A talk with Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, chronicler of Latino gay and queer men in the HIV era
Louie Ortiz-Fonseca is on a mission to show the diversity and uniqueness of the gay and queer Latino community in his hometown. Through a multimedia storytelling project he launched in 2013 with his friend, Anthony Leon, he seeks to answer the question: What is it like to grow up Latino and gay?
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Ortiz-Fonseca grew up in the mostly poor, mostly black area of North Philly. His mother smoked crack, and his father struggled with heroin addiction. When Ortiz-Fonseca was a teen, his father was diagnosed with HIV and later died from complications related to AIDS. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade.
Despite this adversity, Ortiz-Fonseca looks back at his upbringing as an opportunity to see a rich and diverse culture, particularly in the gay, transgender and queer community. Seeing this diverse community served as the impetus for him to eventually return to school and earn bachelor's and master's degrees. Now living in Washington, D.C., with his 13-year-old son, Ortiz-Fonseca also works in youth advocacy.
Let's start with you telling me a bit about your background.
As with many of my friends, I grew up with very few resources. My mom, like most of my friends' moms, struggled with crack, and my father struggled with heroin addiction and later contracted HIV and succumbed to the complications. But that story wasn't really different from everyone else's on the block. It definitely shaped how I view the world and move through the world.
I'm one of seven brothers. I'm the oldest of the seven. I've always been out. And when people asked if I had any pushback from my family, I would tell them no. I think the addiction that was very present in our household influenced how my mother raised us. She smoked with very different kinds of people, so she had access to different kinds of people -- drag queens, fem queens, trans folks, queer folks -- through the drug addiction. Through that, I never felt judged. I was also, you know, good in that part of my life.
That's a unique way of looking at how you grew up. Are you just the kind of person who sees opportunity in adversity or was it actually a fortunate side effect of having that going on in your childhood?
You know, I'm always asked, "How is it living in D.C. after living in Philadelphia?" And I think folks usually expect the same ol' answers, like, "Well, it's a different environment. Oh, my God, it's so gentrified," blah, blah, blah.
And all those things are really true. But I think that the class shift has been what has impacted me the most. The longer I'm in D.C., I'm provided a perspective that things that I thought were just my norm, weren't. Growing up with parents who struggled with addiction, if everyone else on the block had those same problems, then you could split hairs. It's not like you could say, "Hey, that's why your mama's on crack," because they'd say, "Well, so is yours." So you'd have to split hairs: "Well, at least my mother doesn't sell the TV."
Our mother didn't sell the TV, right? We still had food in the house. You know, there were times when the electricity was off, but it certainly wasn't -- it might have been for a day or two, until we got the money to pay for it. But I knew other folks who ran extension cords from somebody else's house to light their house. So I think that, because of that, you could say that it's not a traumatic experience. But the vantage point that I always had was kind of like, I've seen how far addiction impacts kids on a daily basis. And my mother did her best to make sure that we didn't go hungry. That's how I kind of view it.
You said that your father contracted HIV. At what point in your life was that? Can you tell me a bit about learning about that, and how he dealt with it?
It had to be, whew, 1990. The winter of 1990, I think, was when my mother told me. And I was already -- I was born in '76, so I was probably like, what? Fifteen, sixteen, at the time? And I was pretty, wild, you know -- watched ACT-UP protests on TV. I was quite an activist, so I knew about it. But of course, it was at the time when there were no medications. So I do remember immediately telling myself that we had four more years, at best, with him. And we did. It might have been longer; I think he died in '96, right as the new medications were being released. He died right on the cusp of that.
I don't remember feeling sad because, as I said, I remember reading articles and watching documentaries: And The Band Played On. So I kind of knew, even without having the language -- I wasn't surprised, right? And I also knew that crying about it wasn't going to stop it. So I remember actually dealing with it.
You said you were an activist before you even found out that your father was HIV positive. What pushed you into activism?
I was always out, right? So my family didn't have a problem with it. But when I went outside, people had a problem with it, probably because I was so young -- and this is the late '80s, early '90s. I was unapologetically feminine. I loved Janet Jackson. I did her dances in the street. And I think that made people very, very uncomfortable. There were people who -- even adults who I saw had gay friends -- [had trouble with] the fact that I was so young and unapologetic about my expression and my desire and my attractions. I always heard that I was too young to be gay. Always heard I was too young to be gay! Even before I had my first kiss, I heard I was too young to be gay. Even before I knew what gay really meant, I was told that I was too young to be gay.
So I always felt "other." And even when I had gay friends in school, they would stop hanging out with me because I was out and they weren't out. It didn't matter that they wore tight-ass pants and high heels; I was the one who would out them -- not the heels. Go figure. So I remember feeling like, ugh. I remember just being more outspoken about it. It was either hide or assimilate. And I didn't have that privilege. I was never not representing. I didn't have that privilege of assimilating because, most certainly, if I had those skills I would have done it. But I didn't. So I decided just to be brash and comfortable with making people uncomfortable. And because AIDS at that time was an uncomfortable conversation, I was OK with having that conversation or pushing those conversations.
To be so vocal and to know who you are, and actually be comfortable with who you are, as a teenager, it so impressive and far from the norm.
You know what? It still blows my mind. But at that time it wasn't amazing. It was just kind of, like, I don't know. I didn't have anything to compare it to! Because everything about us was other. We grew up in black neighborhoods. So we were never Latino enough; we were always too black. So it was kind of just a line, you know, how people viewed my sexuality. It was just another thing to be other, and I hated it all.
Tell me a bit about what that was like growing up as gay and Latino in Philly.
My mother's second-generation Puerto Rican. And when they moved here, they moved to a part of Philadelphia that's [now] extremely gentrified. But that can be anywhere right now. And my mother went to a black school. My grandmother was on the Main Line, so that was already gentrifying. But then my mother, hanging out with folks who didn't look or sound like us, scared her through the roof. So my mother ran away. We just always lived in black neighborhoods.
