Monthly Archives: June 2017

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Congress Likely to Ignore Flawed Plebiscite

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is jubilant following the results of last week’s plebiscite in which 97 percent of island voters chose statehood. Congress, however, is likely to ignore the flawed results. /Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Facebook 

A week after a plebiscite in which an overwhelming 97 percent of Puerto Rico voters chose statehood, the island is no closer to changing its political status, much less becoming the 51st state.

Islanders and the sizable Florida diaspora were atwitter about the vote. Then an embarrassing  23 percent of voters cast a ballot in latrge part because political factions either ignored the plebiscite or called for a boycott of the election. “Spend the day at the beach,” many detractors recommended.

Apparently, many people did just that, for the voter participation was the lowest electoral turnout in Puerto Rico, an island whose voter participation is historically high, compared with the United States and the world, reaching 93 percent in 1920 but more recently falling to 78 percent, an indication of a broader problem: Puerto Rican voters are tired of plebiscites – this is the fifth one since 1967 with the last four coming since the 1990s.

Jockeying for Advantage

Here’s the problem – All have been non-binding plebiscites, meaning Congress, which has full authority over Puerto Rico which it considers a territory, has not committed to stand by the results. All the plebiscites have been pushed by the pro-statehood New Progressive Party nearly each time it gains power. (In the late 1980s the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party attempted a plebiscite but the process collapsed.)

More important, jockeying for political advantage has often led to big mistakes, starting with the prejudicial title of the recent plebiscite. “Plebiscite for the Immediate Decolonization of Puerto Rico”?  In fact, the original ballot didn’t even include the current commonwealth status, generating a federal Department of Justice letter dated April stating that commonwealth had to be included and, further, it could not recommend the plebiscite to Congress.

“The Department has concluded that the plebiscite ballot … is not drafted in a way that ensures that its results will accurately reflect the current popular will of the Puerto Rican people,” the Justice Department wrote.

Beauty Contest

It was rich for the United States to call for inclusion of commonwealth whose limitations are at the root of many of Puerto Rico’s political, social and economic problems. But Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, at first indignant, quickly backed down and included commonwealth, perhaps because $2.5 million in federal funding for the plebiscite was at stake.

But the damage had been done. The Justice Department also took issue with vague and misleading definitions of statehood, commonwealth and free association/independence that promised more than the United States is able – or willing – to deliver. It has yet to release the funds, forcing the island, in the midst of its worse economic crisis to date, to spend over $5 million for what Puerto Ricans traditionally have called “a beauty contest,” a plebiscite with no political or policy weight.

Still, after the plebiscite Rosselló and U.S. Cong. Don Young (R-Alaska), a long time member of the House Resources Committee that oversees Puerto Rico; and Orlando Cong. Darren Soto (D-Dist. 9) , among others, began a push to sell the results to Congress. Young and Soto were official observers of the election.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (c) with Alaska Cong. Don Young (l) and Florida Cong. Darren Soto at the Washington press conference announcing plebiscite results to Congress. /Rosselló Facebook

Inexplicably, Soto and Cong. Stephanie Murphy (D-Dist. 7), representing a swath of the over 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida’s diaspora, stand by the flawed results. Murphy said “the ballot was fair.”  But in taking sides in the status debate, Murphy and Soto risk ticking off about half of Puerto Rican voters, here and on the island, who do not support statehood.

At the same time, Peter Vivaldi of Standing for Puerto Rico in Central Florida called for President Donald Trump and Congress “to act on behalf of the 3.5 million American citizens living on the island” in a press conference at the offices of lawyer Anthony Suárez in Orlando.

Learning Curve

The fault of Puerto Rico plebiscites does not lie only with the statehood push for the 51st star. Each Congress faces a steep learning curve when it comes to Puerto Rico, a part of the United States since 1898, when it became booty of the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.  For many Puerto Ricans, myself included, it is personally painful to hear elected officials and regular citizens speak of Puerto Rico with great ignorance.

