Healing is quick decisions to gather at a friend’s house. Picking up takeout Chinese food and Popeye’s chicken. Inviting others to join as people text to check in. Mourning is an altar with candles, palo santo and sage next to an altar of candy—everything from Sour Patch Kids to turrones de casoy to li hing mui to dark chocolate salted caramels. Healing is tearful embraces, talking about our fears, our sadness. Mourning is finding a way to laugh, watching “Hamilton” kill it at the Tonys, and holding on longer than we normally would when hugging goodbye. Healing is spending eight hours on your friend’s couch, trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy.
Just a few hours after hearing the news of the massacre at Pulse in Orlando, of almost 50 dead and more wounded during a gay Latino night, it’s already become like 9-11 among my queer people-of-color friends. Where were you when you heard?
I woke up early yesterday morning, sleep deprived after two nights out on the dance floor celebrating Washington, D.C. Pride. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when the death toll at Pulse had climbed and headlines finally showed that this horror happened on a gay Latino night, that I realized this wasn’t a tragedy that I could just move past. I couldn’t keep going with my day, with my plans. Everything had to stop.
These mass-shooting tragedies are so common that it’s difficult to read into them. But it’s also impossible not to. I’m queer and I’m Latina and whenever there is a queer Latin night at a local bar or club, I’m there. With bells on. Just four days ago, on Thursday night, I was out celebrating the 10th annual D.C. Latino pride at a big gay club in the city. My friends and I, some Latina and other queer folks of color out to celebrate with us, spent hours dancing our hearts out. A few times throughout the night, I leaned into my friend Ayari’s ear and shout-whispered over the music, huge grin on my face, “This is my version of heaven.”
It’s hard to explain just how beautiful it feels to be surrounded by queer Latinxs, listening to the music of our childhoods, dancing the dances we learned at family parties, but doing it in beautiful transversive queer pairings. Nothing gives me more joy than seeing two queer Latina women dancing salsa, one of them leading the other even though she probably had to teach herself that role. Or two gay Latino men dancing close and sexy to a bachata rhythm. The lyrics may not be about our love, but in those moments we reclaim it wholeheartedly.
Despite a significant queer Latinx community in D.C., these parties are few and far between. We have so few spaces. When bars, clubs, restaurants, swimming pools, parks, theatres, buses and subways, streets and sidewalks aren’t for you, you hold on for dear life to the spaces that are. Only a few times a year do we claim enough space to unapologetically play our people’s music, dance to the rhythms of our childhoods, and be in a space where all of our identities are seen. It’s hard not to think that what happened in Orlando could have happened to us. How our night of queer Latinx joy could have easily turned into a night of terror.
I consider myself extremely lucky. I came out 11 years ago, and it was an almost entirely joyful process. This weekend actually marks the 10th anniversary of my very first LGBT Pride, and I’ve been reflecting a lot on my coming out. I looked back at my journals from that time, and while there are so many feelings and heartache, there was pretty much no lament about being gay, no real fear of being rejected or harmed or discriminated against because of it. D.C. Pride was a beautiful example of that for me. Walking through Dupont Circle, my eyes were wide and my mouth agape seeing all of these amazing queers celebrating unapologetically. My small college campus had been a safe and comfortable place to come out, but Pride showed me just how many people lived out in the real world. I felt at home. Despite having no other out queers in my Cuban family as a kid, I can dance to Celia Cruz with my queer Latina friends proudly at a gay club.
I teared up for the first time—my sadness finally breaking through the numbness that comes from hearing about many acts of violence—when I read the first four names of the people who died.I read their beautiful Latino names, names like mine, saw their young ages, and realized that many of yesterday’s victims will be outed by their obituaries. These beautiful Brown lives were taken in such a tragic way during a rare moment of queer joy and Latino belonging. What song was playing when the shooter entered the club? Was it a song I danced to on Thursday night? Was it a song that brought a smile to my face, that immediately pulled my hips into sway, that made me look up at the ceiling and thank the universe for this rare but affirming space?
I’m not sure I can explain just how earth shattering in a small slice of a community that is already small, the death of 49, the wounding of 53 more, and the traumatizing of the other 200 at the club will be. Being queer and Latinx in the U.S. sometimes feels like it can be impossible to find our people. And now tragedy has found us.
On Saturday, while watching the big, loud, rainbow, glittery fabulously queer D.C. pride parade, we thought our biggest challenge were the corporate floats hosted by hotels, banks, consulting firms and even a few weapons manufacturers. We all avoided clapping and gave each other knowing looks as Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin’s contingents passed by our spot on the Dupont Circle sidewalk. I thought about last year’s marriage decision, and how hard it is to keep the LGBT agenda focused on the real political needs of our community.
But now we are reminded. We are reminded that we are not that far from our violent history of rejection, policing, hostility. We are reminded that the first Pride was a riot, one led by queer and trans women of color, who were fighting back against the violence they faced at the hands of the police. And we will have to continue to remember that this violence will not be solved by increased violence against the Muslim community or calls for the war on terror. These terrors stem from so many of the ills our society continues to foster—homophobia, racism, transphobia, Islamophobia and an unwillingness to address gun violence.
Just two hours before the Pulse tragedy began, I posted a rare personal photo to Facebook. It was a photo of myself at the Pride parade, smiling big and wearing colorful beads and a homemade shirt with the words “team feelings” on the front. By morning it had received hundreds of likes. As the news unfolded, I debated taking it down. I worried that it felt inappropriate to celebrate pride in a moment when 300 people had spent a night of terror at a queer Latino party. But as the day went on, I decided that I wouldn’t shy away from my pride, from my joy, from my expressions of identity and belonging in the face of violence. Today, more than ever, I’m going to claim my space and bask in the love and support from my family, chosen and otherwise.