ORLANDO — On the morning of June 12, my phone was blowing up. Texts poured in from family and friends around the country, asking if I was OK. Confused, I answered, “I am fine, we are fine,” not yet having seen the news about the Pulse nightclub in my new hometown of Orlando, where I came to teach art at the University of Central Florida. So, like anybody with a smartphone, I immediately turned to my news source, Facebook, for answers.
There it was, plastered all over my page, a mass shooting, 40 to 50 people presumed dead in a bloodbath act of terror and hate. I gasped. I replied to people as the calls and texts came in, “I’m OK, we’re OK,” while trying to make sense of the scene’s eerie similarity to what I’d experienced during 9/11 in New York City. Except this time there was no soot covering the streets or plumes of pungent smoke in the air. Hints of terrorist activity swirled, so many unidentified victims, and I started scanning my mental contact list for students I could think of who might have been there. Just like on 9/11, names and faces spun around in my head. An ordinary Sunday morning instantly came to a grinding halt. Then the numbness started. Like a nasty blow, you’re left stunned, then dull and throbbing.
Fifteen years ago, I took to the streets with chalk, paint, and candles to do whatever creative gesture I could to try to mend the irreparable damage done by the attacks on the twin towers in my beloved city. I felt collective sorrow ripping through my body. I had to do something for the fallen, the friends I’d lost, the lives affected, and those being retaliated against in the swell of anti-Muslim acts in my Bronx neighborhood. I wept openly, clearly, and often. I felt these things fully, a connection to my Empire State like nothing I’d ever experienced. My art making allowed me a place to exhale.
Fifteen years later, I am mute. Frozen. Glued to my seat, paint brushes and pencils standing dutifully at attention in their jars, cursor blinking while waiting for the perfectly manicured statement to spill from my academic mind onto my feed, where students and colleagues are privy to my musings, promotional posts, and advocacy for change. Fifteen years later, after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Charleston church shooting, the slaughter at Sandy Hook, the shootings at the movie theater in Aurora. Fifteen years later, I am numb. “I can’t believe this happened here, in my back yard,” is uttered over and over in sound bites on TV and in casual conversations. In some sort of way, the innocence of the City Beautiful is gone, now home to the largest mass shooting on US soil. Vigils are being held; marches are scheduled. People, young and old, are mobilizing to help the families of the victims. Artists are assembling to use their creative voices to advocate for change and provide support. The outpouring of love in Orlando has been beautiful to witness, and I am still numb. I can only think of the many faces of diversity that I represent as a First Generation Artist Woman of Color faculty member at the University of Central Florida, the LGBTQ students of color who will look to me for guidance, and the numb throbbing that isn’t letting me feel alongside them.
This time, I can’t seem to find the place to stand. In the streets, with candles in my hands alongside nameless masses trying to make sense of a senseless act? Do I pour my energy into another mural that will fade into obscurity once the emotional dust settles and we get back to our lives? Do I quote poignant words from Martin Luther King, Jr. to remind us about the struggle, but that we still have dreams of equality and much work to do to right the injustices enacted upon the myriad of otherness in our society? Do I allow myself to feel the anger of being forced to face otherness again and expected to turn it into a proper teaching moment, where I must represent the best there is as a Puerto Rican woman, LGBTQ ally, artist, mother, professor, yadda, yadda, yadda? Can I just crawl under the covers and wait until we stop talking about it, stop talking about the pros and cons of gun control, stop blaming Them for how much They Hate Us and how we have to Make (insert institution here) Great Again, only to not change a damned thing?
Breathe deeply. It is in this space where I want to tell myself that Silence is Golden, but I know deep down that it is not. Silence is acceptance, and I cannot accept that this act isn’t a reminder of how deep bigotry runs in the veins of so many people, and not just the attacker. Venomous tweets smearing social media with monstrosities like “God Is Your Terrorist,” celebrating the murderer for exacting god’s furious vengeance on “those perverts.” Another blow. More swelling. More numbness. My students. My brown LGBTQ students. My family. My home. My progeny. I am torn between the anguish of big loss, raging out, and academic composure; mainly, though, I’m tired.
I’m not OK. I can say that I wasn’t hurt, that I am safe, but I’m not sure how true that really is, not then, not now, not ever. My career as a professional artist hinges firmly on my otherness and living and making work about straddling life between two worlds, about code switching for survival.
What can I say to the young people whose dreams of true equality were suddenly, violently disrupted by the massacre at Pulse nightclub on the morning of June 12, except that this is life on the Other side — precarious, teetering, fragile. The soil that this city is built on is soaked in the blood of our ancestral Others who tilled its fields and built its rails and roads. That this isn’t the last time? It will happen again, perhaps not here, but somewhere else; someone will be so consumed with their disdain for you that you will be singled out, mocked, hunted. I can tell you all of those things that have begun to set into my weary bones, or I can remind you of your beauty, youth, and brilliance. Make your murals, light your candles, love openly and broadly. Artists are the unifiers, the truth tellers, the spellbinders, and the healers of society who live their lives on the fringes of convention. As I type this, reflecting on my sense of immobility, I realize that, although not painting on a scaffold or sweating as I march, I am far from immobile. The screen is my canvas; my words are my brushstrokes. I may be tired, but not broken.