In a series of infamous U.S. Supreme Court cases shortly thereafter Puerto Rico was tethered to discriminatory policies, many of which still stand today, most notably that Puerto Rico’s territorial status is not a path to statehood. Plus, certain federal laws require the island to use only U.S. shipping companies at great cost to island residents and have created discriminatory funding formulas regarding health care costs, to name just a few areas which Congress has shown little will to revisit. (See the bipartisan “Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico” report dated December 2016 to which Florida’s Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio signed on.)

A great financial crisis caused by $72 billion in debt – a chunk of which is an outcome of Puerto Rico’s profligate ways – is still unfolding, with many tremors still to be felt as a Congress-imposed fiscal oversight board continues to cut budgets.

Waiting for ‘Brown’

Puerto Rico still awaits its “Brown vs Board of Education” day in court to liberate the island from the shackles of 119 years of discriminatory government policy, in the same way that the United States Supreme Court stated in Brown that “separate but equal” treatment of African Americans was unconstitutional.

It’s time. “Puerto Rico has been used as a political tool for over 100 years,” Vivaldi said.

To paraphrase Sojourner Truth, aren’t Puerto Ricans citizens too?

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Rocky Year for Proyecto Somos Orlando

A screenshot from the “Love Makethe World Go Round” music video taped in New York with Sami Haiman-Marrero (foreground), Nancy Rosado (right) and Christina Hernández (in sunglasses). / “Love Make the World Go Round” music video screenshot

It has been the best of times and the worst of times for Proyecto Somos Orlando, launched in the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting to provide mental health services to LatinX LGBTQ survivors and families.

Despite community demand and successful fundraising efforts – Somos Orlando has raised over $230,000 – its original founders no longer manage the non profit. There is no advisory board, although that soon may change with new leadership at the Hispanic Federation, Somos Orlando’s primary backer. What happened to Somos Orlando is a cautionary tale of how a brilliant idea hit a snag in part because of leadership issues and a  cliquishness that didn’t serve the LatinX LGBTQ community well.

“We gave birth to this program and put a whole bunch of hours into it,” says Nancy Rosado, one of four Somos Orlando co-founders and a retired mental health counselor with the New York Police Department.

Families Needed Help

The day of the Pulse shooting, Rosado and other activists stepped up to provide translation services and support for Pulse victims’ families who didn’t speak English – more than half of the victims were Hispanic, mostly Puerto Rican. The organizers included Samí Haiman Marrero, a marketing consultant specializing in diversity and cultural competency; Christina Hernández, a community organizer with media experience; and Zoe Colón, the Florida director for the Hispanic Federation who had fundraising and program development skills. See original story “Latinas Translate for Victims’ Families” here.

“To all community leaders in Orlando: I don’t want to get in the way of life-saving work, but if interpreters/translators are needed tell me where I need to go if I can help,” wrote Haiman Marrero on Facebook. “As I understand it from friends, colleagues…many families affected are Latino and we need to assist with the communication gap.”

Stars Came Out

Up to 30 organizations helped make Somos Orlando a reality by lending services or personnel. Somos Orlando initially raised about $30,000 in increments of about $10,000 each from the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, the Carevel Foundation of New Jersey and the Hispanic Federation, a New York-based non profit that provides support to other Latino non profits.

In July, performers Jennifer López and Lin-Manuel Marín  recorded “Love Make the World Go Round,” a song written by López as a fundraising tribute to Pulse victims and survivors, with initial proceeds destined for Somos Orlando, boosting the organization’s national stature.

Those were heady times as the team visited New York for the music video taping and a live Today show performance by López and Miranda, who is related to a federation official. “I’m exploding with excitement!!! We’re going to be able to help so many people,” said Christina Hernández, who handled Somos Orlando’s publicity.

With money coming in, Somos Orlando leased a 6,000 square-foot office on South Orange Blossom Trail. By late September, it incorporated as a non profit and was coordinating an advisory council.

