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In Orlando, Muslim Latina Mourns Victims, Spreads Message of Tolerance

ORLANDO, Fla. — Vanessa Huesos is a teacher who arrived to Orlando from Puerto Rico over 20 years ago. She grew up with a Protestant father, who was a pastor, and a Catholic mother. She converted to Islam eight years ago.

Her reaction was when she first discovered the shooter was a Muslim who had attacked a the Pulse Night Club on Latin night, “This can’t be. God. Why? Why? Why? Why?”

Huesos also felt the impact of the LGBT community since she has a gay brother who lives in California. After attending a recent vigil in Orlando in memory of the victims of the shooting, she spoke to NBC News about the space she navigates as a Latina, a Muslim and the sibling of a gay Latino who is sympathetic to communities that face prejudice and violence.

Huesos said she attended gay clubs with her brother before converting, and the tragedy has made her reflect on the struggles the LGBT community and Islamic community share.

"People stare at us. We’re two communities trying to survive here," Huesos said. "I feel for my brother."

Vanessa Huesos is Puerto Rican, Muslim and a teacher who lives in Orlando, Florida.
Vanessa Huesos is Puerto Rican, Muslim and a teacher who lives in Orlando, Florida. Victoria Moll-Ramirez

Huesos said she felt for the communities in San Bernardino and Paris, but this attack has been particularly hard on her.

"It’s not the same when you hear of other tragedies compared to when it happens in your backyard," Huesos said.

RELATED: Latino Groups Mobilize to Provide Long-Term Services After Orlando Shooting

The hardest hit Latino community in the Orlando attacks was the Puerto Rican community. Of the 49 people killed at Pulse nightclub, 23 were Puerto Rican. When talking with members of the Latino community in Orlando many of them said they weren’t surprised to hear that nearly 50 percent of the dead were from the island.

The biggest heartache for her during this time hasn’t been what she has experienced as an Islamic woman, instead what she feels as a Puerto Rican.

"Islam is just my religion. Puerto Rico is what I carry inside. It’s my blood. It’s my family. It’s my friends. It’s my life. Islam is just my religion. I just pray to God. Islam is me praying five times a day. Islam is how I dress. Islam isn’t what I carry. Islam isn’t what I speak, my language. Islam isn’t my heart. My biggest pain was because I’m Latina,” she said.

According to Pew, the number of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin living in Florida has gone up 110 percent, based on an analysis from 2014. The number of Puerto Ricans actually surpassed the 1 million mark for the first time, more than doubling the state’s Puerto Rican population.

Orlando: Friends and Family of Victims Describe Their Loss 1:30

A smaller area in Florida that has also started seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans is Port St. Lucie, where the shooter, Omar Mateen, lived. The Puerto Rican population surged 64 percent during 2013.

Huesos is another example of the diversity that exists not only within the Central Florida community but also within the Latino community.

Community leader Nilmarie Zapata has been working with different non-profit organizations providing outreach to Latinos affected by the event.

RELATED: Latino Community Hit Hard in Orlando Shootings, Most Victims Were Hispanic

"Diversity is needed within local governments to understand cultural differences," Zapata said. From dealing with family members from different countries to helping loved ones cope with the tragedy, it's more than just speaking the language. “Being bilingual doesn’t mean you’re bicultural."

Flags at a vigil in Orlando for shooting victims.
Flags at a vigil in Orlando for shooting victims. Victoria Moll-Ramirez

Different Latino organizations have stepped up in providing aid with everything from translation services, to immigration assistance, and counseling.

As for Huesos, she sees her role as stressing that Islam is a religion of peace.

“The Koran says the killing of one innocent [person] is as if you were to kill all of humanity," Huesos said. "If you save one person it’s as if you saved all of humanity. What this man did is wrong and evil. I can’t even see him on TV. I see his photo and I have to change the channel. I get nauseous,” said Huesos.

Like others in the area, she has attended multiple vigils and said for the most part she has felt the support of the Orlando community.

"Yes, I am Muslim. I’m covered, but I’m still human," said Huesos. "They see me as human... and that’s the way I see them. This is not Islam. What this person did is not Islam. And for me to be here is to show I am here not because I’m covered and Muslim, I’m here because I’m human like everybody here."

Though Orlando is now associated with the nation's worst mass shooting, there are also many signs throughout "The City Beautiful" of tolerance and a message of acceptance. One sees it in signs in both English and Spanish. It was also witnessed at a recent vigil: a conservative, older Latina mother was proudly holding a rainbow flag, tearfully saying she was constantly thinking and praying for the victims and their families.

Like Huesos, many in the city are focusing on remaining resilient and focused on their message of love overcoming hate.

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