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Photo by Joey Roulette

Pulse survivor Angel Santiago: 'Just because it’s a year later doesn’t mean that we’re OK' 

Outside the window of Angel Santiago's high-rise apartment, the Lake Eola bandshell looks like a rainbow splash against the glistening waters.

It's hard to believe that almost a year ago, more than 50,000 people crowded into downtown Orlando's traditional gathering spot to just grieve next to each other. Santiago remembers lying in his hospital bed at Florida Hospital watching the candlelight halo that encircled Lake Eola on the television. He wanted to be there so badly – but he couldn't walk after being shot once in his left foot and once in his right knee at Pulse.

"I was so jealous," he says. "My friends were out there. It was really touching to see that outpouring of support from not only the LGBTQ community but everyone in Orlando."

It's still surreal for the 33-year-old Philadelphia native to think about how much his life has changed since that night.

He grew up in a religious Puerto Rican family, and as a child was ridiculed at his school, church and sometimes by his family for being "flamboyant." Santiago says he finally came out to his family when he was about 25 years old.

"For my entire life, I've been the type of person that if it's a difficult topic or subject I tend to ignore it," he says. "Growing up gay and not accepting that I was gay even though I knew and hiding it from everyone that I knew, that was my way of dealing with these negative emotions – not process it, not deal with it and ignore it. But eventually you have to face it head on."

He had debts, but he was making good money as a mortgage foreclosure prevention counselor in Philly – until he was laid off. In 2015, he asked his brother if he could live with him in Sanford for a year to get on his feet and then maybe move to California with his best friend. But things didn't seem to be improving. At his temporary job as a salesman at CarMax, he made slightly more than minimum wage. His car was repossessed because he couldn't afford it.

"I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I didn't even have the means to leave. The only thing I could afford was my part of the rent and barely enough for food at that point, so yeah, it was a really difficult time."

Pulse was a place to escape all those feelings. On June 12, Santiago was there dancing with his friends when the bullets started flying. He and a friend ran to one of the bathrooms to hide in a stall, and Santiago folded himself under a sink for protection. He smelled the gunpowder and then bullet after bullet started coming through the stall wall. Two shots hit his body, shattering his heel and leaving him unable to walk. When it seemed quieter outside, he crawled past the dead out of the bathroom and into the sight of police officers who dragged him to an ambulance.

After about a month in rehabilitation, Santiago was sent back home to the Sanford townhouse in a wheelchair, his left leg now containing seven screws and a metal plate. While he had been in the hospital, his sister-in-law had given birth to a baby, so the only person with an income was Santiago's brother, leading to some financial struggles. Going back to his room on the second floor felt strange – like looking at his life through a window.

"I felt completely separated from everything that belonged to me before," he says. "I was disconnected from them because I'm like, 'All these things have absolutely no value because I was this close to being dead. My bed, my television, my PlayStation – things that I would love before – were all just material."

Santiago fell into a bit of a depression because he was physically unable to move around the house – he would have to drag his body up and down the stairs. The road to his independence became much clearer when he slowly started walking again with crutches and then eventually driving. Doctors had told him he wouldn't be able to walk again until December, but he started putting weight on his foot until the muscle in his leg felt less like jelly. By August, he was able to move at a slow pace without the crutches.

Since Pulse, he's become an activist for equal rights for LGBTQ people – something he couldn't have imagined doing as a child terrified to acknowledge he was gay. Inked on Santiago's forearm is a rainbow heart tattoo with the words "Love Is Love." He's also become a strong voice in support of gun reform and recently went to Washington, D.C., to speak with Congressional leaders. Sometimes it's frustrating because of the power the gun lobby has over lawmakers, but Santiago feels it's still important for legislators to hear the voices of gun violence survivors.

"I'm a believer in the Second Amendment, but what I don't necessarily agree with is some person who probably should not have had the ability to legally purchase a weapon being able to come into a club and start shooting everyone," he says. "This person was on the FBI's watch list three times and still allowed to purchase a gun? It doesn't quite make any sense to me."

Santiago is also going back to school to become a nurse. He's enrolled in classes at Valencia College and was offered a full scholarship to Florida Hospital's nursing program. He was also able to help his brother go back to school for radiology. Even though the most horrible day of his life happened in Orlando, he's found a community of here, especially among other LGBTQ Latinx folks.

The healing process is not that simple, though. Earlier this year, Santiago says he fell into a bout of depression because of all the changes that have happened in his life since last June. It's also disheartening to continue to see acts of violence around the world, like the Manchester bombing, he says.

"Everything has been very overwhelming," he says. "I'm still me, but I don't feel like I'm still me. My counselor allowed me to realize that it's OK to feel bad as long as you don't allow yourself to fall into this dark place where you can't come out."

He feels better now but wants to remind people that even if they see survivors smiling on social media, that doesn't necessarily mean the trauma is gone.

"Remember to be kind," he says. "Just because it's a year later doesn't mean that we're OK. A lot of us are still dealing with it, and some of us are still even dealing with therapies and surgeries. It's still very real. It's not over."

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