Heavily represented among the Pulse victims, Orlando's growing Hispanic community assesses the damage

Local organizations rally to provide support to shooting survivors and their families.
Ricardo Cartagena kneels near flowers, cards and other items left as memorials for victims of the Pulse mass shooting. It was Latin night when the killer struck, and many victims were Hispanic. CHRIS URSO   |   Special to the Times
Ricardo Cartagena kneels near flowers, cards and other items left as memorials for victims of the Pulse mass shooting. It was Latin night when the killer struck, and many victims were Hispanic.CHRIS URSO | Special to the Times
Published June 16 2016
Updated June 17 2016

ORLANDO — Hours after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, when the names of victims started to trickle out on the news and social media, one thing struck the Rev. Gabriel Salguero.

Nearly all were Hispanic.

"It wasn't lost on me that it was Latin night at Pulse," Salguero said, naming the Orlando nightclub where Omar Mateen opened fire on hundreds of people before he was killed by police.

Sunday's massacre, which left 49 dead and more than 50 wounded, stunned the nation. But it hit Orlando's Hispanic community particularly hard. Nearly 30 percent of Orange County residents identify themselves as Hispanic. The region is home to a growing number of people of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican origin.

Most of the victims came from those families. They were more than relatives; they were neighbors, colleagues, friends. Some were recent arrivals to the United States. Others were born and raised in Florida.

"It's incredibly sad that so many people in our community have been affected by this violence," said Esteban Garces, Florida director of the Hispanic voter advocacy group Mi Familia Vota.

Pulse, a popular Orlando nightspot, catered to all members of the LGBT community and their friends. But on Saturday nights, the DJs played reggaeton, salsa and bachata, drawing Hispanic revelers from across the state.

"Saturday night at Pulse is the biggest Latin night in Orlando," said Giovanni Nieves, an entertainer who lost four friends in the shooting. "Everyone who's anyone goes there."

Those who went Saturday — and lost their lives in the gunfire early Sunday — included Luis Vielma, whose Mexican-born parents cheered when he graduated high school in Sanford.

Also among the dead: Jonathan Camuy, who moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando to work for the Spanish-language television station Telemundo, and Simon Fernandez, who had moved from Venezuela and managed a McDonald's restaurant.

Zoé Colón, the Florida director for the Hispanic Federation, said she felt the national conversation had ignored the fact that most victims were of Hispanic descent.

This week, her organization brought together nearly 30 local service groups to change that.

"We wanted make sure our needs were met and the strengths of the community were included (in the dialogue)," Colón said of the initiative, called Somos Orlando, or We are Orlando.

The coalition is working to determine what services and resources the survivors and the victims' families need — and make sure they are provided by bilingual and "culturally competent" people, she said.

The Orlando-based nonprofit Misión Boricua is among the groups participating in the effort. Vice president Nancy Rosado, a retired New York City police officer and first responder on Sept. 11, has concerns about long-term mental health services.

"Can the average Hispanic living here in Florida, let alone someone who came because of the situation in Puerto Rico, afford counseling services for six months straight?" she asked. "These are the issues that nobody is really speaking to."

Separately, Salguero, who is president of the influential National Latino Evangelical Coalition, rallied evangelicals behind the survivors and families. He said members of the Hispanic faith-based community were already coming together by giving blood, bringing food and water to those in mourning and helping translate in the hospitals.

"For me, at the end of the day, it is important that we have a Christian evangelical voice here who is Hispanic, who says we want to dispel the myth that Christians hate gays," he said.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, who heads lobbying efforts for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida and is running for the Florida House, said the shooting showed "how interconnected our issues are."

"Gun violence is becoming a common thread that ties the black and Latino communities and the LGBT community," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.