Gun Violence and Waking Up From A U.S. ‘Nightmare’

Change the Ref in Washington, DC

On the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance 2022, a day to honor the memory of transgender people who have lost their lives to anti-transgender violence, a man wielding an AR-15 style rifle attacked an L.G.B.T.Q. nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., USA called Club Q.

Five human beings were murdered, over 25 souls were injured, and countless others are now experiencing emotional trauma.

At the time of this writing in late November 2022, this was the 662nd mass shooting incident to take place in 2022 in the United States. This number is only part of the 39,461 people who have died this year due to gun violence.

As Childish Gambino put it plainly, “This Is America.”

In July 2022, I attended the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in Cannes, France where I learned about the nonprofit Change The Ref, created by Manuel and Patricia Oliver and their son, Joaquin Oliver. Joaquin (affectionately known as Guac), was shot and killed on Valentine’s Day, 2018 “in a hallway outside of his creative writing class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.”

Joaquin was one of 17 people who were murdered and 17 more who were physically injured. Emotionally, the injuries persist indefinitely.

Today, the Oliver family has a message for everyone who will listen: gun violence must end, now.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Bazoin

What brought you to the United States?

Manuel Oliver explains, “Our whole family was living in Venezuela — ourselves and our two kids, Andrea and Joaquin. Things were not looking good in Venezuela 20 years ago, and we were already planning to move to a place where our kids would have a better future. I am a European citizen, from Spain, and Patricia has family in Florida. We ended up choosing Florida. We did our homework and chose a place where our kids could have the best education possible. We were chasing the American dream, and we ended up living the American nightmare.”

Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, Courtesy of Manuel Oliver

Patricia Oliver continues, “People continue to come [to the United States] – even by walking. I tell friends, ‘This is not the country we imagined.’ We were attacked, personally, yet [before the attack] we were never afraid to send our kids anywhere or go to Joaquin’s games or events. We felt completely safe and relaxed. It takes a lot of sacrifices to move to another country, and you have to consider the whole picture.”

Manuel Oliver adds, “There is always a level of risk in any situation, so you have to consider the levels. Because gun violence [in the United States] is becoming worse year after year, day after day, now [the risk] is well known. Organizations like ours have been letting people know what is going on. All immigrants are looking for a safer future for their kids. We were willing to sacrifice our friends, our networks, our comfort zones – everything [for the sake of our kids].”

Photo courtesy of Change The Ref

How did you come to create Change The Ref?

Manuel Oliver explains, “At the time my son was murdered, I was working as a Creative Director in the music industry. It was a fun job and I was very happy promoting blues music. You have to find ways to sell the vibe, as a product, and convince people that this is the music you should be listening to. When the tragedy happened, I made a call to my boss that night to let him know I quit. 

“After that, we flipped what I was doing with blues and [poured it] into Joaquin. We continue to have legit contact with Joaquin [because] he was old enough to leave us posts, comments, thoughts, behaviors, passions – everything. We know him. 

“Change the Ref, the nonprofit we created, is an extension of Joaquin. It’s the opportunity for Joaquin to continue saying things. Joaquin was against gun violence – we know that. He loved his family, and we need to let people know that. By doing that we continue to be Joaquin’s parents. 

“You can either quit your parenting or reset and reimagine your parenting. This is the way we have become, today, Joaquin’s parents. His intentions were always civil rights, pro-choice and gun violence prevention. Today, we are his messengers.”

Photo courtesy of Change The Ref

Patricia Oliver continues, “Joaquin was a very deep thinker – often expressing himself in Tweets. We have a group of girls who collected all of his Tweets for us to read. Every day we are finding something new – it’s beautiful. I used to clean his room, and I continue to do so. I once found a paper from school that he wrote when he was 12. It started, ‘Dear U.S. Gun Owners. I don’t understand why you have a problem with background checks.'”

Manuel Oliver adds, “Our goal is that people know Joaquin. Like any parent, we want all possibilities and opportunities to go to the legacy of our son. The purpose we move forward every day [through Change The Ref] is for him.”

As parents of a cross-cultural child, do you have a call to action for our community to end gun violence?

Manuel Oliver replies, “Gun violence in America is not only an American problem. It’s creating consequences in other nations. Injustice should get us all involved – it doesn’t matter where it is coming from. In America, gun violence kills more than 45,000 people every year. Let’s work together. Join our movement and save a life. It’s easier than you think.”

Patricia Oliver adds, “Our Shame Cards are very powerful – when you see one from afar, you don’t get it. Once you see it closer, you see the tragedy [and understand].”

Photo courtesy of Change The Ref

Take action against gun violence

  • Visit the Museum of the Incomplete to honor the “incomplete works of artists, educators, researchers, scholars, and athletes who never had the opportunity to realize their true potential.”
  • Learn about Change The Ref and all the important initiatives that empower the voices of youth.
  • Turn a Post Into A Letter to let your representatives know, in Joaquin’s handwriting, that gun reform matters to you. Or, send them a Shame Card to remind them that gun violence impacts every state, and every person, in the United States and beyond.
  • See how pro-gun advocate David Keene gave a graduation speech to The Lost Class.

Hear from Joaquin himself, who asks you to vote – because his vote is Unfinished.

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