By: Steven Lemongello
Manuel Oliver painted 17 small circles onto the wooden canvas alongside Lake Eola. One by one, he hammered a hole into all of them, including the last one amid the image of his son, Joaquin.
He added one more, inside the number “49” in a prism reflecting a rainbow. And then, one by one, he placed flowers in every hole.
“We wanted to make a mural this way today, to honor the people at Pulse,” said Oliver, whose son was among the 17 students and staff killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14. “We wanted to make a way to connect the rainbow flag that unites people with our son Joaquin.”
Oliver was in Orlando on Friday along with the group March for Our Lives, which was founded by Stoneman Douglas students and has been traveling the state and the country as part of the “Road to Change” bus tour.
The tour, designed to encourage new voter registration, is scheduled to visit all 27 congressional districts in Florida by the end of August.
Friday’s event at the park amphitheater was also partly a block party, with live music and refreshments amid the tents and tables of various voter groups and political candidates.
“We’re just trying to get across that people need to be active politically. They need to be active in their communities,” said Amit Dadon, 19, a 2017 graduate of Stoneman Douglas. “People need to use the right to vote. … To just throw that right away is kind of ridiculous. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain. If you want something fixed? Vote. If you want new leaders? Vote.”
Kyra Parrow, 18, a Parkland survivor and an incoming freshman at the University of Central Florida, said she has seen “so much love” from survivors and relatives of victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, when 49 people died.
People write messages in chalk on a mural painted by Manuel Oliver that includes a portrait of his son, Joaquin Oliver, during a March for Our Lives event at Lake Eola Park on Friday, July 13, 2018. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)
“Coming from Parkland, [they’re] people who understand what we went through, what I went through,” she said. “I was talking to Pulse survivors the other day, and there was so much love and understanding.”
Andrea Halperin of Orlando, chapter leader of the local Moms Demand Action gun-reform group, said the state law passed this year never would have happened if it weren’t for the Parkland students’ activism — “though it doesn’t go far enough. … Our number one priority is background checks for every gun sale.”
U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy was scheduled to speak, along with former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley.
But the emotional core of the event was Oliver’s mural, created with white paint, cans of colored spray paint and a stencil of Oliver’s son, Joaquin, a 17-year-old Parkland student who emigrated from Venezuela and became a citizen the year before he died.
“We, as parents of victims, invite any parent of a non-victim to be a part of our movement,” he said to the crowd gathered around him, many of whom were Parkland students, after he completed the giant canvas. “Thank you for being here. We love you.”
Oliver spread out dozens of sticks of chalk and told the crowd: “Now the wall is yours. You can do what you want with it.”
People covered largely black canvas with messages, including, “Enough is enough,” “We are going to be the change,” “Red for the blood still running in the U.S.,” “We fight for you,” and “Long live Guac,” Joaquin’s nickname.
Cesar Oliver, Manuel Oliver’s nephew, showed a tattoo of Joaquin on his arm. He wrote, “Te Amo Joaco — Cesar.”
Marilyn Gilley of Clermont, who came to Orlando for the event, said she was proud of the Parkland students and other teen and college-aged advocates.
“I love the young’uns,” she said. “I went to Tallahassee to support them. I’d go to the ends of the earth to support them. They may be our hope — the only hope we have.”