(Full disclosure: I initially was named to the advisory council, a position from which I resigned in December after only one meeting to introduce board members.) 

Moving Chess Pieces

The big blow came when co-founder Zoe Colón resigned unexpectedly from Hispanic Federation in December, prompting other council members to resign, including Rosado, Haiman Marrero, Colón and me, causing the board to collapse. (A year later, I question the wisdom and maturity of this decision and its overemphasis on cult of personality.)

The Hispanic Federation remains Somos Orlando’s main line of support, having donated $200,000 to the effort, giving it the right to call the shots. But the federation is in the midst of yet another management shuffle – naming a new Florida director, the second in less than a year. As Rafael Palacio, former editor of El Sentinel, takes the federation’s reins, it opens up the potential for a new board and perhaps re-engagement with some co-founders.

Rosado is still in frequent contact with Somos Orlando and the Hispanic Federation, as is Haiman Marrero, collaborating on different projects.

For Pulse’s one-year mark, Somos Orlando sponsored a panel discussion with LGBTQ leaders about the future of projects such as Somos Orlando, whose services are still sorely needed. It set up counselors at the Lake Eola vigil and its office, an initiative for which the original founders deserve much credit, for they  were the first to speak out about the lack of mental health and culturally competent services to this sector, forcing the mainstream community to take notice.

From left: Sami Haiman Marrero, Nancy Rosado and Christina Hernández, co-founders of Somos Orlando,  in front of a mural honoring Orlando’s who came to the aid of Pulse survivors and families.That is Rosado in the center panel.

“We did the right thing for our LatinX community. There isn’t a soul that stepped up for those that were almost erased through the initial silence like we did. No one can ever take that from us or stop us from continuing what we do best. God knows what was in our hearts y Él no se queda con nada de nadie,” wrote Rosado this week on Facebook.

Wistful

This week Rosado, Haiman Marrero and Hernández are wistful for the days when Somos Orlando was clearing a new path and its promise seemed limitless.

“Thinking of all of you as well, and my heart breaks for the families,” said Haiman Marrero.

But Hernández said it best: “To my fellow founding Somos sisters: We may not control the winds, but it is us who set the sails.”

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Survivor Misses Pulse Friends

In Jamaica, from bottom left: Dimarie Rodríguez; middle row: Simón Carrillo, Valeria Monroig and brother Jean Carlos Nieves; top row: Rodolfo Ayala and Oscar Aracena. /photo courtesy of Dimarie Rodríguez

José Martínez misses his Pulse friends. The Pulse shooting a year ago extinguished many lives and many friendships – including about a dozen people in Martínez’s circle of friends to be exact, acquaintances and best buddies who routinely met at the club for Latin night.

But the night of June 11, 2016, was special because the gathering had the extra joy of a birthday bash. Just whose birthday Martínez doesn’t recall.

“This person would call that person and that person would call another. If someone couldn’t make it the text would go around: Somebody is missing, somebody is absent,” Martínez explains.

Quedaron Dos, Se Fueron Diez

It was a fluid group of overlapping friends, not all of them well acquainted. They had nicknames and didn’t necessarily know each others’ formal names, he said.

Jean Carlos Nieves

Martínez was invited to the party by Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, with whom he was friends for 11 years. Ayala,  in turn, was good friends with Jean Carlos Nieves, who also attended the party.

According to Damarie Rodríguez, Nieves’ mother, Ayala, Nieves and about 11 others– including Simón Carrillo Fernández and Oscar Aracena Montero, to name a few – were so close they once took a cruise to Jamaica.

All attended the birthday celebration – Rodríguez also doesn’t remember whose birthday it was – and nearly all perished in the Pulse shooting, including Ayala, 31 years old; Nieves, 27; Carrillo, 31; and Aracena, 26.

