Two months after Jorge Steven López Mercado, a 19-year-old gay activist and college student, was brutally murdered in Puerto Rico, seven Latina and lesbian and gay elected officials from the mainland — including five members of the New York City Council — traveled there to meet with the victim’s family and members of the island’s LGBT community to offer their support.
“We want to bring a high profile to the case and make sure it is treated as hate crime,” said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, an East Harlem Democrat who organized the New York contingent on the January 19 trip. “The law is there, but it has never been used on sexual orientation.”
Five New York City Council members travel to San Juan in wake of brutal anti-gay murder
“We’re going to lend support to the family,” Speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian Chelsea Democrat, explained several days before traveling to Puerto Rico. “To let them know that folks from around the country are standing with them. And to send a message to the LGBT community in Puerto Rico that the rest of the country is watching.”
Quinn said that Mark-Viverito raised the idea of the trip at a fundraising event for López Mercado’s family at Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café on January 12. Mark-Viverito and two Chicago Latina elected officials — State Senator Iris Y. Martinez and Representative Maria Antonia Berrios — had already planned the visit, in part to deliver money raised in support of the murdered man’s family. The East Harlem Council member suggested Quinn join them.
Quinn, in turn, quickly enlisted the participation of the Council’s other three LGBT members — Democrats Rosie Mendez of the East Village, Daniel Dromm of Jackson Heights, and Jimmy Van Bramer of Sunnyside-Astoria. Dromm and Van Bramer just took office this year.
Another key player in putting the trip together was Pedro Julio Serrano, who made history in 1998 as the first out gay legislative candidate in Puerto Rico and now works for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in New York. After López Mercado’s murder, Serrano told Gay City News, “I had met Jorge Steven through mutual friends, and we used to hang out together, go to clubs and that sort of thing.” Serrano has spent significant time in Puerto since the killing, offering his support to López Mercado’s family and pressing officials there to treat the murder as a hate crime.
At the conclusion of the trip, Serrano said, “This will highlight the fact that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities in Puerto Rico are not alone. We count, with the support of elected officials and communities that stand with us on this fight, not only to end hate violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but to achieve full equality under the law.”
The seven New York and Illinois officials spent the day meeting with members of López Mercado’s family, LGBT activists, and senators and representatives from the Legislative Assembly. Other activists from the LGBT and/or Latino community, including Guillermo Chacón, president of New York’s Latino Commission on AIDS, also made the trip.
According to Van Bramer, the emotional high point of the visit came during a dinner with the murdered man’s family, including his father Jorge López, mother Myriam Mercado, and nine-year-old brother Gabriel López. At one point during the gathering in a busy San Juan restaurant, López Mercado’s mother rose to address the group in Spanish.
“We all lost it,” Van Bramer said. “There was not a dry eye in the group. She was so appreciative that we came all the way there to show support for her son and all children. She made a point to say her son was loved and knew he was loved, and she made the point that all children should be loved, regardless of who they are.”
The Queens Council member said that comments made by Mercado and her husband, whom Van Bramer described as “stoic, more quiet, but very present in the moment,” were very personal and did not address the criminal case against their son’s accused murdererer.
Three days after the murder, police arrested 26-year-old Juan Martínez Matos and said he confessed to killing López Mercado, decapitating him, and mutilating his body. Martínez Matos claimed he’d met the victim while looking for a woman in an area known for prostitution, that López Mercado was dressed as a female, and that he killed him after discovering he was a man. That account suggested the suspect might mount a gay panic defense, but Serrano has questioned the truth of Martínez Matos’ claims, saying that neither he nor any of López Mercado’s other friends knew him to engage in sex work or to cross-dress.
On January 13, Martínez Matos was found fit to stand trial, and a February 2 hearing to establish probable cause has been scheduled. Serrano said that the prosecutor will present evidence that the killing was a hate crime, but that the issue will only be resolved — either by a jury or the judge, at the defendant’s discretion — during the sentencing phase of the case.
The response to the crime by elected officials has spurred a major controversy in Puerto Rico, one that the mainland leaders addressed during their visit. Thomas Rivera Schatz, the New Progressive Party (PNP) president of the Senate, dismissed the murder, saying it was a case of “a criminal that killed another criminal in criminal activity.” PNP Governor Luis Fortuño, meanwhile, has been silent on the matter, and in the past week has called on Puerto Rico to enshrine its legal bar on same-sex marriage into the Commonwealth Constitution.
“The governor is not responding appropriately at all to the murder,” Quinn said prior to the trip. “And the Senate president made outrageous comments about the victim. We would hope to see an apology. And we want to send a message to the governor to do the right thing.”
The mainland officials, however, did not seek meetings with PNP leaders.
“I am not interested in meeting with him,” Mark-Viverito said, when asked if the group had contacted Fortuño. “He needs to step up and say the right thing.” She noted the strong political ties the governor has with fundamentalist religious leaders on the island.
Van Bramer said a meeting the group had with Legislative Assembly senators and representatives from the opposition Popular Democratic Party (PDP) was productive and well-attended, and garnered significant media attention.
“One senator said the other side is trying to push some very scary things,” Van Bramer said, referring to the anti-gay posture of the ruling PNP. The senator told the group, “‘We’re trying to resist. We are working within that framework.”
One of the PDP senators in attendance, Sila María González Calderón, is the daughter of former Governor Sila María González Calderón, who served from 2001 to 2005.
Van Bramer said that at a press conference earlier in the day, the questions from the local media “were pretty respectful.”
In the wake of the officials’ visit to Puerto Rico, Serrano hailed its impact.
“This is an historic trip, in which the solidarity from our brothers and sisters from New York City and Chicago will send a powerful message of love that conquers hate,” he said.