Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. On June 12, 2016, 49 people were killed during a queer Latinx dance night at the Orlando gay club. An additional 53 were injured. This piece was originally written to honor the third anniversary of the shooting, but is being republished. Today, and always, we give remembrance to those lives lost, and those others whose lives were irreparably changed
“Never — ever — blow out the candle. Blow out the candle and you will blow out the intention from which it was lit. You will blow out the prayer. Understand that?”
Those were the first instructions I was given about building an altar. It was Día de los Muertos. I was 17. I nodded, eyes focused on the layers before me. Deep blue and cloud-white candles, wooden statuettes engraved with images of goddess whose brown hues matched my own. Plastic saints that would never smile. There were old photos of family members, rum, tea and ripped sand colored paper with tiny typed prayers printed to look like quill’s ink. An hour before my living room had just been my living room. Now everything felt sacred. I inhaled and tensed my body, feeling that even the smallest misstep would rip apart this delicate beauty.
The practice of building an altar, an ofrenda, differs slightly across Latinx and Latin American cultures. Hell, it even changes between families. There is no wrong or right way to offer up gratitude, to give remembrance. Some parts remain constant – a cleaned, tall or wide space to display in your home; candles of course; photos of your loved ones or those you’ve lost. I was always taught that altars should have all four elements represented: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Beyond that, they are personal.
Building ofrendas unite the living and the dead; they give space for our stories to be held. I light candles and kneel before them to say prayers because doing so reminds me, even when I’m my most lost — I’m never alone in this world.
The morning I built my ofrenda for Pulse, I started in quiet. I cleaned off the tops of the furniture I was going to use to remove any lingering bad spirits (and dust). I covered them in a white cotton sheet. I set my heart towards intention. Normally anxious, I willed myself to be still. Calm. A fresh slate so that I could welcome back home those we’ve lost.
The morning of the Pulse shooting, I was sleeping on my couch in a pair of boxers. The living room was the only place in my apartment with an air conditioner — and even then, my skin sweated against the rough wool below me. The heat made the air hazy and when I reached for my phone’s texts, I remember how it was hard to breathe through the makeshift smog. I had no idea what was coming.
Carmen, you awake yet?
Fuck wake up!
There’s 50 dead. They’re gay.
It was Latin night. They’re black and brown.
Oh God. Oh God.
It was two weeks before my 30th birthday.
There’s this famous poem from the 1970s by Pedro Pietri, one of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Café. If you’ve studied (or grew up around) Puerto Ricans who love books, you’ve probably encountered it. My mom used to read it to me as a teenager. It’s called “Puerto Rican Obituary”:
All died yesterday today
And will die again tomorrow.
That’s what I first thought of in the days following Pulse, when the names and faces of those who’d died became public. Edward. Franky. Stanley. Xavier. Javier. Shane. Luis. Juan. Eric. Peter. Luis. Kimberly. Eddie. Darryl. Deonka. Anthony. Jean. Luis. Amanda. Martin. Jerald. Cory. Brenda. Christopher. Rodolfo. Luis. Leroy. Jason. Frank. Akyra. Mercedes. Gilberto. Simon. Oscar. Enrique. Miguel. Juan. Juan. Tevin. Jonathon. Christopher. Paul. Joel. Jean. Yilmary. Angel. Antonio. Geraldo. Alejandro. All died yesterday today. And will die again tomorrow.
After a mass tragedy, almost inevitably someone says “It could’ve been me!” The Pulse shooting happened in a gay club on a Latin dance night in a largely Puerto Rican city. Those same theme nights are how I built my queer family — drinking house rum and Pineapple while dancing in silver heels on sticky floors. Finding the one chair in the corner to sit on because I’m a grandma at heart (and my feet hurt!) and no one else was ready to go home yet. Eating empanadas and bacon Mac-n-Cheese at three in the morning. That’s how I found myself. It’s how I learned there was a map for my queerness that didn’t have to include a whiteness that was foreign to me. Queerness could be home.
There’s one photo in particular — of Kimberly Morris, the Pulse bouncer and former basketball player. She’s the mirror image of my friend Marisol. It’s been three years, and I still can’t look at her face without feeling it. This wasn’t a “It could’ve been us.”
This was “It was us.” As far as I’m concerned, the attack at Pulse nightclub was an attack on a church.
Not everyone who died that night was Puerto Rican (though most were). Some were African American, some from other Latin American countries. Still, in this, on this day — we’re all hermanxs fighting.
My Uncle Rey means King in Spanish. My mom gave him the nickname. They were best friends, and I think, soulmates. He died when I was just a kid, long before I got to know him more.
I think about him a lot now. Growing up, he must’ve been the first gay Puerto Rican that I knew. I remember sleeping tucked between him and my mom on his cramped futon in a ‘90s Brooklyn apartment that had more mixed tapes piled high than wall space. I remember his smile and the gruff of his mustache. Sometimes I think maybe I can remember more? But it’s fleeting.
In another universe, in another timeline, I wonder if I would’ve come out to him first. Would we have gotten close enough that I’d ask him to take me out for pancakes? Would the whipped cream from his hot chocolate coat his nose and his eyes widen in surprise when I whispered my secret? I bet he would have hugged me until the air popped out of my lungs.
Or at least, I like to think so.
The morning of the shooting, would he had cried, like I did, from recognition? Would he had seen siblings scattered among YouTube memorials? Would he had made them a playlist, poured out some Bacardí Añejo, and toasted them from his cramped Brooklyn apartment a half a country away? They were his family, too. At least as much as they were mine.
An ofrenda should have all four elements: Water, Air, Fire, and Earth. The candles have fire covered. These small potted plants will serve well as “earth.” Air? That’s all around us.
But the water? I bottled it myself off the shores of Luquillo. There the water always feels warm, sun-kissed. The bubbles of the ocean fizzled against my ankles as I waded as deep as I could without wetting my cheap Old Navy turquoise dress, sighed deep, and then bent down.
Now the water sits on the altar that I always keep next to my bed. It’s small glass jar is navy blue. In the right light, it beams and dances the same way that lights shimmers off a disco ball in a gay club on a sweaty summer night during Pride. It’s rich and full, like how you feel when you take that last drink just a little too fast and have to hold yourself up on your best friend’s shoulders while giggling. The color is stunning; the jewel toned bodysuit of a drag queen about to take center stage.
I bottled it less than a three-hour flight from Orlando and roughly ten years before the shooting. But right now, laid out before me, it all feels connected.
On June 12th every year, I light a candle for Pulse. And I never — ever — blow out the flame.