Barbara Poma and Ron Leglar opened Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on July 2, 2004. Poma's brother, John, passed away from a battle with HIV in 1991, compelling her to open the nightclub in his honor. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Poma began frequenting the gay club and bar scene when she was fourteen. John would always offer a helping hand with styling her hair and make-up. I think it’s safe to say that when you have a gay older brother as your mentor, the bond becomes a strong one. This was evident in Poma’s relationship with her brother, who helped her to find this world she so adored. While Pulse did not open for over a decade after John’s death, Poma was fervent in dedicating the club to be a remembrance of his strong and encompassing will to live. Along with this, she wanted to create a place that not only offers a space for marginalized individuals, but also one that celebrated them. In their twelve year run, the nightclub became a haven for queers, trans, POC, weirdos and anyone in between that did not have a place to fit in Orlando.
We all know what happened on the morning of June 12, 2016. It goes without saying that the shooting that occurred at Pulse was by far one of the biggest blows to the LGBTQ community and beyond. Local resident Michael Criner, who relocated back to Atlanta to work as Music Committee Volunteer at Eyedrum, was living in Orlando at the time of the tragedy.
“I happened to wake up early that morning for some reason. I received several alarming snapchats from friends that were out that night,” Criner says. This came to be a narrative shared by many friends and family of the victims. “The days after the event were very surreal, almost in slow motion,” Criner laments. “A lot people were stuck between rage and helplessness.”
The overwhelming combination of the holes torn through our hearts was palpable in Atlanta. As one of the biggest queer hubs in the Southeast, it was unfathomable that in a space dedicated to the freedom to live our truth, harm could still be lurking. I personally have never felt an imminent threat for my life in many of the spaces I have frequented. That day was also surreal to me. I kept my composure as best as possible until a candlelight vigil was held at Ten Atlanta. Hearing actual names, giving actual identities to these victims was the most heartbreaking moment. As Criner reflects, “The moment Anderson Cooper read the names of the victims will forever be ingrained in my memory.”
In the weeks after the tragedy, I felt great pride in how the queer community and our allies in Atlanta rallied to help and support those lost souls’ friends and families as well as our own communities. Still, I felt stricken with a dissolution of identity. I cried myself to sleep so many nights. I couldn’t understand why I felt more hurt than others, almost more betrayed. Finally understanding the intersections of my queerness and my Latinx identity was a truly pivotal epiphany for me. The confusion and otherness I had felt was because I wasn’t allowing myself to truly flourish in the ways of my culture. In that moment, I vowed that I wouldn’t live in those shadows anymore. It was my duty to live that truth, for myself and for those brothers and sisters and cousins that I had lost in a nightclub that was celebrating us. I think that it’s very important to always remember this fact: Not only did we lose queer family, we lost Latinx family.
As Latinx people, we share similar stories and struggles. We chuckle in finding the nuances that both our families do or say. We remember the dance parties that were constantly taking place at birthday parties, holidays, hell just a random Saturday night. As much as we are alike, we are just as different. Different dialects, different foods, different trends, different skin. We all have different stories about how we have ended up in this country. Some are easier than others. Yet, as soon as you hear that person speak Spanish it’s almost like an immediate bond formed. A comfort, if you will. What I don’t think is realized often is how the effect of immigration can be truly traumatic for some. Pero siempre luchamos.
Tragedy has a way of kicking your ass into a more active lifestyle. For me, this tragedy wasn’t something that could be left to eventually become a dusty news article. I wanted to feel empowered and help others feel empowered by their brownness. I had no experience in organizing or activism, but I knew that it was what I needed to do. With many drunken discussions and impromptu dance parties, La Choloteca: Ley de Latinx was born. Personally, it was my homage to those lost ones. Even though I had not known them personally, I could not let their spirits disappear. We are united as one beautiful cultural explosion of diaspora. As Latinx people, we grow up dancing and it is a healing mechanism. It is in el baile that we truly transcend our daily struggles and find a moment of peace.
The birth of this party truly became the birth of a revolution in Atlanta. While Latin communities have existed in Atlanta, it is often to the detriment of our queer, trans, POC, and even female identities. This adds a whole other level of struggle to what we’re constantly battling. By creating a space that truly celebrates and respects each and every one of us is radical. Beyond that, it has helped so many people that were in the same predicament as myself. By creating and taking space, we have allowed people to truly express and love themselves. That feeling is unlike any other and it is my belief that this was one of the reasons Poma opened Pulse: To create pillars of self-love.
A year later, Pulse has closed permanently. It will become a museum and national monument to the lost souls of that unfortunate evening. Poma has also begun the onePulse Foundation, which seeks to maintain the new memorial as well as provide community grants and scholarships.
“The community most impacted by this horrible event in our history should determine the future of the Pulse site and how their loved ones and the events of that day should be memorialized,” Poma said in a press conference.
I can only hope that the effect that night had on our community here in Atlanta has had a ripple effect all over the country. While our communities begin and continue to flourish we must not forget the constraints to that growth also. Currently, Latinx populations are disproportionately affected by the US HIV epidemic. The rate of new HIV infections among Latinx men is three times that of white men, and if that rate continues then 1 in every 4 Latinx men who have sex with men will be HIV+. Parallel to that, the rate of infection among Latinx women is also three times that of white woman. Much of this comes from a lack of education or even a fear of it. Let us take a vow to empower ourselves and others with knowledge and support. We are stronger in numbers. We are here to stay and we are here to continue making the world a beautiful place to be. As Junot Diaz said during his recent lecture at Emory University, “We may be fucked, but at least we’re in good company.”
So in closing, I ask one thing of you. Below are the names of the victims. Say them out loud. Empower them from the other side. And most importantly, let them never be forgotten.
Stanley Almodovar III, 23
Amanda L. Alvear, 25
Oscar A. Aracena Montero, 26
Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33
Antonio Davon Brown, 29
Darryl Roman Burt II, 29
Angel Candelario-Padro, 28
Juan Chavez Martinez, 25
Luis Daniel Conde, 39
Cory James Connell, 21
Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25
Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32
Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, 31
Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26
Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz, 22
Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Paul Terrell Henry, 41
Frank Hernandez, 27
Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
Javier Jorge Reyes, 40
Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19
Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30
Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25
Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32
Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
Brenda Marquez McCool, 49
Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25
Kimberly Jean Morris, 37
Akyra Monet Murray, 18
Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20
Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez, 25
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35
Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25
Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez, 27
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado, 35
Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24
Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan, 24
Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33
Martin Benitez Torres, 33
Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez, 37
Luis Sergio Vielma, 22
Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez, 50
Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
Jerald Arthur Wright, 31
Local Latinx art collective, Somos Sur will host an art show called Somos Atlanta on June 10th at 7pm at Eyedrum Art Gallery. Somos Atlanta is an art show in solidarity with Somos Orlando commemorating the impact of the Pulse Night Club Tragedy a year ago. La Choloteca will be hosting an afterparty fundraiser at Mary's supporting Atlanta's Positive Impact.