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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.


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

Orlando Latino™ Teams Up with WMFE 90.7FM for Pulse Podcasts

Orlando’s religious community said “presente” after the 2016 Pulse tragedy that left 49 people dead in the worse mass shooting in U.S. history.

Many churches, especially pastors from Orlando’s largest Latino congregations such as El Calvario and Fuente de Agua Viva, attended and prayed at Pulse vigils, a pleasant surprise for LGBTQ Orlandoans who didn’t expect the generous gesture from the most conservative sector of the Hispanic community, one that has sometimes been at odds with the gay community.

“I’m proud to see how Latino communities of faith have come together. I was moved by words welcoming our community with open arms,” said State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Dist. 48), Florida’s first openly gay representative, at a recent Pulse forum held by the Orlando Sentinel at Orlando Regional Medical Center that drew an audience of 100 people.

What has happened since then? Are the arms still open? These are the questions the podcast “El Pulso de la Comunidad de Fe,” part of the WMFE-90.7 FM project “Orlando: Un Año Después,” attempted to answer.

Orlando: Un Año Después” is a unique and never-attempted before series of seven WMFE podcasts covering the one-year mark of the Pulse shooting. All the podcasts are in Spanish, a nod to the majority of the Pulse victims who were LatinX.

The podcasts are as follows:

  1. Orlando: Un Año Después – introduction
  2. En la Línea de Frente with Adam Manno
  3. La Noche Eterna, en Hospital   with Jarleene Almenas
  4. Te Amo, Danny with Crystal Chávez
  5. El Pulso de la Comunidad de Fe with Orlando Latino
  6. Latin Night: Sigue el Ritmo with Crystal Chávez
  7. Tragedia y Salud Mental with Crystal Chávez

Thank you to WMFE’s Catherine Welch and Crystal Chávez for inviting Orlando Latino™ to participate in such an important project for the Orlando Latino community. And kudos to WMFE interns Adam Manno and Jarleene Almenas for their insightful contributions.

Click for all the podcasts.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

2016 Comes to an End with a Bang

The year 2016 is coming to an end with a bang on many fronts. Let’s turn to a few less obvious but newsy items that merit attention for their importance.


From the first news of the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, a tug of war erupted between the LGBTQ and Latino communities over who would take the lead in speaking for the 49 victims, most of whom were Hispanic, many of them Puerto Rican.

The LGBTQ community won the struggle, as evidenced by the six-month anniversary of the shooting at the Orange County History Center, where the Hispanic component of the shooting was nearly absent.

As reported in Orlando Latino, the ceremony host  “forgot” to acknowledge the Pulse victims. Not one of the survivors or family members was called to the podium. Not one. The host mentioned only in passing that the history center opened a display of the tributes to Pulse collected from around town.

Government and others have now also buried the grass roots efforts that took place in the Latino community to help survivors and families, where groups such as Somos Orlando offered – and continues to offer – mental health counseling to the affected community.

But the Hispanic community has not been totally forgotten. In an Orlando Sentinel poll conducted before the six-month anniversary, 21 percent said Pulse was an attack of terrorism, an attack against gays and Hispanics (italics mine). That was up from 13 percent in June.

Full disclosure: I was named to the board of Somos Orlando but have resigned this month.

Latinos Elected

Newly elected Cong. Darren Soto

Central Florida has about 11 Latino elected officials as a result of the 2016 elections, including Darren Soto, the first Florida Puerto Rican in Congress. About five are a net gain, meaning a Hispanic did not previously hold the seat.

Here are the winners:  Víctor Torres, former state representative to state senator, District 15; Bob Cortés, re-elected to House District 30; John Cortés, re-elected to House District 43; René Plasencia, re-elected to the State House but representing a new area: District 50; Amy Mercado elected to House District 48 previously occupied by her father Víctor Torres; Carlos Guillermo Smith elected to District 49; Emily Bonilla elected to the Orange County Commission, District 5; Armando Ramirez, re-elected as Clerk of the Court of Osceola County; José Alvarez elected the first Hispanic mayor of Kissimmee; and Olga González, elected to Kissimmee City Commission Seat 1.

Early Voting

An important lesson about early voting in the presidential election:  About 70 percent of all Florida votes were cast before election day but the latest analyses indicate there is no correlation between early voting and higher voter turnout.

Early voting simply changed the way people voted, which is important for organizers to keep in mind for future elections.

Undocumented Immigrants

President Barack Obama will have deported more than 2.75 million undocumented immigrants by the time he leaves office in several weeks, the highest number of any president – and some presidents combined, earning Obama the moniker of “Deporter in Chief.”

Of those deported, 84 percent had criminal records. That leaves over 820,000 of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions. If Trump delivers on his promise, there won’t be as many undocumented immigrants with criminal records to deport.


One of every five people or 20 percent enrolled in Obamacare lives in Florida, the highest percentage of any state. That’s over 1.3 million people, which is going to make it difficult for Washington to undo the Affordable Care Act without causing massive healthcare headaches for millions of people without other health care recourses.

There would be up to 800,000 more Obamacare customers in Florida if the state had expanded Medicaid, a key component of the health care act.

As of December 19, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services reports about, 6.4 million people had signed up for Obamacare for 2017, or about 2 million more than the year before, indicating that Obamacare has become more – not less – relevant.

Puerto Rico Financial Crisis

At year end, the new fiscal control board that’s poised to take over Puerto Rico in 2017 projected the island’s financial predicament is worse than had been reported, which was already pretty bad.

Puerto Rico Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló.

As reported in Orlando Latino, Puerto Rico’s projected 10-year deficit is $67 billion, or $10 billion higher than originally stated and nearly as much as the island and its public agencies owe bondholders.

Gov.-elect Ricky Rosselló must present a balanced budget, which would be a first in decades, requiring significant government cutbacks as well as deep reforms to keep the island economy from toppling completely.

Bottom line for Florida: The pain is likely to send more economic migrants to the Sunshine State, continuing a dramatic shift in the state’s Latino population. Puerto Ricans number over 1 million in Florida, compared with about 1.3 million Cubans, the state’s largest Latino group.


The final Zika numbers for Puerto Rico fell short of earlier predictions but are still alarming. The Puerto Rico Health Department reports nearly 36,000 islanders contracted mosquito-borne Zika, accounting for the lion’s share of locally transmitted cases under the U.S. flag.

Only 216 local cases were reported in the 50 states, with Florida making up 210 of those.

Zika can cause birth defects such as microcephaly in pregnant women. About 2,500 island women were infected in 2016, which is significantly below the 43,000 cases per year that were projected for Puerto Rico, as reported earlier in Orlando Latino.

Of those 2,500 cases only seven (7 ) resulted in infants with birth defects. The island has projected 1,000 fewer births this year due to Zika.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor