In remembering the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting, Step Up Magazine’s Zyva Sheikh interviewed Kimberly Vilema on her healing journey after losing her brother, Luis Vielma, in the tragedy.
One phone call — that was all it took for Kimberly Vielma's life to fall apart.
On June 12, 2016, after waiting for what felt like a lifetime, Kimberly’s mother received a heart-stopping phone call from an Orlando sheriff. The two of them huddled around the phone, not daring to breathe, praying to hear the words, “Your son will be okay.” But of course, life never goes the way you plan. Instead, what they heard was this: “Unfortunately, Luis Vielma was one of the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.”
The silence that followed was so loud, it felt palpable. As Kimberly clung to her brother Luis’ picture, the room began to spin. The pain she felt was incomprehensible. Shattered is how she describes it — she felt broken into a million pieces.
In one catastrophic night two years ago, Luis Vielma and 48 others lost their lives in a horrific act of hatred that would rock the Orlando community for years to come. It seemed unfathomable that her brother, whom she regarded as a mix of a father figure and best friend, was one of the victims. This day marked an eternal divide in Kimberly Vielma’s life — before Luis’ death and after.
“I will never bring myself to understand why Luis was taken away from us like this, but I do know that he was too good for this world,” Vielma said. “He was an angel amongst this cruel society that failed to keep him and 48 angels safe.”
Vielma was with her mother in Mexico on the day of the shooting, preparing for Kimberly’s quinceañera later that month. Luis was supposed to be her escort for the grand occasion, but given the unfortunate circumstances, the quinceañera was cancelled. A day that was supposed to be filled with happiness was now overshadowed by a lifetime of grief.
The attack at Pulse affected more than just the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly all 49 victims were Latinx, so for Vielma, it hit especially close to home. As a proud Mexican-American, Vielma has experienced her fair share of racism. She said that she has not allowed ignorant remarks like, “go back to your country,” stop her from embracing her culture, and that she relates to the struggles of growing up in a less privileged household with an immigrant family.
“Society today makes us, [as] women of color, doubt, hide, and veer away from our true identity in fear that we will face racism,” Vielma said. “I myself am an American citizen, but it still pains me [to hear racist remarks] because I know how hard my family has worked to get here. I know how hard it was growing up in a household that works twice as hard to keep me under a roof.”
Kimberly has continued showing her support for Pulse and Luis since the tragedy. In 2016, she went to Universal Orlando Resort, where Luis worked, with a group of supporters and wore #ForbiddenStrong shirts they created to represent Luis. Last year, she was approached by Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse, to participate in the Pride parade in honor of Luis. Just a few days ago, Kimberly ran in a 4.9K race hosted by the onePULSE Foundation, called the CommUNITY Rainbow Run.
But this tragedy does not define her, it’s evident in the way she lives her life. In spite of everything, Kimberly continues to grow as a person and change for the better by removing herself from toxicity and seeking positivity. She said she has learned to never take things for granted and to cherish memorable moments, because she knows that Luis would want everyone to forsake their anger and negativity in the name of unity and betterment.
“I believe that we can all start loving each other a lot more because we are all [that] we have in this world. I have learned from the onePULSE Foundation, as it abides by the words, ‘We will not let hate win,’" Vielma said.
In the ultimate act of defiance against hatred, Vielma continues to follow her dreams. She aspires to become a physician’s assistant in hopes of healing others and provide them the chance at life her brother never had. While one man with a gun can kill 49 people, Vielma knows that one determined woman with a medical degree can save countless more.
Vielma is living proof that happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. She has not allowed these hardships to ruin her, rather, she has used them to her advantage. She has found peace and strength from this tragedy.
In unity, there is strength. And in strength, there is love. She believes this for not only her brother, but also for herself.
“For only love can conquer hate.” - Marvin Gaye
My name is Zyva Sheikh, and I am a 16-year-old junior in high school. As my school's junior Editor-in-Chief, words are my superpower, and I utilize them to influence and inform the student body. When I'm not writing articles (or catching up on sleep), I'm participating in school plays or practicing my calligraphy.