It is my experience for many reasons to shut trauma out of my life. On June 12th, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub’s Latin Night, becoming America’s largest mass shooting in history. Many of the victims were Latino and gay. What had been a safe space was invaded and attacked. Many of the victims were Puerto Rican. They looked like me and my friend Vince. Naturally, I became angry and afraid. As I usually do, I subconsciously blocked those feelings and many more out of my mind. Shortly after, my best friend Louie said “let’s take a Gran Varón trip to Orlando.” I was hesitant yet ready.
We arrived on July 27th (day after my
birthday). Over a period of three days we met up with several Varones that are
part of the Orlando community. When asking questions for our interviews, I was
present yet emotionally detached. Their stories of bravery, resiliency, and recovery
were inspiring. Each story weighed heavily on me and yet I still couldn’t connect.
Anthony interviewing Angel
That changed on our fourth day of the trip. The morning of July 30th we traveled to Kissimmee, Florida to meet up with Jorge. Louie had met Jorge online and shared with him that we were in the area capturing and archiving stories of Latino Gay men so that our narratives (as told by us) can be shared forever. Jorge, who had been disconnected from the world, said that he indeed had a story and was ready to open up. We picked him up and what was originally supposed to be lunch turned into 24 hours. Because of our interview schedule we had to quickly leave Kissimmee after lunch and travel to Orlando to do a few interviews. We always meet people where there are at and on their time. We keep to it. Jorge was down to tag along.
Anthony interview Miguel
Jorge watched as
we met up with two different Varones and gathered their interviews. He kept
silent but you could tell he was processing the stories being told. After our
second interview that day, I invited him to come back to our place for dinner.
Again, he was down. We traveled the 30 minutes it took to get to a supermarket
near the place we were staying. In that time, Louie separated with another to chat with another Varón in his car and I was with Jorge and Sean in our rental. We laughed from the heart
as we told jokes, we shared the music that gets us through our roughest times
(Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”), and told each other stories of our
families. I felt a developing connection with him, one that wasn’t connected to
Anthony interviewing Chris
After dinner, it was time to interview Jorge. He shared details of his background and of how he came to accept his identity. I then asked why he agreed to give up a Saturday and tag along with strangers trekking across Central Florida. That’s when he shared that he was with us because the universe kept him from going to his friend’s birthday party at Pulse that night. One of his friends, Rodolfo, did go to the party. Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33, was one of the 49 victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. In that moment, I knew the story that would follow and I felt myself detaching. Jorge wouldn’t allow me to do that. He shared a joke to make me laugh and continued to share his friend’s story with courage I’ve never seen.
Anthony interviewing Franqui
I was trying to hold space for him to share his story and instead he was holding space for me. His courage, his kindness, and his smile kept me present and in touch. Because of Jorge and the others we met in Florida, I was able to begin wrapping myself around the pain I’ve felt these last few months. The news won’t report on the strength of the survivors and those impacted. But all throughout the Orlando area, we met brave people that were pushing forward.
It tears at my mind and my heart that Jorge and I almost didn’t meet. The world tries every day to pin Latino Gay and Queer men from each other when it is through our love that we grow and thrive.
I am forever grateful for meeting Jorge and the
- Anthony Leon
Anthony & Jorge taking a selfie when they should have been eating
so it has been a full week since we returned from our trip to Orlando. admittedly, we are still processing our experience but i will share some highlights.
during our time in Orlando we were able to forge a relationship with QLatinx. their hospitality not only provided healing but served as a foundation during our entire trip. many of the organizers hung out with us, invited us into their homes and into their lives. we were with familia during our entire time there and we are so grateful for our partnership.
one of the many highlights of our trip took place on Friday night. while dancing my ass off at Parliament House, i was introduced to franqui. even with the music blasting, we were able to engage in a conversation about our project. he stated that he once lived in philly and would be more than happy to share his story with us. so on Saturday afternoon, he invited us back to the club so we could interview and photograph him. chyle, when we walked up to the club, he was in a towel and said “yes, I am in towel and what!?” this when i knew his interview would be lit - and it was. his spirit was so welcoming and hsi attitude was so philly. he was yet another reminder of the resiliency and beauty that exists and continues to thrive in Orlando.
