bellies full.
“It’s a woman who has never married.”
“I thought that was a señorita.”
“It’s the same thing. But when someone says a woman is jamona it means she’s too old to get married. It’s an insult.”
“Because it means no one wants her. Maybe she’s too ugly to get married. . . . Or she has waited too long. . . . She ends up alone for the rest of her life. Like that woman in the mercado.”
“She was ugly for sure.”
“That’s probably why she stayed jamona.”
“I hope that never happens to me.”
“No, that won’t happen to you. . . . There’s our publico. Let’s run for it.”
We dodged across the street holding hands, avoiding cars, people, and stray dogs sunning themselves on the sidewalk.
“What do they call a man who never marries?” I asked as we settled ourselves in the front of the publico.
“Lucky,” the driver said, and the rest of the passengers laughed, which made me mad, because it felt as if he were insulting me in the worst possible way. (89)
Later, after her father had left Negi at her grandmother’s house for more than a week to have an affair with another woman, Negi’s mother arrives to pick her up. Negi observes her mother’s tear-stained face and listens to the quiet whispers coming from the adjacent room. She wonders whether being a jamona is such a bad thing after all: “It seemed to me that remaining jamona could not possibly hurt this much,” Negi ponders. “That a woman alone, even if ugly, could not suffer as much as my beautiful mother did . . . I would just as soon remain jamona than shed that many tears over a man” (104).
A queer reading of the figure of the jamona offers the reader another perspective—one that goes against the grain of the heteronormative and sexist gendered expectations revealed by the statements “te vas a quedar jamona” (you’re going to stay jamona) and “that’s what happens to women when they stay jamonas” in the narratives above. In many ways, the jamona can be read as a border subject “caught between the racism of the dominant society and the sexist and heterosexist expectations of their own communities” (Espín 1996: 82). This parallels Alejandra’s reflection on not being “American enough,” coupled with the pressures of marriage and childbirth. The figure of the jamona ultimately embodies queerness in their rejection of these norms. But Alejandra’s mention of her light-skinned privilege also reminds us of the multiple subject positions that intersect to shape oppression and privilege and are oftentimes mediated by processes such as migration.
Unlike Alejandra, Xan’s memories of Puerto Rico were more limited, having moved from San Juan to Florida at a young age. Xan, who identified as genderqueer and trans-masculine, explained the difficulties of negotiating their ethnic, sexual, and gender identities across different social spaces:11
Navigating it, it’s interesting because it’s pretty similar as before I came out as trans as when I’m trans. The only difference is it’s more hyped, more of a hyper thing. When I came out as a lesbian, I was a butch lesbian. I identified as a bull dyke at one point and then I identified as just a dyke for a while, but my presentation was always more masculine. In Spanish circles I would automatically be lumped into the boy’s club and there was always an expectation of that same kind of machismo. . . . Like once I came out, even in those safe spaces, you had the adult men who knew I was gay and would make jokes about women thinking I would just laugh along, play along objectifying women—that kind of thing. Or make jokes about how that woman’s crazy or how that woman looks fine. It’s something that exists in the white masculinity culture, but it’s something unique to the Spanish culture because it’s more than just a misogyny thing, it’s a culturalism almost. To reject it is rejecting both my masculine currency and my Hispanic currency.
Xan’s discomfort of occupying spaces where their Puerto Rican and trans identities come into friction underlies the ways that gender and sexuality can work in tandem with other identities to shape diasporic belonging. Their framing of their interactions with Latino men as characteristic of machismo or a “culturalism” aligns with how several others described their experiences with sexism or homophobia on the archipelago or in central Florida. Machismo is a concept associated with Latino masculinity. It denotes a set of prescribed beliefs or expectations, including that Latino men are the heads of households, proud, physically strong, sexually dominant, independent, and aggressive (Hondagneu-Sotelo 1994; Perilla 1999).
