“There are graves in Orlando I can not tend to.”
These are the words that came to mind when I got wind of what was going down in Orlando those first hours of June 12, 2016. I was up late Saturday night doing nothing on my phone when Pulse Nightclub’s Facebook update, “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running” started spreading across my feeds. I turned on the news for the first time in forever and wasn’t prepared. Who was? By then, dozens of people had already been killed in what ended up being the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in United States history, and the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. But the shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, was still inside with hostages and would be for the next few hours. I turned the TV off and set about arranging and lighting an altar for the victims, right beside my altar for my grandmother, feeling frozen and fatigued until I finally fell asleep by the glow of the votives.
When I was 14, queer, and living in Orlando, shit sucked. Mami had to shuffle us back and forth from the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights to Florida whenever she couldn’t afford to have kids, and we were all sharing the garage in our grandparents’ house, a place in which I never felt safe. Living with the abusive grandfather that’s terrorized one’s family for decades doesn’t exactly bring calm to the disoriented nerves of child survivors. And you might be shocked to hear that during the Bush years, Floridians in Orlando were more than a little hostile to anyone who wasn’t a straight white male (or a fetus), so I was getting shit from school, the cops, and home. What with my hairy armpits, masculine gal pals, and that folder full of dyke porn Mami found on our PC the year before, my family just found it easier to pretend my sexuality didn’t exist at all. I’ll be 30 this Winter and nothing’s changed.
Erasure is a sly, cruel form of obliteration. Othering at least calls for your oppressor to acknowledge the identity at hand, while a feigned naiveté is adopted to keep The Cis-Hets comfortable. Boom, you’re obliterated. I never officially came out the way white kids do on TV, almost as a rebellion against these hard-ass refusals to call a thing a thing. At school, even my teachers had to have a bite of the bullying, the Spanish one stopping class to shush “you lesbians in the back,” which always got everyone laughing, and the science one literally running away when some kid ‘outed’ me in her class, her hands up in the air like she’d just seen a Daddy Long-Legs. Everyone cracked up. The math one, she just pretended nothing was happening while kids held me and this other girl back and away from each other. The girl wouldn’t stop asking if I used cucumbers to fuck with (she really could’ve done better than that) and I eventually snapped. Back at home: radio silence. Boom.
On those days, I could feel every one of the 3,000 miles separating Orlando and Jackson Heights. The self-inflicted cuts on my limbs were like mile markers I imagined taking me there, slumped against the chilly tiles of my grandfather’s bathroom floor with his scents overwhelming me into states of dissociation. In 1960, he had traveled from Ecuador to Washington Heights to scrub white people’s shit from toilets for the familia, so when they caught up with him a few years later, shit was all he had to give ‘em. Violent, sexual, psychological shit. They remained in the city until the end of the ’80s when retirement finally came and off to Orlando they went. Mami eventually settled in Jackson Heights, a Latinx hub that beats out the West Village in its population of queer and trans folks (though gentrification is rapidly changing this). Along with Mami’s gay friends and Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life, growing up with this kind of exposure normalized queer Latinidad for me at a formative level, and I naturally related living unapologetically with living under attack. Hey, as long as you don’t have to hide and you’re not alone. That made sense to me.
Despite the vile racism we experienced, I didn’t register that I was Other until I was in Orlando, where we would visit every Summer and Winter holiday. Things are tough all over, but in Orlando, they got worse. In Queens we had to deal with Mami’s belt, Mami’s neglect, Mami’s love of substances, Mami’s lack of funds, and Mami’s boyfriends. In Orlando, we had my grandfather. When the kids would play Hide and Seek I’d always win, to the point that everyone would give up on looking for me because I was so damn good at hiding in the most confined of spaces. Boom, you’re gone. What a power! These days, I panic at the mere thought of MRI machines and tight, crowded spaces, like he’s waiting for me in there, fingers spread to touch me all over. In Orlando, becoming invisible became refuge. But I didn’t always have to hide alone.
Since all the the town had to offer me was swamp-butt and comically-priced theme parks, we never had anything to do in Orlando besides swim in the hyper-chlorinated pool and watch TV. I did most of the latter with my grandmother, who laughed out loud every time Jerry evaded Tom and didn’t complain about watching kids’ crap with me. I didn’t mind watching novelas with her, either, and in a language of our own making, we’d react to everything from The 700 Club to Nick at Nite together. She spoke pidgin English and my Spanish vocabulary was limited but we always understood each other, at least at that level. In those days, we slept in the same bed, and having always suffered from chronic insomnia, I’d keep her up with my fidgeting and TV-binging, so she’d count sheep for me, one by one, which only put her to sleep. I’d stay up listening to her booming snores until the sun rose.
