PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Eduardo Pacheco wrote the names of every person killed in an Orlando nightclub on a bright green poster spread across the hood of a car, preparing for a vigil to the fallen. He stopped halfway, unable to go on as tears filled his eyes.
Five of the names on the list were his friends, all from the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico, an island preparing for a wave of losses following early Sunday’s attack in the Pulse gay nightclub as it was celebrating Latin night. Mourners young and old clutched candles and posters at Monday night’s vigil in this southern coastal city, still stunned by the news.
“It was such a tremendous loss. He was such a great human being. All five of them were,” said Pacheco of his best friend, who was among those killed, and the other four victims. He said two of them were on vacation in Orlando, while the other three had moved there in recent years.
While many Latinos were among the dead, Puerto Ricans feared their island would be inordinately hit as LGBT activists were struck by how many had characteristically Puerto Rican names.
So far, nearly “all of the names of the victims seem to be Puerto Rican,” Karina Claudio Betancourt, a Puerto Rican activist who is a program officer with the Open Society Foundations, said as the names rolled out.
The shooting hit the close-knit LGBT community of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city on its southern coast, particularly hard. Many knew the five victims and said some had moved to Orlando to find jobs and flee a dire economic crisis that has sparked the largest exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland in decades.
Many, like 25-year-old Leroy Valentin, were musicians and dancers.
Valentin had played in Ponce’s municipal band for a decade and was member of a dance group. His favorite music was reggaeton and he also admired pop singer Christina Aguilera. He had moved to Orlando two years ago but came back to Puerto Rico a couple of months ago for a surprise visit, Pacheco said.
“He was a humble, courteous person who liked to help others and was respectful,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco was among the more than 200 people who gathered at a historic plaza in Ponce to honor those killed by 29-year-old Omar Mateen, who attacked club-goers wielding an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun. At least 49 people were killed and another 53 were wounded.
Fear over the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history almost caused the vigil in Ponce to be canceled, said Omar Ruiz, one of the organizers.
“A lot of people approached me because they were scared to come and thought that the same thing would happen here,” he said, adding that he called police and requested security.
Many expressed anger that the young men were seeking a better life in Orlando only to be shot dead.
“This is a hit to the democracy that they talk about so much in the United States,” said Yan Serrano Rosado, member of a human rights group in Ponce.
The shooting prompted Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla to declare Friday a day of mourning.
“I hope this unfortunate incident will make us more aware of the importance of eradicating hatred in all its manifestations,” he said. “God give us all strength, peace and serenity in this bitter moment.”
Prominent Puerto Rican gay rights activist Pedro Julio Serrano said his “heart is in pieces” following the shooting at the nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
“This impacts very, very closely to the heart of the Puerto Rican LGBT community. It’s an unspeakable tragedy and it could have been any one of us,” Serrano told The Associated Press shortly after flying to Orlando to comfort grieving friends.
For years, thousands of Puerto Ricans have flocked to Orlando and other central Florida communities to pursue job opportunities. As Puerto Rico’s entrenched financial crisis has worsened over the past year, the influx has only grown and that includes LGBT citizens, activists say.
“The majority went in search of a better future,” Ruiz said. “Unfortunately, they lost their lives. Now we have to fight so that none of it was in vain. Let this give us strength as a community.”
David McFadden in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.