we interviewed a total of 8 varones while we were in Orlando. each and every story were both heartbreaking and inspiring. on our last night, we had an impromptu dinner at the house we were staying in. it was so last minute but each varòn pitched in to make it happen. the dinner provided an opportunity for varones to get to know each other and simply just be.
our work in not done. we will continue to work with Qlatinx and do whatever we can to be a part of the growing movement in Orlando. we will continue to share the stories of all varones who so courageously love, live and continue to dance after the pulse massacre.
thank you to chris, miguel, jean, edwin, angel, jorge, joel and franqui for sharing your stories with us. we are beyond humbled, moved and inspired.
thank you to joshua from target and made us feel at home by just being your beautiful femme self. we look forward to hanging out with you at length the next time we in Orlando.
thank you to everyone who donated and did all that they could to make our trip possible. we invite everyone, varones and allies to support latinx queer and trans initiatives in your perspective cities. many of us are doing this work with very little resources and support is needed. if you are not sure what initiatives are happening in your city, inbox us and we will try to support you in connecting with organizers.
Today is World AIDS Day. Today I am alive. Today I still fight.
I went to the edge and made it back because I’m lucky. Because I had family and friends that gave me the time and space to grow strong. To learn and to become motivated. I was wayward before diagnoses. I was an addict and a victim of intimate partner violence. AIDS was the fire that sparked my engine.
However, my story is not in any way like other survivors’. Not everyone lives to tell about their two week stay at a hospital and their 20 TCell count. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of a support system that will not allow them to become stigmatized because the general population and mass media are too lazy and scared to educate themselves and others.
AIDS is still a very real thing. I want you to remember that. Queer Latinx people often pass away withing the first year of diagnoses because we waited too long before getting tested. Because homphobia won’t allow us to talk about our sex. Because transphobia makes us targets of systemic and interpersonal violence. Because racism puts us at a level of disadvantage that prevents us from seeking medical attention.
I want you to remember all this.
Today is World AIDS Day. Today we are alive. Today we must still fight.
“Today is World AIDS Day. Today I am alive. Today I still fight.
Today is World AIDS Day. Today we are alive. Today we must still fight.”
words to live, thrive and fight by!
(yvette santiago, sadie ramos, anthony leon, samantha martinez & louie a. ortiz-fonseca) photo by jose hernandez
two years ago Anthony Leon sat in my office and after discussing the invisibility and erasure of Latino gay men in philly, we dreamt up the gran varones. we called Sean Laughlin (our video editor) into the office and he was like “cool. when do we start shooting?” so with no money, a few iPhones, a flip cam, Sean’s shoddy microphone and Anthony’s car, we set out to document the stories of latino gay men.
photo by jose hernandez
never did i imagine the impact and reach this project would have. i certainly never imagined being presented with the prestigious Vision Aware for Creative Artist of the Year by the Hispanic Choice Awards this past Saturday night.
the community that i have (re)discovered while working on this project has provided healing and hope for my raging heart. it is this love that continues to inspire me to challenge systems of oppression that are committed to reducing our experiences and existence as latino gay men to “hot,” “sexy” and “spicy.”
(louie a. ortiz-fonseca, anthony leon, emmanuel coreano and fran cortes)
to the varones who generously and courageously shared their stories: you are my heroes and i salute you. it is your magic and your light that make this project shine.
to Javier Suarez, Cecilia Ramirez and the entire team at Hispanic Choice awards: thank you for everything! i am humbled and honored.
(samantha martinez, nikki lopez, louie, carlos nunez and david agosto)
to Carlos Nunez: who called me a few months back and said “listen, people better nominate you for this award.” i know you can win it!“ you put it out into the universe.
to galaei: thank you for believing and supporting our project from day one. also, thank you for always providing space (on always short notice lol) for us to film interviews.
to all of the mothers, fathers, grand mothers, grand fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, niece, nephews, neighbors and friends who love & support varones in their life: you help change the narrative that latinos are “more” homophobic than other communities.
to EVERY varòn: you matter right now. not for what you were or what you may be - but for what you are now. you matter right now.
- louie a. ortiz-fonseca
photo by jose hernandez