The Struggle to Bring Orlando Victims Home for Burial

Lead Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti
AP Photo/Carlos Giusti
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As Orlando reels from the tragic mass shooting at one of the city’s gay nightclubs, the victims’ families face a unique set of challenges when it comes to funeral arrangements. Omar Mateen opened fire inside Pulse nightclub on Latin Night and killed 49 people – 90 percent of whom were Latinos with roots in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. But at 23 casualties, most of them were of Puerto Rican descent.

In recent years, Orlando’s Puerto Rican population has flourished as tens of thousands have fled the economic crisis and violence back on the island. Their presence in Central Florida is so strong that Kissimmee – just 30 minutes away – is known as Little PR. Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velazquez, one of the victims, arrived in Florida in 2010, where he looked for acceptance as a member of the LGBTQ community, according to the New York Times. For him, Orlando was supposed to be a haven.

Back on the island, flags fly at half-staff. On Tuesday night, more than 300 attended a vigil in San Juan. “You become paralyzed when you hear the news,” said Mayra Ortiz, whose son moved to Orlando a year ago, to ABC. “This is a collective suffering.”

And as families grieve, they also have to make funeral arrangements. While some family and friends have flown to Orlando to offer emotional support, others are worried about burying their loved ones on the island. Roberto Padua, sub-secretary for Puerto Rico’s State Department, said that though he doesn’t have an exact number on how many families plan to have burials in PR, plenty of families have reached out to his department. The State Department plans to financially help families and JetBlue has even offered to fly the victims’ relatives between Orlando and PR.

A few have turned to the Internet for financial assistance. Wanda Ferrer started a GoFundMe page for her friend, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon. “As most of you know, our good friend Danny fell victim to the tragedy that [occurred] on [Saturday] night at Pulse nightclub,” she wrote. “We would like to ask our friends and family for help for the funeral expenses, since his body will need to be transported to Puerto Rico. Even the smallest donations are greatly appreciated!” Initially looking to raise $5,000, Ferrer’s page has raised more than $7,000 in one day.

But Puerto Rican families are not alone in this struggle. Following the death of a 31-year-old undocumented man from Mexico, a family doesn’t know how they’ll pay for his funeral, according to Fusion. Though Juan Sabines, Mexico’s Consul General in Orlando, has said the Mexican Consulate will pay the more than $3,000 to repatriate his body to Veracruz, it won’t cover the funeral costs. On Univision, his mother made an emotional plea for help. “Please help us,” she said through tears. “Please support us. We’re humble.”

Though it’s expensive, repatriating the body may be the only way for the families of undocumented immigrants to see their loved ones again; flying to the US is not an option for many. “For many families, no matter how much money they raise they still may not be able to get permission to come to the U.S.,” said Yessica Ramirez, an organizer with The Farmworker Association of Florida. “For the family to be watching this back in their countries and not be able to help their sons is painful; this all hurts the family back home too.”

Sometimes back home is within the continental United States. One woman started a GoFundMe page to bring her son, Enrique Rios, back to New York. Rios was on vacation in Orlando, and she asked people for help bringing her son back home for a proper funeral. In two days, she’s raised more than $30,000.

While families are finding varied success on GoFundMe, Equality Florida – Florida’s LGBT civil rights organization – has used its platform to raise more than $4 million, as well as to provide the victims’ loved ones with all of the resources they’ll need during this difficult time. Donate here.