In honor of Pride, #LatinasRepresent interviewed four leading LGBTQ Latin@ leaders in public service and politics. They shared their motivations for getting involved, their experiences advocating for LGBTQ Latin@s, and their messages for their communities, families, and allies.
There are more than 1.4 million LGBT Latinos in the US. They are roughly 4.3% of the population. No matter your political affiliation, it is clear that LGBTQ Latin@s face significant injustices within our communities. They are also bright and emerging leaders. Celebrate your LGBTQ Latin@ brothers and sisters by learning more about the issues that impact them, and the phenomenal organizations advocating on their behalf.
Today, the Supreme Court made the historic decision to ensure the Freedom to Marry in all 50 states. This decision was the result of years of tireless advocacy, hard conversations, struggle, and perseverance. The efforts and dedication of Cristina, Valeria, Martín, Yesenia and many other LGBTQ Latin@s have been instrumental in this success. You inspire all of us to be the voices of our communities, and to continue to fight for equality for all!
Yesenia Chavez serves as a Legislative Assistant for Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, who represents Arizona’s 3rd District and serves as the Ranking Member of the Natural Resources Committee and Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Yesenia advises the Congressman on policy matters pertaining to LGBT rights, gun violence, human rights, small business, veteran’s affairs, women’s issues, transportation, science and technology, voting rights, military and defense, and commemorations.
Yesenia got started in public service to “create a safer space for queer people of color to grow up in.” Having benefited from the LGBT resource center at the University of Houston, Yesenia has worked across campuses and on the Hill to promote policies that directly impact her community, including an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy, a gender affirming and name change bill, and an equal rights ordinance. Yesenia embodies what it means advance a representative democracy:
“[Working on the] Houston equal rights ordinance was incredible. It was an experience to be able to work on a nondiscrimination policy that touched essentially all the aspects of my life, being a bisexual Mexican-American, first-generation, woman… It was really great because I knew that it was going to affect people like me and those who maybe did not have all my identities, but who had some aspect. It’s been uplifting to be able to empower people to learn how to communicate with their elected officials… guiding them to find their voices and amplify their concerns. It has shown me that there’s true strength and resilience among the Latino community.”
Yesenia benefited tremendously from the mentorship of Congressman Grijalva and knows that these kinds of relationships are critical to diversity on the Hill: “It’s really important to have people to look up to that reflect you. DC is a wonderful place, but unless you seek out those queer people of color mentors, they may not be readily available to you.” As the at-large director of the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, Yesenia has made it part of her mission to ensure that these opportunities and relationships exist, so that everyone on the Hill can have the support they need.
Yesenia believes that we have come a long way in our awareness of LGBTQ Latin@ rights: “[We are] at a moment in time where if we’re talking about Latino issues, there’s no way you can have this conversation…without talking about LGBT Latino issues, and there’s no way that you’re going to have a conversation about LGBT issues without bringing up issues people of color and discussing the intersectionality that creates diverse populations.”
Yesenia’s message to the LGBTQ Latin@ community, families, and allies:
“The campaign Familia es Familia has been instrumental in putting a picture to the story that is LGBT families and gay couples wanting the freedom to marry. Marriage may be the central focal point of the conversation right now, but at the end of the day, it is really about acceptance, and not just tolerance.”
Yesenia believes we need to end the trope that Latino families do not accept their LGBT children, because the data shows that they do. “No matter what, Latino families will always believe that ‘Familia es familia.’” Beyond the freedom to marry, she reminds us that we need focus on other issues that impact LGBTQ Latin@s including the rights of transgender and immigrant Latin@s, who are being detained and are more likely to be sexually assaulted. She says, “LGBT immigrants have fled to the U.S. because of grave persecution in their native countries. They come here to have the opportunity to live without threat of violence, and yet we’re not protecting them.”
Follow Yesenia on Twitter: @MsYeseniaChavez
“No matter what, Latino families will always believe that ‘Familia es familia.’”
