PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Nearly half of the people slain in an Orlando nightclub were Puerto Ricans, the island's justice secretary said Tuesday, compounding the shock for the territory's gay community and society as a whole.
Cesar Miranda, the island's justice secretary, said 23 Puerto Ricans were among the 49 people killed, though it was not immediately clear how many were born on the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rican parents and how many had moved there from the island.
"Faced with this loss, I have been forced to reflect on all the social problems that led to this massacre: intolerance about gender preferences , discrimination against Latin Americans in the United States and broad access to weapons in that country," he said. "That is why we must reaffirm our commitment to these three fronts in Puerto Rico and unite with our diaspora and the American people to continue taking steps toward equity."
Roberto Padua, sub-secretary of Puerto Rico's State Department, said in a phone interview that his agency is helping families bring the bodies of their loved ones back to the island.
He said authorities don't know yet how many burials will take place in Puerto Rico, but that several families have requested help.
"We have received calls from all over the island," he said.
Word of the shooting had already prompted anguished mourning in places such as Ponce, a city on the island's south coast that had been home to five of the victims in Sunday's shooting. Two of the victims were on vacation, while three others had moved there in recent years.
"They were determined, hardworking, honest, sincere and pleasant people who earned everything they achieved," said Sullymarie Sosa, a Ponce resident who knew the victims through a dance group they belonged to in that city.
The shooting hit the close-knit LGBT community of Ponce particularly hard. Many knew the 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, said friend Eduardo Pacheco.
"He was a humble, courteous person who liked to help others and was respectful," Pacheco said.
Pacheco was among 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.
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" after the shooting. He flew to Orlando to comfort grieving friends.
"We're scared," he said. "This terrifies us, but we are not going to live in fear."
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, the influx has only grown and that includes LGBT citizens, activists say.
"The majority went in search of a better future," said Omar Ruiz, an organizer of the vigil. "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."
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