It was Latin Night at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. And as news unfolded of the nation's worst mass shooting, it quickly became evident that most of the victims were Latino.
"De verdad que no tengo palabras - truly I have no words," said Carlos Batán to Telemundo reporter Rogelio Mora Tagle. Batan choked up as he remembered how his best friend, whom he didn't name out of respect until more news had come out, was the first person he had met in Orlando when he moved from Puerto Rico four years ago. Through tears, Batán said his friend had gone to Pulse for a night of dancing, only to fall victim to the violent shooting. "I can't believe the days in which we're living, there is no respect for human life."
Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is running for the Florida state Legislature and is the government affairs manager for Equality Florida, said as soon as he learned of the shootings Sunday morning he reached out to friends to make sure they were safe because he knew people he knows would be there. Smith, who would be the first openly gay Latino in the Florida legislature and is of Peruvian descent, said he was getting calls from friends and family who were checking on him.
With only a few of the names released, he remains worried because the LGBTQ community is very tight knit and there is a good chance he may know a victim yet to be named, he said.
While violence against the LGBTQ community is something he has dealt with through Equality Florida, the civil rights group for which he works, the tragedy has made discrimination and gun violence more real, he said.
“It’s more real in every way, not only is Orlando our home, but this is our people. I see the Latino families in person here on the ground and on TV embracing each other, holding each other tight and I see my own family,” Smith said.
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando held a meeting Monday morning with Central Florida community leaders as they discussed the best ways to help friends and families of the shooting victims.
On the phone from Orlando, Diana Bolivar, the president of HCCMO, told NBC Latino she met with leaders from the LGBT Chamber of Commerce Metropolitan Business Association, the Hope and Health Center and both Latino and Hispanic community leaders to plan ways to help the City of Orlando find volunteers.
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“One of the needs the city has asked for us to help fulfill are certified translators who speak English and Spanish, and can also assist in crisis” Bolivar said. “We have a number of people who may not be equipped to properly assist, so we are asking for professional translators for families in need.”
The HCCMO is also collecting names of certified, bilingual mental health professionals for the city. Bolivar said the professionals will not only help families directly impacted by the shooting, but also for people looking to have a conversation with their children about the violence. Bolivar asked people to send tips to info@HispanicChamber.net, and her organization will organize and pass the information to the City of Orlando.
“I have staff members who lost close friends, and unfortunately many of the names being announced to the media are names that we recognize and know,” Bolivar said. “It has been incredibly tragic to hear, and very sobering to know, that we had exchanged words with these people recently, knew them and loved them.”
Natascha Otero, a public relations professional in Orlando who is Puerto Rican, said one of the most tragic aspects of the shooting was the youth of the victims.
“I talked to friends of mine who said the nightclub had been a place to feel as part of the community, part of the LGBTQ community and suddenly this place got attacked. It is devastating because it is young people."
Orlando is home to one of the nation's largest, and growing, Puerto Rican communities. Otero said more than 20 Latino organizations are gathering in Orlando on Monday afternoon in front of the Hispanic Federation, under the umbrella name #SomosOrlando.
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As the community is organizing, relatives and friends started giving a sense of who the victims were.
There was Jimmy De Jesus, described as a loving brother by his sister Shiela, who spoke to NBC News. Jimmy, whom she described as very "luchador," a fighter, came to the U.S. about 8 years ago from Puerto Rico. He had studied accounting and found work as a hotel worker when he got to Orlando. Shiela praised her brother's work ethic and said his decision to move to the U.S. was motivated by his pursuit of the American dream.
"We have received so many gestures of kindness," said De Jesus. "We are doing everything possible to bring Jimmy home. I know many want to give him that goodbye," she said.
There was Luis Vielma, 22, who worked at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park. "You were a great human being and didn't deserve to be gone so quick, RIP," tweeted one of his friends.
Jonathan Camuy, 25, a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, had worked on the hit show "La Voz Kids" that airs on the Telemundo network.
"He was a great assistant producer - Jonathan will be missed dearly," said NBC Universal Telemundo chairman Cesar Conde in a statement. "Please join me in remembering Jonathan and the other victims taken so early in life by a senseless, horrible act."
For many of the area's Latinos, the best thing to do was to try to help.
Franco Camborda, a 19-year-old student at the University of Southern Florida, said people were waiting in blood donation lines for as many as eight hours. Because the blood donation centers were so busy, Camborda said he and his friends left their phone numbers and will be ready to donate as soon as they get a call.
“When I heard it was Latinos, it hit me hard because we are already a minority —Pulse was a safe space, especially because it was Latin Night, where you could finally hold someone’s hand, or to kiss them while feeling like the majority and unopressed.”
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