Cristina Aguilar is the Executive Director for Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLORlatina.org). She is passionate about building bridges between diverse groups and is committed to working towards achieving reproductive justice through youth leadership development and civic engagement. She co-founded the People of Color Caucus for One Colorado, the state’s premier LGBT advocacy organization, and sits on its Political Action Committee. She is an appointee to the Mayor of Denver’s LGBT Commission, was twice elected as Vice-Chair, and currently serves as Public Policy Chair.
As a bicultural Mexican-American, Cristina’s early experiences growing up on the US-Mexico border inspire her work today for and between Latin@ and LGBTQ communities. Cristina comes from a long line of community organizers. With 12 children and numerous grandchildren around, Cristina’s grandparents ran an immigration business where they, working into the evenings and on weekends, would trade tax assistance for food:
“I always feel like I’m riding on the wings of their legacy, and I never forget that.”
Cristina inspires all of us to own who we are so that we reach our highest potential in our communities. She says, “One of the most radical acts we can do is be ‘out’ and be honest about our experience… I was definitely a queer Latina who was going in and out of the closet. As I became more comfortable being out, people around me and my environment changed. I felt happier. Even in my job situations, things felt better. And again I think it’s radical, because it’s important to note that it’s not always easy. It’s not always safe, and especially for LGBTQ Latin@s and communities of color. It’s not always safe where we are and where we live, and we can’t take that for granted.”
For Cristina, being an “out” LGBTQ activist has been an asset. It has enabled her to move between the borderlands of the Latin@ and LGBTQ communities and strengthen the bridge between them. Her early experiences working on LBGTQ rights highlighted the need to have a more racially aware and inclusive movement: “In order for us to really advance and move forward, we need to look at ourselves within the LGBTQ community and work at eradicating the racism that exists. As a marginalized group, we cannot be discriminating and forgetting each other, and saying that our movement is advancing.”
Cristina’s message to the LGBTQ Latin@ community, families, and allies:
“My biggest hope is that we take care of each other, and that we do that within our community as LGBTQ Latinas and with our extended families and allies. That means that we literally are practicing self-care. We’re loving and supporting each other, and advocating with and for each other. A fundamental aspect of caring for each other is ensuring that our community, policy, and formal conversations call for the equality and justice that we all deserve. We need this more now than ever.”
Follow Cristina on Twitter: @crisagu
“We don’t advance unless we all advance together.”
Martín Diego Garcia is the Director of Campaigns at the Latino Victory Project, where he focuses on encouraging, recruiting, and supporting candidates who share Latino Victory’s vision and values to seek public office. Before joining LVP, Martín consulted on numerous campaigns for LGBT candidates, candidates of color, independent expenditures, ballot initiatives, and advocacy campaigns at The Campaign Workshop and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. Martín continues to work with the Victory Institute’s acclaimed candidate and campaign training program, helping train hundreds of LGBT candidates and staff.
Growing up, Martín attended rallies and marches with his father, a labor organizer in the United Farm Workers Movement, and became keenly aware of the impact that politics had on his family and the lives of others. He knew that he wanted to be a leader, but wasn’t sure how his identity would affect his options. In high school, when he was contemplating coming out, Martín recalled the impression an older student made on him: “He was an ‘out’ gay cheerleader in theatre who was also student body president. I wanted to do all of those things, but I wasn’t sure it was possible.” Four years later, Martín was student body president:
“[It’s] important to have those moments of seeing somebody in a position you didn’t think you could attain…having role models breaks that barrier for you. [They break] that feeling of you thinking you cannot do it.”
Today, Martín uses his personal and professional experiences as an LGBT rights activist to organize within the Latino community. For him, being “out” is an asset; he has been able to translate his experiences working in the LGBTQ community, a marginalized community that has made “leaps and bounds within the last 10 years.” Martín believes that the strategies of both the Latino and LGBTQ communities could cross-pollinate and build stronger movements overall.
One of these tactics is recruiting and running diverse candidates who reflect the identities of their constituents. Martín says that electing diverse candidates not only fills the “representation void,” but also serves as an antidote to political disengagement. When people see decision makers like them, they are more likely to trust and engage in our political system: “[we need] elected officials who come from varied life experiences and diverse backgrounds to speak to potential laws that they themselves would be affected by.”
Martín is most inspired by the people he works with who are running for office and young folks who are passionate about pursuing careers in public service and politics. Stories like those of M. Lorena González, a child of Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers who could become the first Latina elected to the Seattle City Council, motivate Martín to do his work so that “these amazing leaders can pursue a career that is going to be beneficial for all of us.”
Martín’s message to the LGBTQ Latin@ community, families, and allies:
“I think we’ve come so far, and we are getting to the point where the Latino community is understanding that familia es familia, and regardless of sexual orientation or other identity issues, that it really comes down to, we’re all family, and we all have each other’s back. I think that is really going to be critical as we move forward, and as we start to hone in using the power that we have and are building as the largest minority community in the U.S.”
Follow Martín on Twitter: @gmartindiego
“We’re all family, and we all have each other’s back.”
Valeria Carranza is a first-generation Salvadoran-American, whose work on social justice issues has ranged from leading immigration, LGBT, and civil rights campaigns to drafting and securing the votes needed to enact legislation on the federal and local level. Currently, Valeria is the Executive Director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Prior to this role she served as the Legislative Assistant and Liaison to the CHC for Congresswoman Linda Sánchez. Previously, Valeria served as the Deputy Chief of Staff to At-Large Montgomery County, Maryland Councilmember Hans Riemer. She has also worked in the office of former Congressman Mark Schaur of Michigan, former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tony Cárdenas, and the Albuquerque City Council. She started her public service in Washington, DC as a White House intern and has quickly risen in the federal and local area political scene.
Valeria’s family immigrated to the US from El Salvador during their Civil War, a time when political involvement was still “very scary and taboo.” Despite this, Valeria knows first-hand the positive impact that policies can have on our lives. After many years in a small apartment in the U.S, Valeria’s family was able to buy their first home through the Earned Income Tax Program. She was also greatly impacted by legislation on early childhood education. Though her parents had been forced to drop out of school to take care of her, Valeria became the first person in her family to graduate high school and go on to pursue a college degree. Her mentor and high school English teacher, Mr. Mullarkey, was the first person to tell her she was “college bound,” and she attended with a scholarship that he encouraged her to apply for.
Now, working on the Hill, Valeria continues to fight for issues that impact her family and community. Most recently, she worked on the Familia es Familia campaign, and she has been actively engaged on marriage equality and the Dream Act. Because of her identity, Valeria was at the “unity of both issues.”
“Being an LGBT, first-generation Latina, it’s important to find the intersectionalities of these two communities and work together to tackle injustices that affect us equally,” says Valeria, who has many friends, the “undocumented queers,” impacted by both issues and who further motivate her to coordinate the two campaigns. “One had more people, while the other had more resources. We combined our resources and efforts to reach the most number of people and hearts.”
In her work, Valeria says that being “out” is not the major challenge—it’s wearing multiple hats; it’s being LGBT, first-generation, and Latina. “It’s hard when you are always having to speak on behalf of one community and then another. It’s hard being the lone voice in the room, and at the same time, that one voice can be the change for generations to come.”
Valeria is hopeful for the type of change a more diverse and representative government could make. “Right now we have seven ‘out’ members and seven Latinas in Congress. Now imagine if we doubled or tripled that number, how much further we would go in terms of LGBT rights, immigration, and other issues that impact working families and LGBT and Latino communities.”
Valeria’s message to the LGBTQ Latin@ community, families, and allies:
“Even when it’s tough to wear those multiple identities and hats, and to be that lone voice in the room, it’s important that we speak up and make those changes for the generations to come. I know from my own experiences that conversations, especially in male-dominated spaces and machista families, can be painful and difficult. [Despite this,] it’s worth it to be true to ourselves, and end of the day, our families will still love us.”
Follow Valeria on Twitter: @Carranza_Val
“It’s important that we speak up…for the generations to come.”
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