When the economy in his native Puerto Rico began to collapse, college graduate Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera did what so many on the island have done in recent years – he moved to Central Florida.
It was here that Ortiz-Rivera forged a new life, selling toys at the mall, enjoying home-cooked Puerto Rican meals of fried pork and rice with pigeon peas and meeting his eventual husband.
“He packed his bags and came here nine years ago by himself,” his sister Frances Ortiz said outside of his wake on Thursday. “He was young. He was single. He had nothing to lose. So he came here, lived his life and had fun doing it. And did that right until the end.”
Relatives and friends this week memorialized Ortiz-Rivera, who was one of 49 people – nearly all of them Hispanic – shot to death in the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Their deaths underscore the devastating effect the tragedy has wrought on Central Florida’s flourishing and tight-knit Hispanic community, which has grown tremendously in a region mostly known for its theme parks and shopping.
The losses cut deep because so many newcomers such as Ortiz-Rivera, 36, had fled home to escape bad times — economic insecurities, rampant crime or intolerance of their lifestyles. But in their pain, Hispanic groups are trying hard to rally.
Local Hispanic support organizations banded together to created a coalition of volunteers, “Somos Orlando,” which translates to “We are Orlando.” Many have helped translating for loved ones who only speak Spanish, or arranging travel for relatives from Puerto Rico and other countries.
The Hispanic Federation, a national charity that joined the the coalition, created a website to raise money for victims’ families.
Even an organization of competitive players of domino – a game beloved in Puerto Rico and the islands – has been donating lunches to volunteers since the tragedy.
“The tragedy has really united the community,” said Manuel Oquendo, the president of Domino USA, which hosts an international competition here in July. “It’s had a huge impact. One of our members had a son who died.”
That so many of the victims were Hispanic was no surprise.
Omar Mateen, who was shot to death by police, attacked the popular gay nightclub Sunday on Latin Night, killing 49 people. Of the dead, 90 percent were Hispanic. Fifty-three others were wounded, also mostly Hispanic.
Twenty-three of the dead were of Puerto Rican descent like Ortiz-Rivera, who grew up in a town near San Juan and graduated from the Central University of Bayamon with a degree in communications. His mother, Maria de los Angeles Rivera, 61, flew in from Puerto Rico for Thursday’s wake.
Rivera will take her son’s ashes back to Puerto Rico. “I came here to take him home,” she said.
She’ll return to an island that remains in turmoil after a decade-long recession.
On the island, the government can’t pay public debt of more than $72 million, leaving U.S. Congress to try and fix the spiraling economy. Nearly half of the island's 3.5 million people now live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is above 12 percent – and that’s not higher because so many people have left the island.
To boot, the mosquito-born Zika virus has infected hundreds on the island. After the shooting, communities across the island held somber vigils; five victims originally hailed from Ponce, including musician Leroy Valentin, 25, who played in the town’s municipal band before moving to Orlando.
“Very young people are leaving the island because of the economic crisis,” said Zoe Colon, director of Florida and Southeast Operations for the Hispanic Federation.
Indeed, the exodus from the island has transformed Central Florida, now home to over 300,000 Puerto Ricans, a voting bloc that could be pivotal in the upcoming presidential election.
Many of them have settled here in Kissimmee, just south of Orlando, where Lisandra Roman runs Lechonera El Jubarito restaurant. Inside the building, painted red-white-and-blue like the Puerto Rican flag, TV screens flashed the faces of those killed at Pulse.
“It really hurts our community,” Roman said. “I recognize some of those faces. They've come in here before.”
At another area restaurant, the Puerto Rico Cafe, traditional Puerto Rican folk music played. Customers got dollops of rice and slices of roast pork, Sipping a beer at the counter, Puerto Rico native Luis Rivera thought of mass shootings in Connecticut, Paris and now, Orlando. “Now, it’s happened to us,” he said.
Rivera did not stay long. He left to put on a suit and attend the wake for Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, a relative of one Rivera’s friends. Ocasio-Capo, an aspiring dancer, was just 20 – among the youngest slain in the massacre.
“We are suffering through each other's pain,” said Rivera, 52. “It’s a huge loss.”
Even those with no direct connection to the killings have suffered.
At Orlando’s Hispanic Family Counseling Center, which employes 20 therapists, all of the Spanish-speaking, the Pulse shooting has been thrust to the forefront. The reason: many patients are traumatized over the bloodshed, said clinical supervisor Jessica Heredia.
“ They are still in shock, wondering ‘How can this happen to us? How can someone do that?’” Heredia said. “It’s part of our culture. Part of our Hispanic character. We are family, not by blood, but you can hear that collective expression. You can see they fell hurt, even if they are not directly family members, a spouse or a friend.”