But there is a danger in reducing these ideas to “cultural masculinity” (Bilmes 1992), which can have the consequence of reinforcing culture-of-poverty stereotypes. Rather, hegemonic masculinity is not exclusive to Latinx cultures and, as Aida Hurtado and Mrinal Sinha (2008: 337) remind us, “is embodied at the specific intersections of race, class, and sexuality” across various societies.12
For some, Florida represented a departure from these gendered expectations and the homophobia they faced back in Puerto Rico.13 Places like Pulse nightclub became a safe haven for many LGBTQ+ Latinxs, including Alejandra. Pulse was the first gay nightclub she visited when she first arrived in Orlando. She recalled sitting in the nightclub after a particularly painful breakup and quietly watching others dance:
Sometimes I would just enjoy seeing how everybody else had a blast and that was enough for me because I wasn’t ready to be on the dance floor. I was depressed. I was sad but seeing them and seeing couples how they looked at each other gave me esperanza, como (hope, like) it is real. What I’m feeling now is not permanent, love does exist, I see it right now. Losing Pulse was awful because every club has its own vibe, even though they might all be gay clubs, they all might celebrate Latin night. I don’t know what it was about Pulse that it just felt different and it felt like being in a safe place.
Juana María Rodríguez (2016) contends that sites like Pulse are about more than just dancing—they represent “a space of queer Latinx affirmation and possibilities.”14 The feeling of belonging to a “safe place,” as Alejandra calls it, and the hope of a different future, captures the emotive experiences generated by expressions of queer latinidad that are free from the constrains of heteronormative society (Rivera-Servera 2012).15
While the idea of “safe space” has recently become ubiquitous with debates around free speech, especially on college campuses, the term has a deeper history. The concept of safe space originates in the 1960s gay and lesbian bar scene of Los Angeles, New York, and other urban centers, where discrimination, policing, and anti-sodomy laws were in effect (Ellison 2019; Kenney 2001). Safe spaces were effectively places to “permit and affirm one’s own way of being” (Kenney 2001: 10). Over the years, the term has also been used by Black feminist scholars in reference to “social spaces where Black women speak freely” (Collins 2000: 100) and has been associated with the emergence of ethnic studies and cultural houses (Rosaldo 1993). These spaces of free discourse and belonging are a focal point of community building and resistance, particularly for those located at the intersections race, gender, sexuality, and other identities.
But what happens when safe spaces become unsafe? Historically, “safe” spaces have not been entirely free of violence, as evidenced by events such as Stonewall, school shootings, and Pulse. Yet the loss of safe space also manifests itself in other ways, as Emmanuel, a survivor of Pulse who credited the tragedy with transforming him into an organizer and activist, explained:
A lot of people came out because they were plastered all over the news, as they were there, they were there. It was all over on camera. We had people whose families found out because they saw them on the news and they’re calling them. And other people can’t tell their family they were there, even though they want to be able to talk to somebody about it because they tell us that they might as well be one of the victims because their families would not—
Emmanuel paused, searching for the words to continue:
So it brings out the rampant machista homophobia that’s still there no matter all the progress that we can achieve on one side, there’s still, for some people it’s more difficult. All of that was put out there. Bright spotlight.
These instances of forced outing, like the father who refused to accept his son’s body from the morgue, represent various forms of displacement—from society, the archipelago, and supposedly safe spaces where individuals were once free to live out their intersectional identities. But out of displacement and marginalization may also rise the “counter-hegemonic cultural practice to identify the spaces where we begin the process of re-vision” (hooks 1989: 15). In what follows, I detail the creation of such a space—one that directly responded to that early catchphrase, or rather misnomer, Orlando United.
The Crisis of Language and the Language of Crisis
The news vans were already lining up in front of the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, when I arrived to serve as a translator for the first of two OneOrlando Fund town hall meetings on the morning of August 4, 2016.16 The OneOrlando Fund was created by Orlando’s mayor, Buddy Dyer, to provide financial support to victims’ families and survivors. The expressed purpose of the town halls was to explain the process of filing claims and the allocation of funds. After joining the group of other volunteers for a tour of the facility and a rundown of our roles for the day, I headed to the main arena where I would serve as a “greeter,” directing attendees in English and Spanish on where they were to sit and making sure to let them know that there was a designated seating area for those who did not want to appear on camera.
