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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