I was 23 when she passed. After my suicide attempt at 14, the ensuing hospitalization, over-medicating, and recovery from it all galvanized me to get the hell out of Orlando, and by default, the majority of my family, once and for all. I dropped out of school and returned to Queens before taking my At-Risk Youth act on the road—hitchhiking across the continent and sleeping in parks. So flying into town almost a decade later, driving straight to the wake, and seeing all my estranged relatives gathered around the inevitable was one fuck of a homecoming, but that all paled when I walked past my grandfather and approached her body, making the scene to end all scenes, screaming a scream to end all screams. Words like ‘liver cancer’ and ‘heart attack’ floated in the ether but a whisper told me it was my abandonment that did the trick, a whisper that transcended the audible and grew into a state of being over the years. Then came the massacre.
Silence can only be used as a tool for survival in the short term, elsewise you’ll get gangrene of the throat. I had chosen sanctuary over blood, to live unapologetically like the other sociocultural rejects who paved the way before me, even if it meant living under attack—at the end of the day I could return to a home of my own, even when that meant no home at all. Staying alive meant leaving Orlando, leaving her. It was a choice I should never have had to make and will always blame him for, at least consciously. And here was the price. My legs kept buckling beneath me as I approached the funeral home the next day; I kept stopping and sitting and getting up and trying again. But once inside my wailing drowned out the apathetic pastor’s service and I waited until the last possible moment to say goodbye. I wasn’t prepared. Who was?
I haven’t been back since.
Not two weeks after the Pulse shooting I touched down in Tampa to visit my sister and the first thing she asked was, “do you want to go to Orlando?” I was lowkey alarmed, as it was the absolute last place on Earth I wanted to be. It had been just five years since the funeral but my life had felt like one long funeral since, as my body was hit with one mysterious illness after another, my body was pimped out in degrading ways so that I could survive, and for some reason I wanted to be a writer, which is how you spell ‘poor.’ I had not healed, coped, processed, or whatever it is that healthy people do after a death, and every now and then I got suicidal, every now and then I’d see someone that looked vaguely like her and wouldn’t be able to breathe. It felt like it had happened an eternity ago and just yesterday at the same time, like I had entered some Murakamian surreality where the concept of time was subverted and there was no future, just constantly attending to the crisis of now. I couldn’t talk about it, I couldn’t write about it, and most of all, I could not go back to Orlando.
In the wake of Pulse, microaggressions built up into macro ones and whatever The Edge was, I was on it. After a few days with my sister in Tampa I attended a writer’s workshop nearby and had descended from that Edge by the time it was over. “Sir! No, I’m sorry, ma’am! No, sir!” I got repeatedly misgendered at the airport and they made no attempt to hide their laughter. Boom. At the workshop, I got tired of correcting people’s pronouns within the first hour. I had assured folks that, “It’s okay! It’s okay,” until it really sunk in how not okay I felt. A lady followed me into a woman’s bathroom, assuring me that I had made the wrong choice. Boom. I was harassed by two white guys in the parking lot behind a club on a Saturday night. Boom. I ran, I literally ran until I found another queer person of color, having reached a kind of refuge. One night, a healing circle was held to commemorate the Pulse victims and communicate our grief, but I said nothing. Not a thing the whole night. Then I left an offering I had brought from Guatemala at the altar we had set up, prayed, and crossed myself like she used to whenever I would leave the house, a kiss to the fingers and then the fingers to the sky. They were my family, every single one. My blood. Boom.
Every tiny massacre, when left unaddressed, neglected, or buried, builds up into one great massacre. Refusing to admit our complicity in such tragedies, large or small, means denying ourselves a place in the victory, as well as the healing. Blame shifts and allyship is performed, and when there is no one left to hold accountable, it can become inevitable to internalize the narrative, to turn the gun on ourselves—and each other. Mourning is for the brave, and while most can move on, some of us must stay behind and clean up the mess of the many. But at some point we’ll need support to move on, because we are hurt people who hurt, but we are also people who can remember. And to do that, we’ve got to tend to those we’ve left behind, we can not abandon those without which we would not be here. The most privileged among the LGBTQIA+ community have not only forgotten the forebearers of our movement, but just a year later, so many have forgotten about Pulse. This would not be the case if those forebearers or those victims were white.
I remember how Sylva T. Rivera was driven to suicide by TERFs, but also her heroic work; I remember Julio Rivera’s murder at the hands of homophobic white supremacists just a few blocks away from me in Jackson Heights, but also how it mobilized us to start Queens Pride, now 25 years strong. I saw Rivera’s relatives at Queens Pride last weekend and Orlando felt more than 3,000 miles away. I thought, he is here with us because we are here together. I remember the Pulse victims, and my grandmother, and the many tiny massacres she endured, and in honoring their lives, I remember that I have a voice. This too, when recognized, affirmed, uplifted and ultimately, joined, can build into one great voice. That’s not just moving on, that’s a movement.
I remember the final monologue in Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia On National Themes:
And the dead will be commemorated
and will struggle on with the living,
and we are not going away.
We won’t die secret deaths anymore.
The world only spins forward.
We will be citizens.
The time has come.
The great work begins.
After leaving the altar, I returned to my dorm room and sobbed hysterically for hours, and when I was done, I wrote down the last words to come to mind:
There are graves in Orlando I can not tend to, because I need to live.