World·CBC in Orlando

As Pulse victims' funerals begin, Puerto Rico's 'children' return home

As Orlando buries more victims following the shooting at Pulse nightclub, Puerto Rico prepares to do the same. For volunteers trying to lighten the burden on out-of-town families, it's a scramble to solve urgent repatriation and housing needs.

Orlando volunteers scramble to help families from ‘the island’ repatriate those who died

Jose Luis Morales holds onto a cross memorial for his friend, Eddie Sotomayor, a victim in the June 12 shooting rampage at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Morales said at least two of five friends who died in Pulse were Puerto Ricans. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Jose Luis Morales, clutching a string of rosary beads, approached the wooden cross bearing Eddie Sotomayor's name, fell upon it, and wept.

"Buen amigo," he said, embracing the painted marker memorializing his friend, one of 49 killed June 12 in Orlando during the worst mass shooting by one gunman in U.S. history.

He looked down at Sotomayor's portrait, now among 49 photos mounted to crosses at the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

"Good friend," he said, his face twisted in anguish. "From Puerto Rico."

Morales nodded towards a second white marker, one for another victim he knew, Xavier Serrano.

Jose Luis Morales of Orlando prays near a crucifix after laying down the LGBT, Puerto Rican and American flags at a vigil near the Orlando Regional Medical Center. (Corey Perrine, Naples Daily News/Associated Press)

"Puerto Rico," he said again.

Indeed, perhaps no other region outside Orlando has felt the trauma more.

As this Central Florida city of 255,000 buries more victims this week, the unincorporated U.S. territory known affectionately by Puerto Ricans here simply as "the island" — and by others as "home" — prepares to do the same.

Though many were Orlando residents, nearly half of those murdered at the gay bar Pulse were of Puerto Rican descent.

Speaking through an interpreter, Morales made an appeal in Spanish to Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the governor of Puerto Rico, vocalizing the feelings of many "Boricuas" here, people who may have lived on the U.S. mainland, but identify strongly with the Caribbean island.

"The governor needs to know his children are crying right here. They're hurting," he said. "We are requesting his presence here in Orlando because his flag is here."

A strong cultural desire exists among many of the victims' relatives to see their loved ones interred in "la isla del encanto."

A rose sits on a cross in Orlando honouring Christopher Andrew Leinonen and his fellow victims of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

For volunteers trying to lighten the burden on out-of-town families, that means a scramble to solve urgent repatriation and housing needs.

Over the weekend, Angel Candelario Padro, a nurse slain in the massacre, was brought back to Puerto Rico for burial. The casket for Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, who grew up in the city of Ponce, was also scheduled for a flight to the island for a service there.

More victims are expected to be on the way in coming days.

Glory Gonzalez, left, and Jeff Gear have been volunteering at a makeshift call centre. They have been helping families of the Orlando shooting victims connect to hotels, rental cars and flights to and from the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Our families just want to take them home," said Glory Gonzalez, who was helping to connect out-of-town families with hotels and services in Orlando. "I'm Puerto Rican, and that's what I would want to do — to be buried in our soil."

Along with about 30 other volunteers, Gonzalez has been working out of borrowed office space in Orlando, as part of a makeshift call centre for victims' families.

'We need hotels in San Juan'

The operation was set up by Christian West-Howard, a local Spanish-speaking real-estate agent who started by offering his vacant rental properties free to families in need of lodgings. That gesture grew within days into a rapid-response operation for victims of the shooting.

The office, at a location undisclosed for security reasons, was a hive of activity last week.

Working a phone next to Gonzalez, Jeffrey Gear hung up and turned around in his chair.

"We need hotels in San Juan," he called out.

Gear, who lost 19 friends in the shooting at Pulse Orlando, already placed a family in Mexico for a service there.

"But I'm really needing accommodations in San Juan," he said. "That's the biggest city everyone's going back to."

While Orlando's Citrus Bowl soccer stadium has served as an official "family assistance centre," some relatives of victims have reached out directly to these volunteers, more than a dozen of whom are using West-Howard's Facebook account to process requests and donation offers.

When a family of one victim drove in from Georgia and said they wished to hold the funeral in their native Puerto Rico, they contacted him.

A woman writes a message on a cross placed in honour of the the shooting victims at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando. (Jim Young/Reuters)

"Our team called their connections," West-Howard said. "And within half an hour, we got [the family] a rental car, we got them flights to Puerto Rico, and we had a hotel in Puerto Rico." West-Howard said "everything is covered" by businesses that waived their fees, or by donations.

Beyond Puerto Rico, the cross-territorial scope of this tragedy has also involved victims with Dominican, Venezuelan and Colombian roots.

The family of Luis Vielma, the 22-year-old who worked at a Harry Potter theme park, wanted him to be interred in Mexico.

Simon Morgan, right, says a local volunteer effort in Orlando has helped to bring large families from Puerto Rico to the U.S. to mourn the bodies of their loved ones. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The Cuban mother of Alejandro Barrios Martinez was unable to bring his body back to Cuba, though she was granted a rushed humanitarian visa so she could at least see him laid to rest in the States.

Complicating matters is that Latino families also tend to be large and close-knit, part of a broad "collective community," said Sami Haiman-Marrero, a local Hispanic businesswoman helping to co-ordinate a Latino-led response to the tragedy under the group Orlando Somos (We Are Orlando).

"We're talking about cousins who grew up like brothers and sisters, neighbours who helped watch the children when they were small," she said.

Christian West-Howard, right, speaks with a volunteer at a borrowed office space in Orlando where he and dozens of others have been helping families from Puerto Rico and abroad connect with victims of the shooting at Pulse. The 23-year-old real-estate agent was a regular at the club. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Simon Morgan, a volunteer with West-Howard, said one shooting victim had 26 family members coming to Orlando in need of lodgings. Never mind the overwhelming expenses involved.

"When you're talking about finding accommodations for that many people, you can't just call a hotel and say, 'Hey, I'm finding accommodations for 26,'" Morgan said.

Volunteers have already placed extended families of eight and 10 into hotel rooms and vacant rental properties, with promises to waive fees.

Hotel requests continue to pour in, as do generous offers of food, gift cards and immigration legal advice.

In the meantime, the 49 white crosses lining the hospital collected more flowers and messages of love in English and Spanish.

For more than an hour, Morales, with his rosary wrapped around his hand, paced between Sotomayor's and Serrano's memorials.

A Puerto Rican himself, Morales knew five victims.

A woman places flowers on the crosses at a memorial for those who were killed at the Pulse gay nightclub shooting in Orlando. (Jim Young/Reuters)

He came to a street corner near the Orlando Regional Medical Center to drape the island's flag over a makeshift memorial. The symbol — a five-pointed white star set in a blue triangle, with red and white stripes — has become a familiar motif at public vigils.

Later, as daylight started to dim, Morales remained hunched over Sotomayor's cross. Passersby rubbed his back. Some kissed his cheek and offered condolences. A woman handed him a bottle of water.

Before Morales finally left the site, he knelt at Serrano's cross and picked up a red Sharpie.

"Te quiero mucho," he had written — love you lots.

A message signed by Jose Luis Morales for his friend, Xavier Serrano, reads "Te quiero mucho," or "love you lots." Serrano was among 23 victims in the Pulse shooting who were of Puerto Rican descent. (Matt Kwong/CBC)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong