As the sun began to set on Monday evening, more than 450 people held lit candles and responded with “presente ahora y siempre” after the name of each victim of the Orlando shooting was announced.
The parking lot of the Westbrook Clinic in Harlingen was packed with emotion, each individual seemed to be carrying the weight of the June 12 tragedy as LGBTQ people and allies reckoned with the painful reality of the shooting in Florida, in which 50 people died, including the gunman, and 53 were wounded.
“We gather together to show everyone that hatred and this violence is not tolerated in any place in the [Rio Grande] Valley,” said Juan Villela, a UTRGV student activist with Texas Rising in Brownsville.
The event was hosted by the South Texas Equality Project, a partnership of LGBTQ organizations and individuals that advocate for the LGBT community in the Valley. Prayers were shared and tears were shed but among the sadness, there was pride and the commitment to resilience that speaker Joel Brotzman-Gonzales, of the STEP group, hoped that everybody took away from the event.
“This is an LGBT tragedy and one made right here in our own country,” Brotzman-Gonzalez said. “For everybody, don’t be afraid and don’t hide. Go to your Pride, kiss your partners. Love yourselves and love each other.”
For many in attendance, the threat of the horrific violence of the shooting hit closer to home. Frank Escalante of Weslaco was killed in the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. His friends and family stood in a row to display their bright T-shirts, which made out the colors of the LGBTQ flag, each with a picture of Escalante’s young face on it.
Escalante’s best friend, Linda Garza, was moved by the show of solidarity at the vigil but feels that the presence of homophobia that took her best friend from her exists in the Valley, as much as it does in Orlando.
“It’s nice to see everybody out here. We have people coming out to support us but what happened could happen here in Texas, South Texas,” Garza said through tears. “So, it means a lot to be here.”
More information on events and information the South Texas Equality Project provides can be found on the Facebook page of the same name. Garza is hosting a Gofundme.com donation page to help Escalante’s family cover funeral expenses and medical bills.