July 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT Puerto Ricans mourn Pulse nightclub massacre victims

San Juan, Puerto Rico, monument, gay news, Washington Blade

Puerto Rico’s first LGBT-specific monument is located in Third Millennium Park in the U.S. commonwealth’s capital of San Juan. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Carlos Toledo was standing outside of Zal Si Puedes, a small gay bar on Ponce de León Avenue in the Santurce neighborhood of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan shortly before 12:30 a.m. on Saturday.

A drag queen was performing inside the bar whose name means, “leave if you can” in Puerto Rican Spanish. A rainbow flag that was attached to a tree on the sidewalk was fluttering in the breeze from the nearby Atlantic Ocean as Toledo talked about his friend who was killed inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

“He was a very good person,” Toledo told the Washington Blade. “He was very cool.”

A gunman who opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub on June 12 killed Toledo’s friend and 48 other people. Twenty-three LGBT Puerto Ricans died during the massacre that is the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Long-time activist: Massacre ‘really shocked me’

Memorials and other tributes to those who died inside the Pulse nightclub can be found throughout the Puerto Rican capital.

A plaque with the names of the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre is now located in San Juan’s Third Millennium Park. Rainbow flags and dry flowers are among the objects that remain around the U.S. commonwealth’s first LGBT-specific monument, which is adjacent to the memorial.

A makeshift memorial to those who died inside the Pulse nightclub that contains their photocopied pictures and two teddy bears remains duct taped to the LGBTT Community Center of Puerto Rico’s building in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood. Temptation, a gay nightclub that is a few blocks away from Zal Si Puedes in Santurce, has hung a banner near its entrance that contains the pictures of the victims and the hashtags “No more hate” and “Pray for Orlando.”

“It really shocked me,” Cecilia La Luz, a longtime activist who is the founder and executive director of the LGBTT Community Center of Puerto Rico, told the Blade on July 8 during an interview at her office.

Cecilia la Luz, gay news, Washington Blade

Cecilia La Luz, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Puerto Rico, holds a tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Jaime Santana of Colectivo Orgullo Arcoiris, which organizes San Juan’s annual Pride parade, echoed La Luz.

He told the Blade on July 7 during an interview in San Juan’s Condado neighborhood that he found out about the Pulse nightclub massacre when he read about it online after his sister-in-law asked him in a text message whether his friends in Orlando were “okay.”

Santana — who lived in Orlando in 1998 when he participated in a Walt Disney World exchange program — told the Blade that a drag queen with whom he is friends left the Pulse nightclub before the gunman opened fire. He said another person he knows was there with Luis Vielma, a 22-year-old man from Puerto Rico who operated the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios in Orlando.

Vielma died.

“They were work colleagues and they went to the club together,” Santana told the Blade. “This guy died and my friend was in intensive care for a long time.”

Victim’s sister: LGBT community ‘has my respect’

More than 10,000 people took part in the annual San Juan Pride parade on June 26.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz formally dedicated the monument inside Third Millennium Park and unveiled the plaque that honors the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre before the parade began. Activists who are organizing a Pride celebration that is scheduled to take place in Isabela, a town on Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast, on July 24 are also expected to honor those who died.

Marynell Valentín, the older sister of Gilberto Silva Menéndez, who died inside the Pulse nightclub with his best friend, Peter González Cruz, told the Blade on July 8 during an interview at a mall in the city of Mayagüez that the Puerto Rican LGBT community is “in mourning.”

“It has been more difficult for (the community) because the club is not just a gay bar,” said Valentín. “I feel a lot for the community.”

“It has my respect,” she added.

Cash-strapped municipalities pay victims’ funeral costs

Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla on June 12 said in his initial statement in response to the Pulse nightclub massacre that “hate and terror have no place in our society.”

Ricky Martin wrote in an op-ed for Univision that the Pulse nightclub massacre “hurts me as a man, as a human being, as a gay person” because “many of the victims were brothers and sisters from the LGBT community.” Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are both of Puerto Rican descent, on Monday performed their song in tribute to the victims on NBC’s “Today” show.

JetBlue offered free flights to the families of the Pulse nightclub massacre victims, but La Luz said that many of them did not have enough money to book a hotel room in Orlando once they arrived from Puerto Rico.

Funds that Equality Florida and the city of Orlando have created to help the families have raised more than $10 million. La Luz told the Blade that she remains concerned about the time they will have to wait in order to receive money from the funds.

She told the Blade that the mayors of Ponce and other Puerto Rican cities and towns “have had to pay” for the funerals of some of the victims, even though the island’s debt crisis has prompted the U.S. commonwealth’s government to make deep cuts to basic services. La Luz said she told the fund administrators they need to make “emergency allocations” to help the victims’ families meet their basic financial needs.

“They need the money because they are in a moment of crisis,” she told the Blade.

‘We didn’t want to go out’

Violence and discrimination remains commonplace among LGBT Puerto Ricans, even though the U.S. commonwealth’s hate crimes and nondiscrimination laws include sexual orientation and gender identity. A number of prominent religious leaders on the island continue to speak out against marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issue.

The activists with whom the Blade spoke in Puerto Rico last week said the island’s LGBT community is afraid in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

“We didn’t want to go out,” said Toledo as he spoke to the Blade outside Zal Si Puedes. “What if someone were to pass by here and they see the flag and didn’t like it and (there is a) shooting or something.”

Yulín and other local officials “immediately” met with organizers of San Juan’s Pride parade after the Pulse nightclub massacre to discuss increased security measures for the event. Santana told the Blade that he also decided to create the “we’re still lacking” hashtag — “aunnosfalta” in Spanish — to highlight the rights and protections that LGBT Puerto Ricans lack, even though they can marry on the island because of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Obergefell case.

“We have 49 examples that things are not resolved,” he said. “We know that changes are going to come. We know it, but these people are not going to come back.”

Zal Si Puedes, Puerto Rico, gay news, Washington Blade

A drag queen performs at Zal Si Puedes, a gay bar in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 9, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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