This article was published in The Orlando Sentinel on June 6, 2017.
By Gal Tziperman Lotan
Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez is everywhere in his family’s Central Florida Parkway salon. He’s in the furniture he chose, the model he styled in photos hanging in the front windows, the magenta-and-lime drawing of his eyes that hangs on the back wall.
But he’s also absent — not walking out of the back room with his hair tools, not planning parties with his longtime partner, Luis Conde, not swiping colorful eye shadows onto clients to make them feel beautiful.
In the year since Rivera and Conde were killed in the Pulse nightclub, Rivera’s mother and sister have been running the business without him.
“To open the salon was not easy,” said Rivera’s older sister, Jessica Silva. “This is his dream; this is what he lived for. So opening again without him, it’s like we’re missing something. It’s incomplete.”
Until last June, Alta Peluquería D’Magazine Salón was on East Osceola Parkway in Kissimmee. But coming back to that space was hard for Rivera’s mother, Angelita Velázquez, who worked with him side-by-side five days a week. She kept looking toward the back as if she expected him to come out of an office, Silva said. They couldn’t reopen there, but they couldn’t just give up, either.
“We’re not closing. We’re not shutting off his dreams,” Silva said. “We’re just continuing it.”
They found another space, at 2132 Central Florida Parkway, between John Young Parkway and Orange Blossom Trail, and reopened as D’Magazine by Juan P Salon in December, on Conde’s birthday. The furniture, the photos and the clients Rivera and Conde had cultivated came with them.
On a recent Friday morning, before the weekend rush, Velázquez took client Tania Mercader of Orlando — a friend of Rivera and Conde — to a sink in the back of the salon, where she rinsed her chestnut-colored hair. Then she sat Mercader down in the first chair near the door, facing away from the mirror and the photo of Rivera and Conde in dapper suits and sunglasses, and started blowing out her hair with a round brush.
Silva sat on the other side of the salon with her 12-year-old son, who had just graduated from elementary school that morning.
“Sexy!” Silva called across the room. They laughed. Velázquez switched to a hair-straightening iron and went over Mercader’s hair, smoothing it section by section.
Silva dug into a makeup kit at the next station and pulled out some powder and a shiny nude-colored lip gloss. She swiped the gloss onto Mercader’s lips, just for an extra boost.
They act as if they’re under a watchful eye: A family friend created a rectangular canvas with Rivera’s eyes in bright magenta and green, which hangs at the back of the salon. Those eyes follow everyone around the salon, both to support them and to make sure they’re doing everything right, Silva joked.
“He’s just taking care of us,” Silva said. “So we have to do things exactly how he wanted because he’s watching every single day.”
Rivera and Conde met at a club in Puerto Rico. They decided to move to Florida spontaneously, just for a change, Silva said.
“They had the perfect relationship,” Silva said. “They got along so, so, so well.”
Conde was “el niño adulto,” the grown-up child, Silva said — goofier, more spontaneous.
Rivera was the more serious one, “the one that had the big dreams,” Silva said.
“They never harmed anyone. They were the most gentle men, and they had the best hearts,” Silva said.
Silva said she’s not sure what they’ll do to mark the one-year observance of Pulse on Monday. They might stay home and ask loved ones to stop by, she said.
Rivera and Conde used to throw big parties for their friends and loved ones. They planned them for months, with themes like “50 Shades of Grey” and “Avatar.”
Their families and friends haven’t thrown a big party like that since they’ve been gone.
“We want to plan parties,” Silva said. “Maybe not this year, maybe not next year. But sí, everything has to continue.”