Has anything changed in Puerto Rico since Jorge Steven López Mercado’s murder?
As Puerto Rican prosecutors prepare for the start of jury selection in the trial of the man who they contend killed Jorge Steven López Mercado last November, activists maintain the outcry over the gay teenager's brutal murder has already produced tangible changes on the island.
"Jorge Steven's murder was an eye-opener for a lot of folks on the island and many people who either didn't think or want to believe that homophobia is pretty much alive and affecting so many people in Puerto Rico," said Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "I have never seen such a wide array of support and tangible solidarity in Puerto Rico."
This solidarity was certainly on full display in the days after authorities found López's decapitated, dismembered and partially burned body along a remote roadside on Nov. 13, 2009. Dozens of candlelight vigils took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and other cities. López's parents and brother were among the more than thousand people who marched through San Juan to demand an end to hate crimes. And singers Ricky Martin and Olga Tañón are among the Puerto Rican celebrities who have publicly condemned the teenager's murder.
"The Jorge Steven López Mercado case has allowed LGBT activists and organizations to shed light to a long-time problem of violent crimes for LGBT individuals in Puerto Rico and the overall United States," said Jorge Cestou, the Chicago-based co-chair of Unid@s, a national Latino LGBT rights organization.
Cestou joined New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Illinois state Sen. Iris Martínez [D-Chicago,] who chairs the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic Caucus, Guillermo Chacon of the Latino Commission on AIDS and other politicians and elected officials who traveled to Puerto Rico in January to meet with López's family. Illinois state Rep. María "Toni" Berrios [D-Chicago,] who also traveled to the island with the delegation, conceded she remains unsure whether anything has actually changed in Puerto Rico since the teenager's death. She added, however, it galvanized LGBT Puerto Ricans.
"Jorge Steven López Mercado's murder brought together all of the LGBT groups and has made them work even closer together to try to combat hate crimes towards their community," said Berrios.
A caveat to this story that continues to incense both activists and politicians is Gov. Luis Fortuño's continued failure to publicly condemn López's murder. Quinn and New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito in particular have repeatedly blasted the administration. And local activists remain extremely critical of Fortuño.
"One of the things we have to have in mind is he is a Republican and he is very conservative," Ada Conde Vidal, president of the Fundación de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Foundation,) told EDGE as she alluded to Fortuño's political alliances outside of Puerto Rico. "In the states, this is not important: Hate crimes are not important; civil rights are not important; human rights are not important."
Conde was instrumental in the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression to the territory's hate crimes law in 2002, but
authorities have rarely implemented it. Prosecutors have said they plan to seek an enhanced sentence for Juan José Martínez Matos if a jury convicts him, but the U.S. Attorney's office in San Juan and the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to monitor the case.
"It will take time for the authorities to understand and to have the capacity to investigate what is a hate crime," observed Conde.
Mark-Viverito, who was born in San Juan, told EDGE there remains "quite a lot of work to be done" in Puerto Rico, but Serrano stressed López's murder changed the conversation about LGBT rights on the island.
"It's no more a debate of whether there is homophobia," he said. "Now the debate is how we are going to stop it; how are we going to end it. People are more aware of the importance of respecting everyone; regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."