People began to enter the arena. Some wore T-shirts printed with images of loved ones lost that night, while others had more visible signs of injury, supported by the use of canes or wheelchairs. There were also survivors and victims’ families from other mass shootings, such as Aurora and Santa Barbara, present. Throughout the morning, many left the room in tears, escorted by a friend, family member, or empathetic stranger. There was a noticeable change in the atmosphere at the Amway Center that day.17 The air felt thick and heavy. Not even the sharpness of the lawyer and fund administrator Ken Feinberg’s words could cut through it. Feinberg, who had also presided over the dispensation of funds for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, explained very matter-of-factly that the monies would go to four different groups: (1) the families of those killed, (2) individuals injured that required overnight hospitalization, (3) individuals who received emergency out-patient care, and (4) those who were in the nightclub who did not suffer physical injuries (OneOrlando Fund 2016). As he continued, there were murmurs around the room. Would survivors who escaped but immediately fled the scene, never seeking medical attention or contacting law enforcement officials, be eligible to receive the funds? Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or the fear of being outed for their sexual orientation or documentation status. Either way, it became clear during the audience question-and-answer period that the question would remain unanswered.
The town hall meeting that morning was conducted almost entirely in English. While headsets were available for speakers of other languages to listen to live translations, not everyone grabbed a headset or was even aware of their existence. It was almost an hour and a half into the meeting when Mariana approached the microphone that was set up in the center aisle for audience questions. She announced in both Spanish and English that free resources, including bilingual legal and mental health counseling, would be provided through Proyecto Somos Orlando. Only then did one of the moderators tell the audience that they were free to pose questions in Spanish. I thought back to those early responses by the city of Orlando, as told by my interlocutors. The blind spots were almost too glaring to ignore.
“More Than Just an LGBTQ Tragedy”
When I arrived at Monica’s home, in a gated community in East Orlando, she was finishing up some work at her kitchen table while her two children watched cartoons in the adjacent living room. Monica, who was born in New York, moved to Puerto Rico when she was eight years old and remained there into adulthood, eventually returning to New York where she enjoyed a successful career in advertising and marketing. On moving to Orlando and subsequently losing her job, Monica started her own consultation business, which provided cultural competency trainings for corporations, among other things.
I scrambled to turn on my tape recorder, as Monica immediately began recalling the events of that morning after she first heard the news of the shooting:
I was feeding the kids just like today and already by 10:30 my husband’s like, “Monica, you got to go right?” And I said, “Yeah, I got to go.” He says, “Where you going?” And I said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I need to get out of here.” . . . And I got in the car and, all of a sudden, my girlfriends start calling me, “Monica, Monica, hey, where you going? I’m on my way.” I’m like, yeah, I don’t know where to go. I’m going to go to the LGBT Center. . . . I got there and I bumped into another colleague, a leader. We were all Boricuas too and all women. . . . 18 She’s like, no, there’s no one here, in the sense of the families. . . . I think all the families are at the Hampton Inn. So, we rushed over there. I called the other girls and I told them don’t even bother coming here, go to the Hampton Inn. We went over there and that’s when we realized, it was confirmed just by walking in and seeing all the brown faces that this was more than just an LGBTQ tragedy—it was a Latino tragedy. When you have law enforcement making announcements about how the families are going to be moving from there to another center and they only do it in English, we’re like, “Excuse me, you need to repeat all that” . . . La gente estaba como, “Que fue lo que dijo” [People were like, “What did they say”?]. Like lost. In the midst of their anguish, to add insult to injury, they were completely lost and confused.
While a bilingual police officer eventually stepped in to serve as a translator, it was only after Monica and others demanded that the information be repeated in Spanish. Yolanda, another cofounder of Somos, painted a similar picture. She was on her way to church when she heard the news and decided to head to the hospital and LGBT+ Center Orlando (The Center).
“There were very few people who looked like me at The Center and all you kept hearing was LGBT, LGBT,” Yolanda recalled, as we sat in the newly opened office space of Proyecto Somos Orlando. I could still smell the paint on the walls as she continued:
For me having been in both spots it’s like, no, Latino LGBT, Latino LGBT. My head was exploding, my hair was on fire angry. Not even in the hospital in 2016, you can’t find someone to talk to these people in Spanish and in English. Both languages are urgent. And when I asked the only Latino commissioner for the city why isn’t anything being said in Spanish—why aren’t they mentioning the Latino community—the answer was because we weren’t the only ones there.
The privileging of English by the city of Orlando and other first responders, described by Monica and Yolanda above, speaks to the existence of linguistic borders that ultimately inhibit access to key information and resources. Taken together, they point to the ways that language marks public spheres of belonging, positioning Spanish as “out of place” (Urciuoli 1996: 35). These narratives also signify the importance of intersectionality in times of crisis. Yolanda’s experience as a Puerto Rican lesbian woman and the exclusion of Queer of Color voices at the Center and the Hampton Inn demonstrates the centrality of whiteness in queer spaces—an idea that has been discussed at length by queer studies scholars (Eng, Halberstam, and Muñoz 2005; Hames-García and Martínez 2011; Manalansan 2003; Muñoz 1999; Perez 2005). But as Patricia Hill Collins (2019: 2) underscores, “Intersectionality is not just a set of ideas. Instead, because they inform social action, intersectionality’s ideas have consequences in the social world.” Thus we must recognize the potentiality of intersectionality to not only understand inequality but also inspire resistance and social change, as in the case of Somos.
“There were two things that happened,” Mariana, the Florida director of a national Latinx nonprofit organization and one of the first people Yolanda called, explained:19
One is that the mainstream media and local officials here really weren’t talking about the fact that it was Latin night—they weren’t talking about the fact that it was a primarily Latino population and, then later on we learned, mostly Puerto Rican. We got together to help change the narrative and make sure that not only the entire world at that point, since all eyes were on Orlando, understood that this was mostly a Latino community but that there were very specific needs and strengths to that.
Mariana, Yolanda, and Monica, along with a handful of other Latina leaders from the community, eventually all ended up at the Hampton Inn.20 While they concluded that the immediate needs would most likely be met by the city, they began to discuss what they believed would be the long-term needs of the Latinx LGBTQ+ community. Yolanda described that initial meeting:
We were sitting at a table trying to decide what to do and I said let me tell you about trauma. It took me seven years of treatment to learn to deal with my PTSD because you never cure PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], you live with it for the rest of your life, but you learn to live with it. Whatever they do with the million they raised overnight, whatever they do with that money is never going to be enough. . . . Five years from now, when there is abuse, suicides, no one is going to ask did you have something to do with Pulse.
Yolanda was a 9/11 first responder who was standing by the foot of one of the towers as it came down. By bringing up her own personal struggle with PTSD, she points to other gaps beyond issues of language and short-term monetary responses like the OneOrlando Fund. While survivors and first responders are grappling with the long-lasting effects of PTSD (Aboraya 2017; Contorno and Herndon 2019; Hadad 2017), others like Alejandra, who lost her driver’s license and was unable to accompany her friend who died in the club that night, struggle with survivor’s guilt, asking: “Why the hell am I here for? Why did he not make it and I did?”
According to the Mental Health America (2021), Florida ranks forty-eighth in terms of access to mental health care. The rankings are based on measures such as access to insurance and treatment, as well as costs. However, according to my interlocutors, there is another obstacle that hinders the accessibility of mental health care, specifically for Latinxs in the state.
It was captured by one key term that came up time and time again: cultural competency. Alexis, a social worker and reproductive rights activist who identifies as both Puerto Rican and part of the LGBTQ+ community, explained the realization she came to after the shooting:
I didn’t realize how much people didn’t understand the culture, because we think about what cultural competency is and it’s like a buzzword. It doesn’t mean anything. Go to a one-day training and somehow you’re culturally competent. That’s how they make that happen. I made this connection later on, especially when I started to do this work. I’m like this is a checkbox because all these people are saying they’re culturally competent. . . . I’m finding more and more like the intricacies of what it means to be culturally competent and what my role and how important it is for me to have a seat at the table, for me to be involved in the conversation that affects the community that I’m a part of.
Alexis’s assessment of cultural competency as little more than “a checkbox” underscores the superficiality of cultural competency approaches within organizational settings. Like the discourse of “multiculturalism” (Hale 2005; Melamed 2006) and diversity (Bell and Hartmann 2007), the liberal move to become “culturally competent,” without any real investment in equity and inclusivity, does little more than reinforce capitalist and racial projects.