Quedaron dos, se fueron 10,” Rodríguez said soon after the shooting. Two survived and 10 died. “The saddest thing of all is that they all used to come to the house.”

Dimarie Rodríguez (l), daughter Valeria Monroig and friend at last year’s Spanish-language Pulse vigil. Rodríguez displays a cell phone photo of the last breakfast she shared with son Jean Carlos Nieves. /Maria Padilla

“We were like family,” adds Valeria Monroig, 17, Rodríguez’s daughter and Nieves’ sister.

Ayala and Nieves appeared to be in a hurry to settle down. Each had  bought a home in Osceola County in 2015 – Nieves close to the Orange County line and Ayala deeper into Poinciana.

La vida la vivimos a la carrera,” says Rodríguez, explaining that Nieves survived a coma at age 19. “But God returned him to me for more years.”

That explains why they lived life in the fast lane. “In February [2016] he bought a house and in May he bought a car for Valeria,” Rodríguez says.

Shared Secrets

And as fast friends often do, many in the circle shared secrets, some of which came to light only in death. According to Martínez, two were in heterosexual marriages but their wives didn’t know they enjoyed clubbing at Pulse. The shooting unmasked the secret.

Yo los molestaba. They were married but the wives didn’t know about Pulse,” he said.

Martínez met the wives at the funerals. “I was able to say, ‘I knew your husband. He would go there [Pulse] to have a few drinks, dance and share with friends. Nothing more’, ” Martínez says. One of the wives “hugged and thanked me,” he adds.

Best Buddies

Rodolfo Ayala Ayala

Of all the friends at Pulse that night, the one Martínez misses the most is Ayala, whom Martínez called “El  Bachetero.” They were a couple at first, but soon realized their personalities and tastes clashed, and they were better off as friends.

“He was one of the first persons I met when I came here from Puerto Rico,” he explains.

It was dancing that caught each other’s eyes. “He looked at me to see how I danced and I looked at him to see how he danced.” A female friend of Ayala’s noticed the eye contact and pulled the two together.

“That’s how we started to dance. We were friends ever since. The dancing united us. He had a great personality and a lot of pride.”

That included pride in their dress. The pair coordinated their look when they stepped out each week. “On Saturdays between 12 and 1 p.m. he would start texting. Are you coming? What clothes ae you going to wear? What color are you going to wear? We always coordinated.”

Standing Up for Friends

Today, Martínez stands up for Ayala and his other friends at Pulse vigils and ceremonies, since a few were buried elsewhere and may have little or no family remaining in the Orlando area.

“It’s a sad that no one gets up,” Martínez says, referring to the reciting of victims’ names during public acts. “I don’t go for being a survivor. I go for my friends.”

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Below, in alphabetical order,  is a list of José Martínez’s friends. There may have been others depending on  circle :

  • Oscar Aracena Montero, 26 years old
  • Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33
  • Alejandro Barrios Martínez, 21
  • Simón Carrillo Fernández, 31
  • Juan Chávez, 25
  • Luis Conde, 39
  • Miguel Angel Honorato, 30
  • Jean Luis Nieves, 27
  • Luis Omar Ocasio Capó, 20
  • Eric Iván Ortiz-Rivera, 36
  • Joel Rayón Paniagua, 32
  • Juan P. Rivera (Chapi), 37

Pulse Survivor Says ‘Never Forget’ One Year Later

Pulse club survivor José Martínez of Orlando has come through a very difficult year. /Maria Padilla

But for a cigarette, José Martínez might not be here today, nearly one year after the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub

The worse mass shooting in U.S. history left 49 people dead and dozens of others injured. Because it had been Latin night at Pulse, many of the victims and survivors were LatinX like Martínez.

Martínez doesn’t smoke but early Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, after the Pulse show ended and the last-drink call, he stepped out to the patio with a friend for cigarette break.   

