It has been one year since the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Forty-nine people were massacred. The murders took place on the club’s Latin night. Most of the victims were young, queer, and Latinx.
But Orlando resident Christopher Cuevas won’t call today the “anniversary” of the tragedy because, he says, anniversaries are things you celebrate.
“Here we just call it a marker, because it’s left a mark on this community, and not in a beautiful way,” Cuevas told Fusion.
Cuevas is the executive director of QLatinx, a racial, social, and gender justice organization for the LGBTQIA+ Latinx community in Orlando which was founded in response to the Pulse shooting. The group works to connect community members with healing resources, and to advocate for the rights of marginalized communities.
In the months immediately following the Pulse tragedy, members created calaveras—skulls—to memorialize each of the victims at altars in Orlando and in national exhibits, and held workshops discussing managing stress, self-care, and community healing.
“I would just hope people don’t forget about Orlando, that that the support that people have for what happened here continues, because healing is something that takes so much time,” Cuevas explained. “There is no time table where it’s like, ‘OK, a year later people have gotten over everything so we can kind of pack up and move on.’”
I talked to Cuevas about what it felt like in the days after the tragedy at Pulse, the unmet need for a place for queer Latinx people to heal, and what work still needs to be done.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did your organization come to be?
We really started meeting in peoples’ homes to be a support to one another, to be in community with one another, to provide security, space to lament, to morn, to breathe, to reflect on this tragedy, and to also reflect on the beautiful memories that we shared–to recall the lives that were lost, and to go through the experiences that many in our circles have as survivors.
The common themes of erasure and of oppression would come up consistently, repetitively.
We had some conversations with some people who represented institutions that were providing direct services, and we brought up a lot of these concerns, and we waited. We waited to see what was going to happen. We waited to see if direct services were going to be language accessible, if they were going to provide services that exuded cultural humility.
At first, it just wasn’t happening. People in our community were kind of afraid and isolated and hurt deeply and so from there, we looked at each other–strangers in a room–and quickly became family, and decided that we should probably do something because who better to create a system of support for the community than the people from the community.
Why do you think this community’s needs were unmet for this long?
Historically, queer and trans people of color are sort of invisible in this country. Here in Orlando...we could go to Pulse on a Saturday night at 11:30 and be in community with other beautiful black and brown people and speak our language and celebrate our bodies and dance to our music and be in a culture that is so rich and so beautiful, but we didn’t have that anywhere else, and we weren’t getting the support that we needed.
One of the LGBTQ organization leaders [in Orlando told us], “until this happened, I didn’t realize that we weren’t serving that population. I thought we were.” It took this curtain being pulled back to see that these communities were going to these spaces because they didn’t see themselves represented [in other LGBTQ spaces]. There were no non-discrimination policies that included the protections for immigration status, or lack of. Language accessibility wasn’t always available. There’s a big difference when you go to a LGBT institution if you see a black or brown person in leadership there, and you feel like things are being efforts are being made to ensure that your identity is being included. It just wasn’t there.
What impact has this organization and community had on you personally?
I had to learn very early on that when I was growing up in the South around other black and brown people, mostly in immigrant communities, that I had to put my queerness in the back seat. I had to tuck it away. It didn’t have a place here. And then, when I found LGBT spaces here in Orlando, I had to learn to put my Latinidad in the back seat. It didn’t have a place here. It was just this strange thing where these parts of myself I had to hide or disassociate.
So being in a space with other queer and trans black and brown folk who have a very similar lived experience, who speak a very similar language, who get it, know that, and being in that space where all of these parts of myself can really be affirmed and I don’t really feel like I have to put one before the other or that I have to hide something, but rather that I could exist with all of the facets of my identity interconnected and have that accepted is so beautiful, and it feels so affirming. The only feeling I can ever relate it to is when you’re a kid and you scrape your knee and your abuela comes and gives you a hug and she’s taking care of you, and, that warm embrace, it’s beautiful. It’s honest. It’s meaningful.
What work still needs to be done?
For us, we recognized that the fight for LGBTQ equity, the fight for LGBTQ rights is also the fight for the rights for other marginalized communities because LGBTQ people are not a homogenous group in that we’re not like a single race or ethnicity, but we have to be challenged with so many other issues. Those struggles and rights intersect with our queerness, or our transness, so right now we’re working with a coalition of immigrant rights organizers to create a welcoming city here in Orlando for our undocumented community. There are undocumented queer and trans people in this community. There were undocumented queer and trans people at Pulse that night, and we need to create a system that supports and protects them from violent policies that are being enacted by the federal government, among other issues that impact racialized identity, that impact the identities of trans people in our communities.
This time right now is very raw for a lot of people, because after everything that happened a year ago, many people weren’t ready to deal with it or process it. and so they boxed away those feelings. And it’s only now that some people are starting to seek services and support, and it’s only now that some people are beginning to come out and want to be in community, because they just weren’t in that space emotionally or didn’t have the means to do it, or didn’t know about it. The support, I hope, will continue, and I hope that we can continue to provide that to the community here who is historically underserved, and who I hope now have the opportunity to be empowered to create a space for themselves, to be a leader, to have their voices honored, and to create positive change in the long term.