Elena, who migrated from Puerto Rico to Orlando over two decades ago and was now the director of a local Latinx counseling center that opened its doors as a crisis intervention center following Pulse, painted a much more nuanced picture of cultural competency. She advocated for a “cultural competency model” for Latinx families in a mental health capacity. “What exactly do you mean by cultural competency?” I asked Elena, who did not hesitate to explain:
Cultural competency is, for example, a family whose mother calls me because her son was there. I get to the house and I have to spend two hours talking with the mother and the survivor doesn’t want to see you. . . . You have to go a second time. You have to go a third time, until the person sees you and then you’re in—after you’ve drank ten coffees, after various sessions in the house, after you’ve spoken with the mother, after you’ve spoken with the aunt, after you’ve spoken with the cousin, after you’ve spoken with the neighbor, and finally that person gives you the opportunity to work with him. And you’ve demonstrated to him that you are really there because you want to work with him and not because you want to write a report, not because you want to expose them, but because you want to help that person. That’s what I mean. . . . These are people that have gone through a very difficult moment, very critical, very different, that will need long term care . . . not only for those survivors but for the families that are dealing with those survivors. For us as a community, I think that we are impacted too. All the Hispanics I know either know someone or they know somebody who knows somebody. 21
The scenario Elena describes of a counselor drinking more than her weight in coffee while meeting several members of a potential client’s family before finally being let in by the client is in stark contrast to approaches that reduce cultural competency to language or a set of other skills that can be learned (Kleinman and Benson 2006). Elena’s understanding of cultural competency aligns more closely with Maureen H. Fitzgerald’s (2000: 184) as “the ability to analyze and respond to the ‘cultural scenes’ (Spradley and McCurdy 1972) and ‘social dramas’ (Turner 1974) of everyday life in ways that are cultural and psychologically meaningful for all the people involved.”
In addition to providing culturally competent mental health-care services, the women of Somos decided that bilingual legal counsel was also needed in the community. While Puerto Ricans did not have to grapple with issues of documentation, there were other Latinxs who were affected by the tragedy that did. As Mariana explained during one of our conversations: “We wanted to . . . make sure that people understood that there were going to be funerals and burials abroad, so people were going to need visas . . . and that you needed to know what rights people have as undocumented.”
It was from these conversations that night at the Hampton Inn that Somos Orlando was born. The women immediately began to reach out to their contacts and organized over twenty Puerto Rican and Latinx organizations under the moniker. The very next morning they called a “Unity Press Conference” outside the offices of Hispanic Federation to demand attention to the significance of the tragedy for the Latinx LGBTQ+ community.22 Their ultimate goal was to create a center that would house bilingual services for Orlando Latinxs. “Here in central Florida, con tan grande población Hispana [with such a large Hispanic population],” Monica exclaimed, “and there is not one place where people can go to as a safe haven where they can get in-culture, in-language, and now LGBT-friendly services too, all under one roof.”
However, there were challenges to creating such a center. While Puerto Ricans were disproportionately affected by the shooting at Pulse nightclub, not all Puerto Rican– and Latinx-led organizations and activists in the area rushed to get involved with Somos with the same enthusiasm as they did in the aftermath of other tragedies, such as Hurricane Maria in 2017. Mariana was critical of this, confronting several Puerto Rican activists at a meeting. “It’s really interesting how the same folks that I would say are the leaders of the Latino and Puerto Rican community, not many of you have been involved with Somos, and that says a lot about LGBTQ issues,” she said. “Everybody was like, ‘Ok.’ And I’m like, yes, it has to be said because those are our issues as well, as is gun violence and all the issues that affect our community.”
During their early meetings, it also became clear that not everyone agreed with the vision of the project, arguing that they first needed to secure a “seat at the table” within existing institutions that have historically excluded Latinx knowledges.
“It got really heated,” Monica said, recalling one such meeting. “They are like . . . we need a place at the table, a place at the table. They got heated. There were maybe like thirty organizations represented. And I got up and I said, ‘You know what? Olvidate de esa mesa [forget about that table]. Forget about it. Look at this table that we’re creating here.’”
