For a decade before massacre, Orlando was magnet for Latinos seeking safety, stability

Like many Latinos who have thronged to the Orlando area in the last decade, Vivian Rodriguez sought a change from the stress and struggles of her surroundings.

Rodriguez was a 21-year member of the New York City Police Department, devoting many of her law enforcement years to terrorism investigations.

In her final role with the NYPD, Rodriguez, a detective, worked in the intelligence division. Terrorists had just struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and she was assigned to check for any other possible imminent attacks. She was involved in several covert anti-terrorism operations.

“We were in the thick of it,” Rodriguez said.

In 2004, Rodriguez retired to Orlando, with a long list of distinctions for her service, as well as a history of advocacy for Latinos and the LGBT community.

“I came to Orlando. Nice, sunny Florida, where it was safe. You have Disney World, the ‘happiest place on Earth.’ Then a lone wolf targets an LGBT nightclub with such hatred,” Rodriguez said. “This is the most horrendous – the most horrendous – act. Being Latina and being openly gay, this really is personal to me. I have no words for what occurred.”

Rodriguez, who now is the president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, is living an ironic and cruel, full-circle twist of fate because Omar Mateen chose to attack a nightclub that caters to an LGBT clientele which she has gone to.

“I came to Orlando – nice, sunny Florida, where it was safe, you have Disney World, the ‘happiest place on Earth.’ Then a long wolf targets an LGBT nightclub with such hatred. This is the most horrendous – the most horrendous – act. Being Latina, and being openly gay, this really is personal to me.

— Vivian Rodriguez, Orlando resident, former NYPD detective

“I was in New York when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and then in 2001, and now the worst terrorist shooting happens in my own backyard,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Orlando a sanctuary for Latinos

In the last decade, Orlando has been a magnet for Latinos from Puerto Rico and Venezuela, from more crowded areas of Florida, such as Miami, and from other states, including New York and Illinois.

The Latino community has grown established enough so that it has become a magnet, with its many bodegas and shops that carry familiar goods and and its bilingual and bicultural services.

Many people came to Orlando for its slower pace, affordability and safety when compared to South Florida and major U.S. cities. Immigrants come for more stability and a better future for their children. And a huge influx of Puerto Ricans has settled here, leaving behind their financially ailing island for a community where many have friends and relatives, as well as many of the sights and sounds of home.

“We’re more than a quarter of the population here,” said state Sen. Darren Soto, who was born and grew up in New Jersey and is of Puerto Rican descent.

“As the names were coming out, they were almost all Hispanic,” said Soto, who added that a member of his office had been at the nightclub the night of the massacre and survived. “We don’t know if it was an attack on Hispanics – we know it was clearly an attack on the LGBT community. We Hispanics took the brunt of it.”

At least one Venezuelan, 31-year-old Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, has been confirmed among those killed, and Mexico's president says three of the dead were citizens of his country, with a fourth wounded and in stable condition.

President Enrique Peña Nieto added that his government is assisting families of the victims.

Indeed, the tragedy was a shock for the whole world, but particularly for those almost lulled by the nearly small-town feel of Orlando, the people who live there say.

“We generally have not had any instances like this before in our history,” Soto said. “It’s not at all characteristic of our very safe community – a terrorist attack. It’s shocking, the deadliest shooting in American history happened right here.”

Many Latinos say they feel welcome, accepted in Orlando, though that was not the case in the community’s earlier days, when many encountered overt discrimination.

LGBT residents found support in Orlando

Latino and LGBT leaders also speak of the acceptance for people despite their sexual orientation.

“We have a huge LGBT community,” Soto said, “It’s a fundamental part of our community. We’re very proud of it.”

More than 20 local and national Latino organizations have come together in the wake of this weekend’s mass shooting.

About 24 groups formed a coalition called “Somos Orlando” to offer counseling and therapy services to members of the community who have been affected by the tragedy. The Hispanic Federation, the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and the National Council of La Raza are among the organizations represented.

Many are participating in a vigil Monday night at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando.

The mayor’s office released a statement saying, “The City of Orlando is working to plan an official memorial service in the near future to honor the victims and all those involved in this horrific crime.”

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of Iglesia El Calvario in Orlando, presided over a bilingual vigil Sunday night for the victims of the shooting. The governor and several other state officials, as well as families of some of the victims, attended.

Salguero, who is president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said many relatives of those who died or are hospitalized are turning to their pastors for guidance and comfort.

“One of our [coalition] pastors spoke to a mother who knows her son died in the shooting, but she has not been able to see his body yet, and she is distraught,” Salguero said. “Another of our pastors spoke with a girl who was shot 12 times and is in the hospital. The people in the hospital who are conscious are asking about their friends – if they made it, if they died.”

Salguero plans to speak at Monday’s vigil. “I will speak in English and Spanish, as I always do, and will say prayers on behalf of Orlando’s Latino families,” he said.

Rodriguez, for her part, is going over questions in her mind and heart – as a Latina, as a gay woman, as an Orlando resident, as a law enforcement veteran.

“I wonder if [Mateen] targeted Latinos – we’re all asking ourselves that,” Rodriguez said. “Every Saturday, Pulse had a Latino theme. He probably knew that.”

“From my anti-terrorism experience, I know that when people commit acts of terror, they case the place first," Rodriguez told FNL. "He probably had gone there, probably got to know the area, the nightclub. He probably knew that on a Saturday night, the club was packed with hundreds of people.”