ORLANDO — The names of the dead paint an unmistakable picture: Sotomayor, Velazquez, Guerrero, Rivera, Martinez, Perez. Sunday’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, carved deep wounds into the heart of Florida’s Latino community.
“We are devastated,” said Sami Haiman-Marrero, an Orlando businesswoman who is an activist for Latinos. “We are heartbroken.”
It remains unclear whether the gunman in Sunday’s rampage — which killed 49 people enjoying “Latin Night” at a popular gay nightclub — was targeting gays, Latinos, Americans or any specific group. Regardless of his intent, the effect was a devastating strike on a fast-growing community that makes up nearly 30 percent of the population of Orange County, where Orlando is located.
“More than 90 percent of the victims are Latino, so we are really trying to come together for them,” said Haiman-Marrero, who has helped organize Somos Orlando, an umbrella group of nearly two dozen Latino organizations formed within hours of the massacre to help provide bilingual grief counseling, housing and other support for affected families.
Florida has the third-largest Hispanic population in the country: While Hispanics make up 17 percent of the national population, it’s 24 percent in Florida, and rising fast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So an attack on Latinos here ripples into every corner of the local economy and culture.
“This was a call of action on our part to show we are a growing force in this community,” Zoe Colon, director of the Florida chapter of the Hispanic Federation, said at a news conference Monday attended by more than 20 Latino leaders.
“We’ve never really been, at least in recent history, the target of a terrorist attack,” she said. “Not to speculate that this was an attack on the Latino community, but to have been impacted to this magnitude, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that.”
Colon, like some other Latino leaders, complained that the media has so far largely painted the shootings as an attack on the gay community.
“Although . . . the overwhelming majority of the victims were Hispanic, that’s been largely omitted from the narrative,” Colon said. “Yes, we stand in solidarity with the LGBT community and are not here to point fingers. But the fact that it’s not stressed and not emphasized in central Florida . . . it’s really difficult.”
Nancy Rosado, vice president of the nonprofit group Misión Boricua, is a gay Latina. She said the devastating impact on the Latino community should not be omitted when the story of the Orlando massacre is told.
Carlos Guillermo Smith, a public policy specialist with Equality Florida, which advocates for the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, agreed.
“The first thing that stood out to me is that these were mostly young Latino men, and that’s so tragic because of how close our community is and how inclusive a community Orlando is,” Guillermo Smith said. “We are proud that we can go to places like Pulse and let our hair down and have a good time with our friends and dance to salsa music and just be free.”
Smith added, his voice breaking: “It’s personal to me because I’m Latino and gay. When I look at moms and dads and family members hugging their loved ones on TV and they are dealing with this crisis, they look like me.”
At least some of the victims appeared to be Puerto Ricans, who make up the largest segment of the Latino population here. The Puerto Rican community has been booming, due in part to an economic crisis that has spawned the greatest exodus of people from Puerto Rico in 50 years.
The Pew Research Center calculates that the island’s population dropped by 11,000 people a year in the 1990s. Annual departures more than quadrupled, to 48,000, between 2010 and 2013, with many of those people moving to central Florida.
Because residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, movement to the U.S. mainland is easy. And Orlando is a powerful lure for young, unemployed Puerto Ricans: It has an abundance of entry-level jobs at Disney World and other parts of its bustling tourist industry. And the area feels welcoming because so many Puerto Ricans are already here, working as established professionals and business leaders.
Puerto Rican flags, music and food are easy to find. Here, when someone mentions “the island,” everyone knows which island they’re talking about.
Zoraida Rios-Andino, a longtime community and political activist, speculated that many of the young people killed in Sunday’s slaying were either recent arrivals or had not been living long in Florida. At least one victim was a Mexican national. Colon, of the Hispanic Federation, said a few victims may have been undocumented immigrants.
“Knowing this is a relatively new Latino community,” Colon said, “we should be talking about the special needs of that community.”
In response, the Hispanic Federation helped organize a news conference Monday afternoon, gathering more than two dozen Latino-led organizations for a show of solidarity. Rosado, of Misión Boricua, said she thinks the massacre could be a catalyst to increased civic engagement and involvement in local politics.
The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, has pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, rhetoric that has angered many Latinos here.
Haiman-Marrero said local leaders were planning an event to demonstrate solidarity between central Florida’s Latino and Muslim communities. The fact that the killer was a Muslim and that most of his victims were Latino, she said, should not cause a rift between the two cultures.
“We’re not pointing fingers. We can’t point fingers. This needs to stop,” Haiman-Marrero said. “I could not care less what Trump has to say. We are stopping the cycle of intolerance.
“We will not judge the character of a community based on the actions of one individual.”