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Queens Chronicle

Jackson Heights honors Julio Rivera, slain 25 years ago

Amid gay rights progress, vigil reflects on struggles

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Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2015 11:50 am

Twenty-five years have passed since Julio Rivera, a 29-year-old gay Latino man, was brutally murdered in a playground in Jackson Heights simply for being who he was.

But he has not been forgotten.

An estimated 100 individuals gathered Wednesday evening near the site of the attack, at the crossroads of 37th Avenue and 78th Street, for a candlelight vigil to honor Rivera's memory.

In the brief ceremony, held under a street sign signifying Julio Rivera Corner, Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), gay rights activists and family members recalled the young man whose death became national news and galvanized the LGBT community into action.

At the event's conclusion, many felt the need to remain and share stories about Rivera and the more hopeful events that his murder inspired.

Reflecting on the June 26 Supreme Court decision that recognized same-sex unions as a right and the annual New York City gay pride parade that followed, Dromm said, "We had a joyous celebration over the weekend." Then, seemingly trying to keep his emotions in check, he added, "We came a long way. If not for Julio, I don't know that the Queens movement would have gotten as far as it has."

Three years after the murder, Dromm founded the Queens Pride Parade in Jackson Heights, an event that draws tens of thousands of participants every year.

"We still have a lot of work to do moving forward," Dromm said. "The attention brought to anti-gay bias against victims like Julio and countless others helped our efforts to pass anti-bias and anti-discrimination laws in our state and across the country. Unfortunately, this kind of violence remains a reality. We must continue to educate our society that it will not be tolerated."

Alan Reiff, representing the Queens Lesbian & Gay Pride Committee, said that the whole impetus for Queens Pride came from the slaying.

"We said this act is not going to define who we are as a community in Jackson Heights. Twenty-five years later, it's a community celebration," Reiff said. "Something great came out of a tragedy. Rather than mourning the death of the young man, we celebrate our diversity."

Jennifer Rivera, who was 11 years old when her Uncle Julio was killed, agreed that his death was not in vain.

"As family, it's important to be here with the community. We're grateful to the community," Rivera said.

Carmen Castro, a Sunnyside resident, attended the vigil with her wife, Wind Vogel.

In a private moment, Castro assured Jennifer Rivera, "We still remember. We were there for the first [memorial]. Can I give you a hug?"

Julio Rivera's brother, Ted, recalled, "Twenty-five years ago we were very alone. We had no idea what to do next. The police did not care. They said it was a drug deal. We knew [Julio] was no drug dealer."

Dromm reminded those in attendance that detectives "considered Julio a throwaway" and recalled the struggle to compel police officials to investigate.

On the night of the brutal incident, Rivera was approached by another young man in the schoolyard at PS 69 and lured into a trap where two accomplices awaited. Rivera was hit over the head with a beer bottle, beaten with a claw hammer and a pipe wrench, stabbed with a knife and left for dead.

Rivera managed to stumble into the arms of his friend, Alan Sack, whose role in Rivera's life was recalled at the vigil via a letter from Richard Shpuntoff, a filmmaker who was away in Argentina working on the final cut of a documentary called "Julio of Jackson Heights."

"I have been working for many years on the story of how the murder of Julio Rivera became the spark that set off so much positive change in our community," the letter said.

It went on to acknowledge how Sack rode in an ambulance with Rivera to Elmhurst Hospital, "staying by his side in the emergency room as doctors and nurses desperately tried to save Julio's life. As Alan once said to me, 'Julio was a great political victory for the community, but it came at a horrible personal price for many of us.'"

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