Despite these struggles, Somos Orlando did come to fruition. The women of Somos came up with a preliminary budget of $600,000 for securing a space and equipping it with resources and personnel. Because of professional ties with Hispanic Federation, they were able to secure the initial funds needed to lease a building on S. Orange Blossom Trail. Almost a month later, they received more support in the form of the song “Love Make the World Go Round” by Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda. For the first three months, the artists committed to donating the song’s proceeds from iTunes to the Somos Orlando fund.23
By the time I departed Orlando, the women were no longer running the organization, which was subsumed by its largest funder, the Hispanic Federation. But while the future of Somos remains unclear, its establishment is significant, as it is the material embodiment of a refusal to be erased and represents the potential for new spaces of belonging across intersectional identities. Alejandra captured this best, when she said:
It [Somos] was the start of my own healing. And I started doing art nights with Proyecto Somos Orlando. . . . I started meeting survivors. It felt like being at home or when you get together for a bautismo [baptism] or a Christmas dinner and you’re just talking with your family. It was so painful at first but it felt so much better. . . . Everything is different, even the way I breathe feels different.
Her words at once reminded me of Ahmed’s (2013) words on the importance of thinking “about how to protect ourselves (and those around us) from being diminished” and of “create[ing] spaces of relief, spaces that might be breathing spaces.” Ultimately, Somos not only provided a physical space for LGBTQ+ Latinxs and their families to receive essential services, but it also created a space to breathe.
Almost two years after the shooting, I walked alongside the temporary memorial (fig. 2) at the site of the Pulse nightclub with my eight-month-old son. The sound of cars speeding down Orange Avenue faded into the distance as I followed the contours of the curved wall—a giant collage of photographs capturing the vigils, memorials, art, and faces of Orlando. Behind a clear glass section of the wall, I came across the names of the forty-nine:
On my way out, I stopped to read the sign at the entrance. Written in both English and Spanish, the inscription read: “On June 12, 2016, 49 angels sought the joy, love and acceptance of Pulse Nightclub. Instead, they found hatred. And they never came home. They were gay. They were straight. Latin, black, white. Mothers. Brothers. Sisters. Daughters. Sons. Lost forever.”
|Stanley Almodovar III||Antonio Davon Brown|
|Amanda L. Alvear||Darryl Roman Burt II|
|Oscar A. Aracena Montero||Angel Candelario-Padro|
|Rodolfo Ayala Ayala||Juan Chavez Martinez|
|Luis Daniel Conde||Akyra Monet Murray|
|Cory James Connell||Luis Omar Ocasio Capo|
|Tevin Eugene Crosby||Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez|
|Deonka Deidra Drayton||Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera|
|Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández||Joel Rayon Paniagua|
|Leroy Valentin Fernandez||Jean Carlos Mendez Perez|
|Mercedez Marisol Flores||Enrique L. Rios, Jr.|
|Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz||Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez|
|Juan Ramon Guerrero||Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado|
|Paul Terrell Henry||Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz|
|Frank Hernandez||Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan|
|Miguel Angel Honorato||Edward Sotomayor Jr.|
|Javier Jorge Reyes||Shane Evan Tomlinson|
|Jason Benjamin Josaphat||Martin Benitez Torres|
|Eddie Jamoldroy Justice||Jonathan A. Camuy Vega|
|Anthony Luis Laureano Disla||Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez|
|Christopher Andrew Leinonen||Luis Sergio Vielma|
|Alejandro Barrios Martinez||Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez|
|Brenda Marquez McCool||Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon|
|Gilberto R. Silva Menendez||Jerald Arthur Wright|
|Kimberly “KJ” Morris|
But in the wake of Pulse, there was another tragedy—one that erased queer Brown and Black bodies from the public stage of mourning, loss, and recovery. The founding of Somos was a deliberate refusal to be silenced by the normativity of whiteness within the umbrella term LGBTQ+. As the late bell hooks (1989: 20) reminds us, “Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation. . . . [I]t is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance.”