Suddenly, rising above the bachata music, he heard screams. “Probably a fight,” Martínez thought. But the screams became louder and without warning people busted out the door, screaming, pushing and trampling each other, trying to jump over the fence. The bachata and club lights went out and that’s when Martínez heard the rapid gunfire.

“We were in the patio and I lit two cigarettes, one for him and one for me. I was pretending to smoke. I don’t even remember what we were talking about. That saved my life,” says Martínez, 38, originally from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico.

To say that it’s been a difficult year doesn’t begin to describe Martínez’s emotional and mental anguish for which he has sought psychological help.

“It’s hard, very hard, to forget what has happened. The screams. I cannot tolerate screams anymore. It starts flashbacks,” he says.

The Pulse shooting unleashed other issues as well. What would his two daughters ages 16 and 15 who live in Puerto Rico think? Did they know he was gay? Having barely gotten over the death of his mother, Martínez was back at square one.

Hitting Bottom after Pulse

“When Pulse happened, I hit bottom again. I continued to become depressed and had to see a pyschologist and a psychiatrist.”

And he had to get by without the help and camaraderie of his friends, so many of whom died in Pulse, where they regularly met for Latin night.

José Martínez said that “nothing had ever happened at Pulse.”

“We went to Latin night almost every Saturday,” a weekly ritual for the past six years. “Nothing had ever happened at the club, only an occasional fight. Nothing had ever happened.”

Martínez lost his cell phone in the ruckus, putting him out of reach and out of touch with family and friends.  Once home in south Orlando, his brother rushed to his apartment, saying that his “sisters are upset, crying on the floor, because they think you’re dead. They’re calling you and think you’re dead because you’re not on the list of people …”

The tall, slim Martínez explains that he lied to his brother. “I  said I wasn’t there [at Pulse] to protect above anyone else my daughters.”

A Hidden Life

Martínez said he has not led what he called “a hidden life,” which many gay LatinX do, often attributed to sexual identity taboos in Latino culture.

“In our culture we don’t talk about aunt this or uncle that” if they’re gay, according to social worker and mental health professional Nancy Rosado, a founder of Somos Orlando, formed in the aftermath of Pulse to provide culturally competent mental health counseling to LatinX Pulse survivors and family members. “It’s as if that person doesn’t exist.”

According to Martínez, he has always taken care that his daughters not find out about his gay identity in a negative way. Last July he traveled to Puerto Rico for a daughter’s quinceañero. “I went with that fear,” he says, not knowing if there would be discomfort or even a confrontation.

Neither of his daughters broached the subject. “My daughters haven’t asked me anything” to this day, he added.

But on Sunday, July 12, Martínez couldn’t keep up the lie with his brother and sisters, who demanded to know whether he had been at Pulse. He replied, “I’m alive and that’s what’s important. Let me be in peace to look for my friends.”

Back to Work

In the days and weeks that followed, Martínez returned to work in sales at Direct TV but “there were so many memories.” He says he no longer works in sales but rather in the warehouse, away from the public.

Martínez is seeing a psychologist every two weeks, down from every week last year. “I can control my emotions now and I can be among crowds of people.”

The financial settlement from the city’s Pulse fund has helped a great deal, said Martínez, who had high praise for City Hall staff and Mayor Buddy Dyer for regularly staying in touch.

Clubbing Again

He has even begun to go out clubbing once again, first as part of his therapy but now with friends. He likes a new club called Babalú in Kissimmee.

At first, Martínez went to Parliament House off Orange Blossom Trail, where during his very first outing he “found” a club acquaintance he had been searching for. Each broke down and cried. He had lost three friends at Pulse.

“We embraced very tightly.”

What Martínez and many other survivors most want Orlando and the rest of the world to know is that healing takes time.

“There’s the expectation that they should be feeling happy, happy,” says retired New York City Police Department social worker Rosado. “But many are not there yet. Those who are not hurting today will be hurting tomorrow.”

Martínez adds it’s important for people to always remember.

“I ask that the 49 people not be forgotten – ever.”

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor