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The Night the American Dream Was Shattered in Orlando

The Night the American Dream Was Shattered in Orlando

This is how Siclaly Santiago-Leon honors the life of her beloved cousin Dani and the American dream he was denied.

Can you put a price on the American dream? Would you pay for it with your life? Would you live for a short time with all the love, acceptance, and appreciation available to you, knowing that it would end suddenly, tragically, and in a fury of gunfire?

My cousin Dani (pictured, in scarf) moved in with our family in Orlando after arriving from Puerto Rico. He came to Florida looking for a better life, searching for a way to learn who he was and who he wanted to become without fear of ridicule or bullying. He found in Florida a different and invigorating energy that drove him to excel.

Dani barely spoke English when he moved in with us. But within six months, his dedication and commitment to learning the language enabled him to get a job at a retail store -- and to no one's surprise, he was soon promoted to manager. It was a job he loved, because he was getting paid to interact with people.

Dani lit up a room whenever he walked into it. People were drawn to his positive energy, and he radiated happiness. Everyone loved him. They loved his quick laugh, his outlook, and his ability to see the good things in life. His goal was to fall in love and raise a family. He wanted to be someone worth looking up to.

My cousin was living the American dream. He left Puerto Rico to build a new life in Florida, and it was all coming true. He had a job, he had success, and he and his partner, Jean, were looking forward to building a life together. They were going to get married, buy a house, travel the world. They were always looking forward to tomorrow.

But their tomorrow never came.

Dani and Jean were enjoying their today -- living in the moment -- at one of their favorite places, Latin Night at Pulse nightclub. They loved the music and the nod to their heritage. They danced and were able to unwind. They were with their friends and their new Florida family.

But then Dani and Jean's American dream ended. They were murdered, along with 47 others, on June 12, 2016, by a man who found it easy to buy assault weapons and enough ammunition to wage war on innocent partiers enjoying Pride Month at a nightclub.

We didn't know what happened to Dani and Jean. Their friends made it out alive. But we stood outside the club in the middle of the night -- waiting, hoping, praying for any sign that they were OK. That sign never came, and instead we, like so many other families, set about planning a funeral.

The pain goes on and on. It's only been a year, and I constantly relive that morning, standing in the darkness, surrounded by so many aching people. The smoke, the screaming, the crying. I will never forget one moment of that horrible morning. I will never forget how my beautiful cousin lost his American dream.

The only way to persevere and cure the pain is to take action to ensure another Pulse doesn't happen to anyone ever again. I've taken my sadness, my anger, and -- most importantly -- my energy and devoted it to the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence. The Pride Fund is the only LGBTQ political organization solely focused on enacting gun policy reforms to ensure safety for all.

The Pride Fund's agenda is simple, straightforward, and based on what works. It isn't radical, nor is it a knee-jerk reaction in the face of a tragedy. Rather, the Pride Fund's agenda is what we all know just makes sense: Expand background checks to cover all gun sales. Prohibit suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. Restrict access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Support federally funded research on gun violence. And prevent those convicted of committing hate crimes from purchasing guns.

We all know the system is broken. The murderer who killed Dani, Jean, and dozens of others that night fell through the cracks in the system -- huge cracks that should have been cemented over long ago. No one needs assault weapons, which are designed for one thing only: to murder many people quickly.

Let's take the anniversary of this tragedy to urge Congress to ban assault weapons and access to high capacity magazines. My cousin paid a high price for the short time he was chasing his American dream. But until we reform our gun laws, dreams will continue to be needlessly shattered.

Siclaly-santiago-leonSICLALY SANTIAGO-LEON is a member of the Pride Fund to End Gun Violence's board of advisers. She is also the cousin of Pulse victim Luis "Dani" Wilson-Leon. To learn more, visit Like on Facebook at and follow on Twitter @Pride_Fund.

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Siclaly Santiago-Leon