hooks’s words resonate today, as mass shootings continue to shake our everyday lives. In August 2019 a gunman opened fire at an El Paso Walmart, killing twenty-three people and wounding over two dozen others, and in 2022 nineteen children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.24 In both cases, the victims were overwhelmingly Latinx. And in the year between, on March 2021, a shooter killed eight, the majority Asian women, at an Atlanta massage parlor.25 Such acts of violence inspire mourning, rage and, as in the case of Somos, activism. But these incidents are about more than gun violence. They are about xenophobia, sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia—forces that together with other forms of discrimination compound to capture the urgency of intersectionality in our personal, social, and academic worlds. And yet resistance to intersectionality grows in a sociopolitical climate in which there are those that reduce intersectionality to identity politics and attack anti-racist education. The present is, in more ways than one, a struggle for survival. In his conceptualization of queer futurity, José Esteban Muñoz (2009: 1) ascertained that “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” If we are to take this claim a step further and believe that intersectionality is more than a word or idea (Collins 2019; Crenshaw 2015), then to imagine a “possibility for another world” we must also recognize how the “here and now” we seek to reject is manufactured by the various social constructs that shape human experience and oppression.
Pulse was a gay nightclub located on South Orange Avenue, not far from downtown Orlando, which opened its doors on July 2, 2004. It was founded by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler, in memory of Poma’s brother John, who died in 1991 from HIV-related illnesses.
A mass shooting is defined as an incident of gun violence in which four or more people are killed (Krouse and Richardson 2015).
This number does not include the gunman who was killed by police.
Throughout this article, I refer to Proyecto Somos Orlando as Somos, as it was called by my interlocutors.
All names are pseudonyms, except in the case of public officials.
See the 2012 special issue, “Latino/as in the South,” in the Latino Studies Journal (Oboler 2012), for more in-depth histories and analyses of these migrations.
From 2017 to 2018 alone, Puerto Rico’s population decreased by 4.4 percent (Glassman 2019).
While Mercado’s murderer was convicted and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison, he was not charged with a hate crime.
Luis Aponte-Parés and colleagues (2007: 4) describes the field of Puerto Rican queer studies as “the crystallization of diverse forms of scholarship in the humanities and social and natural sciences focusing on the production of sexualized identities, divergent gender expression, and how sexualized identities and practices form a part of and challenge dominant notions of Puerto Rican culture and society.”
I use the preferred gender pronouns of my interlocutors.
Raewyn W. Connell (1995: 77) defines hegemonic masculinity “as the configuration of gender practices which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.”
La Fountain-Stokes (2008) refers to this phenomenon of sexual migration and exile as “sexile.” Several interlocutors expressed leaving Puerto Rico because of homophobia and made the decision not to return for that reason. It is important to also note that same-sex marriage was not legalized until 2015, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
See also J. M. Rodríguez 2003.
While latinidad is a contested term, here I apply Frances Aparicio’s (2003: 93) definition of latinidad as “a concept that allows us to explore moments of convergences and divergences in the formation of Latina/o (post)colonial subjectivities and hybrid cultural expressions among various Latina/o subjectivities.”
The Amway Center is an indoor arena and the home of the National Basketball Association team the Orlando Magic.
Kathleen Stewart (2011: 452) describes an atmosphere as “a force field in which people find themselves.”
Boricua is another term for Puerto Rican. It originates from the Taíno word Boriken.
Mariana and Yolanda were scheduled to be at Pulse the night of the shooting to run a voter registration event. The event was canceled because of unrelated reasons.
There was another cofounder of Somos, whom I did not have the opportunity to speak with prior to her departure from Orlando.
Translated from Spanish by the author.
Hispanic Federation is a national nonprofit organization with offices in New York, Washington, DC, Connecticut, and Florida.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, known for the Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights, is the son of the Hispanic Federation’s founder, Luis Miranda Jr. While the song had fifty-four thousand downloads in the first week alone, it is not clear how much of the profits were actually received.
In a reflexive essay on the El Paso shooting, Gilberto Rosas (2021: 117) contends that the attack exemplifies the role of white nationalism as part of a “global system of white supremacy.” The same can be said of the 2022 shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that killed ten Black people. Exclusions of queer People of Color also serve to maintain white hegemony.
Maria Cecilia Hwang and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas (2021) analyze the gendered and racial dimensions of Asian women’s experiences in the context of the massage parlor shooting, noting how xenophobia, hypersexualization, and attitudes around sex work intersect to shape the disposability of Asian women’s bodies.