On Monday, the LGBTQ community in Orlando, Florida, will mark one year since the horrific shooting that occurred at the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016. The event was one of the worst mass murders in U.S. history, claiming the lives of 49 victims and seriously wounding 58 others when Omar Mateen opened fire inside the club before being killed by police after a three-hour standoff.
The monstrous act shook the entire community but the Latino community of Orlando in particular. Over 90 percent of those killed were of Latin American descent, while 23 of the 49 killed were from Puerto Rico because the massacre occurred on Latin night.
The event proved that anti-gay terror and bigotry is still common in the United States, despite the social rights won through decades of LGBTQ struggles dating back to the militant Stonewall Uprising of 1969, when gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer people fought back against police repression in New York City.
Since the tragedy, the survivors, loved ones, friends and family members of the victims from Florida to Cuba, Puerto Rico and beyond, have been struggling with an enormous sense of bereavement resulting from so great a loss of life, as well as the massive blow to the LGBTQ community.
For Letty Concepcion, an Orlando resident from Puerto Rico who knew four of the victims — including very close friends — the pain has been especially acute, leaving an indelible imprint on her as well as the consciousness of the entire community. By sheer happenstance, she wasn't at the club that Saturday night because she and her group of friends had simply decided to go elsewhere.
“I can tell you this,” she told teleSUR, “we, the community, are still in recovery and healing and have not quite gotten there, or come full circle, yet."
“There are still moments of profound grief and sadness along with great memories and celebration of their lives,” she continued, explaining that the tragedy strengthened her resolve to continue struggling. “What has changed is the awareness and vigilance we have in that we have come so far in our journey but have much further to go in our fight for equality.
“I don't think things will ever be quite normal for anyone that was closely affected by this tragedy — our innocence will never quite be the same — but the challenges and struggles you go through, such as these, can help you draw on your inner strength to make you much stronger than before,” she added.
For Concepcion, the horrors that occurred last year have led to increased efforts toward mutual understanding on the part of different groups within the broader Orlando community, which she explains is now “more tightly-knit than ever” and has ushered in increased efforts to understand the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community as well as transplanted Puerto Ricans like herself and a large number of the victims.
“Tragedies have an unfortunate effect of usually bringing people closer together no matter where they come from,” she said. “We are no longer divided by color, race, or who we love, but are united by our humanity.”
However, she remains resilient, remembering the gorgeous souls and inspiring creativity of those like her longtime friends — Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, Luis Daniel Conde, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon and his partner, Jean Carlos Mendez Perez — who cherished gay spaces like Pulse, where they were able to share each other's love, support and positivity, free of the bigotry and biased judgment that remains too common across the U.S.
On Monday, Concepcion and others from across the community will be attending some of the many events being held in the city to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack. Television programs will be aired featuring survivors, state and local officials, hospital staff who worked on the night of the shooting, gay rights activists and interfaith clergy from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities, sending a signal that the city stands together.
The LGBTQ Center, a hub and service provider in Orlando, will also unveil a new facility which includes medical testing facilities and an 8-foot tall and 7-foot wide mural dedicated to the victims.
From early morning until late at night, Orlando community members will be holding events across the city, including multiple vigils and memorial services at Pulse Nightclub itself.
For Concepcion, the day will be emotionally trying, but she is ready to face it in order to process the trauma that weighs so heavily on her heart.
“I can tell you that I haven't been able to bring myself to Pulse,” she said. “As much as I would like to have honored them, I couldn't bring myself (to Pulse) yet to mourn all those that lost their lives that night. I have not set foot on the property, I've been avoiding it because if I do return to the club, the rawness of my feelings and emotions will become all too real.”
“But the anniversary is coming, and I see myself having to come face-to-face with that reality, in order to continue the healing,” she adds.
After one year, Concepcion and the LGBTQ community are intent on proving to the world that even after such an unthinkable tragedy, their pain remains alive but so does their love and support for one another. The LGBTQ community of Orlando will never be broken.
“We are still here,” she said. “We will still love, we will still dance, we will rebuild and we will be stronger than ever together.”