What About the 23 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando Shooting?

We’re all reeling from the recent attack at an Orlando nightclub, in which a perpetrator wielding an assault rifle and a handgun opened fire on over 100 people, including at least three Orlando PD. The attacker was the son of Afghani immigrants to Brooklyn, and was reported to have called 911 and supposedly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or whatever else you want to call it) in the midst of the attack. The story has already become politically charged as pundits and politicians jockey for control of the narrative here. The attacker was described by coworkers as “unhinged and unstable,” who also claim he frequently made offensive remarks regarding homosexuals, African-Americans, Jews, women and others. He also changed his name  to the Arabic word for “strong” and within the past two years traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times. He was investigated by the FBI twice for suspicious activity, but they let him go both times. Now, some claim they’ve found his profile on a gay dating website and that he had been spotted at this very same gay club by some of the survivors. People are jumping to pin down his reasoning on one thing or another, whether he was indeed a self-radicalized Jihadist striking at Americans or an anti-gay zealot projecting his insecurities onto others in a violent way, or just a lunatic who should have never been allowed near a computer, let alone a weapon.

Many of the victims had another common connection: quite a few were Puerto Rican. A number of Puerto Ricans from all over the island and the mainland were visiting Florida at the time of the massacre, and there have been many looking to permanently relocate to Orlando and other areas in the Sunshine State. Florida has become the new primary destination for Puerto Ricans not only from the island, but for those born and raised in other parts of the mainland United States as well. People have cited the familiar Latino culture as one of the main reasons for places like Orlando becoming a popular destination, along with the high rate of violence as one of the main reasons residents are leaving Puerto Rico in the first place. That makes this particular all the more tragic considering how many left the island because of the violence only to find worse in a supposedly safe area. It’s even worse when you consider the unfortunate trends in Puerto Rico concerning LGBT rights and preconceptions about them. There has been significant resistance to attempts to secure equal rights and access for gay and trans people, including protests and targeted violence. One landmark case involved the mutilation and murder of one trans woman, which sparked outrage from LGBT rights groups on both the island and the mainland. The latter have been especially critical of the lack of legal protection and often total disregard for LGBT people within the court system. The situation for LGBT people in Puerto Rico overall has been too often even worse than for those on the mainland. Many of these people left this situation presumably with the hope that the one up north would be a better option, only to have that hope taken away from them so brutally and violently.

We come to the question of “why?” Why did the gunman choose this particular spot at this particular time, and these particular people? The entire case has been speculation from the start, complicated by both the perpetrator’s apparent mental illness and the modern political climate. Even on the things we should all agree on, we find ourselves combating each other for what should take priority. Whether the attacker was acting because of his religion or because of his detachment from reality is kind of a moot point to the victims and their families. Whether he targeted them because they were gay or Hispanic is an important question, but also ultimately a moot point for the same reason. Their specific nationality is also a factor when so many of one group was slaughtered, but who can say that was the assailant’s specific intention? It certainly wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the rational mind, if his agenda really was to stop the bombing of Syria by going after one of the most marginalized groups in the U.S. Maybe it was an excuse for his bigotry, or to act out his power fantasies. A lot of assumption on the former comes from an interview with one man, his former coworker, Daniel Gilroy. Gilroy claims that Mateen would use racial slurs in his presence so much that it was to the point of only using those slurs to refer to individuals of those groups. Mateen gave him the impression that he hated everyone, but at least one survivor’s account potentially contradicts Gilroy’s assertions. It could have been spur of the moment, but the attacker made a conscious choice not to murder any more of the Black patrons in the club, which makes his supposed racism seem relatively shallow, for lack of a better term. Of course, no one has made any mention of him sparing any of the many Puerto Rican and other Latino patrons present, so maybe his prejudice was narrower than his past statements would lead us to believe.

The incident was a perfect storm of hatred, vulnerable people exposed to the depredations of a madman. By all accounts, the attacker was a very insecure man and hid that insecurity behind a bully’s mask. Bullies will often go after people who they feel are easier targets for their rage and cruelty, and past lessons have shown that Puerto Ricans – especially LGBT islanders – are invisible victims. However, with the sheer number of Puerto Ricans present in the Orlando-Kissimmee region, they could have just as simply been targets of opportunity for this psychotic killer. It’s unknown whether Mateen chose the club’s “Latin Night” event specifically or if the date was just convenient for his homicidal rampage. I personally suspect it was a mixture of his supposed familiarity with the place and the personal hatred he harbored within himself, but we’ll never know for certain. Even if the attacker had lived, all the evidence pouring out about his personality in hindsight suggests he wouldn’t have ever explained his agenda any more coherently. Many people have come up with their own theories, but as of now they’re still just theories. People have come forward with their owns reasons, including that he had a secret gay life, but authorities have shot down these claims. It seems impossible to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. No matter what the initial cause, 49 people are dead, and whatever labels are slapped on that story will not bring them back. There were straight, gay, black, brown and white men and women in that club. If anything positive is to come out of this tragedy, then as Americans and People of Color we need to acknowledge that these were members of our community.

News outlets have claimed there were a few families not claiming their slain relatives’ remains because of possible public shame. That’s probably the worst tragedy in all this, that even after seeing the human cost of this bigotry, some still refuse to budge on their outdated beliefs and continue treating LGBT Puerto Ricans as “undesirables.” The only good thing that can come out of this incident is for greater acceptance of these people by their families and the public as human beings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned growing up a Puerto Rican, it’s that – for better or worse – family’s always there. I’ll argue that it’s against our very culture to outright reject anybody, especially family. Hopefully, while this tragedy is in the public spotlight it will create an open dialogue about the status of LGBT Puerto Ricans on the both the mainland and the island.

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