I think also because -- even my mother (may she rest in peace) would say that she was always welcomed into black neighborhoods. There was no judgment. But in terms of the Latino community, for me in the '90s -- while we grew up in North Philly and it's predominantly Puerto Ricans, we grew up on the black side. Because Puerto Ricans are on the east side of North Philly. And, as you go west, past 13th Street, it changes drastically. So I've known Puerto Ricans that don't go past 10th Street.
We lived on 9th Street, but we only hung out from 9th to 15th. So even the neighborhood we hung out in -- it was very different. So when I came out, there were no other gay Latinos. Like, no other! So it was like you either had to be white gay or you had to be black gay. And I just felt more comfortable hanging out with black queens. They're the ones that solidified me. They talked about stuff that -- you know, they weren't talking about how hard it was to be gay. They were talking about how hard it was to find food to eat because mom's on crack. And I was like, "And y'all are gay?"
It was that kind of oxygen. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods -- you know, coded for segregation. So folks just never left their parts of the city or their neighborhoods. And me and my mother did.
I think there's often this misconception from people on the outside of the black and Latino communities about acceptance of gay and trans people. Have you experienced that a lot, battling with people who don't necessarily understand the culture or understand that many gay and trans people already fit into the communities? It's kind of like we just treat it as if it's no big deal.
That's a great question. I think that we unfairly get -- I don't think we struggle with -- I don't think our communities are any more antigay, homophobic or struggle with it any more than white people, right? But I think that how we demonstrate support and pride are very, very different.
For example, there are varós who don't move out of the house because they are not married off. All their brothers and sisters have been married off, so they go live with their families. They're the ones who stay behind to take care of grandmom, and their mother, and the kids who have parents or siblings who have addictions that grandmom is now raising. The gay brother stays at home to help grandma do that. So, because the gay brother stays at home, living with his mom or grandmother, he doesn't get to bring home guys -- not because he's not "out"; it just gets culturally weird to bring home somebody to fuck with grandmom in the other room.
So I think the notion is that folks are not "out" because they can't bring someone home, or that there's shame in the family when there's not; that's just how the family moves through this conversation. Also, I think that, as brown people, we are family first. We won't do something or say something because grandmom would have a heart attack. Right? Don't bring this up because you don't interrupt that heart.
And, of course, those things get -- they're at the center of everything else -- you know, shame around sex and pleasure. It's hard to really do that stuff and untangle that stuff. But I think that we unfairly get labeled as more homophobic. Just because our parents aren't marching in pride parades does not mean they're not supportive.
My mother always knew that I was gay. But I remember I would always get in trouble for dancing outside -- because I loved the movie Fame and I would try to recreate that everywhere I went. I remember her being pissed. I got hit sometimes for dancing outside. And as a kid, I never got hit. I was like, "I just want to dance, Mama."
And now that I'm a parent, I get it. Right? Don't do anything that would make people call you a faggot. Because if they call you a faggot, I gotta go out there, and I gotta beat their ass. I can't be beating peoples' asses all the time. So help me out and don't act like that outside.
Tell me about the Gran Varones. What is it?
It is named after a song called El Gran Varón, which was released in 1988 by Willie Colón, who is a salsa singer/activist. In a nutshell, the song talks about a father who's raising his son to be the next varón. And varón is loosely translated as boy. But the context of it is, like, man of the house. Every father raises his son to be the next varón -- the leader of the family, the patriarch. So the father is raising a son, but the son exhibits feminine behavior and the father's horrified. So the son runs away to go to New York to be free.
After some years, the father wants to reconnect with him and goes to New York, when a female-presenting person passes him. The person says, "Hey, Dad, it's me, Simon, your son." And the father is horrified because his son now presents as a woman.
So the father disowns him and flies back to Puerto Rico and, after some years, realizes that he has to love his son no matter what. Then he gets a call that his son died alone in a hospital from a serious disease. The End.
And this is a salsa song, so people are dancing to this song -- because we're such a dramatic people. And I had never heard the song. I had never heard the song. So when someone told me about it, I was blown away that I had never heard any of the concepts of AIDS history in terms of media and art. While the song doesn't directly name AIDS, of course it's alluded to: gay son, New York, adult, mysterious disease.
But also, I had never heard of it when we talked about Latino history or human history. It had just never come up. I was just so bewildered -- but not surprised that a Latino salsa song that, you know, opens issues that would have been completely taboo in 1988, had never, ever come up in terms of history.
I decided that I would do a project highlighting the stories of queer and gay Latino men in Philadelphia and call it The Gran Varones, because I know that when we come out we're shifting family norms and family history. Because we're not getting married to a woman and having kids in the very traditional way that our families expect of us. That was one part of it.
The other part of it is, like I said, Philadelphia is still very black and white in terms of gay culture. Of course, the Latino queers are there, and they do go to the Gayborhood on Latin Night. But we exist in those places like visitors. We're able to visit on Thursdays for Latin Night, but it's clear that we ain't wanted any other night. Like, keep your asses up the street; keep your Puerto Rican flag in North Philly; don't go bringing all that down here. You can do that on a Thursday; but baby, it's Friday now.
We tend to be sexualized. If you look at fliers, even for Latin Nights, it's always the skinny, Argentinian, blue-eyed person on the cover who has no shirt on. And it always says caliente or papí -- hot, red peppers. I just got sick of it. I was like, I want to highlight the stories of queer Latino men that are not assimilated, that are not Ricky Martin or don't present as Ricky Martin. I said, we're going to collect the stories of people who are smoking blunts; who are unemployed; who are working at McDonald's; who are taking care of their grandmother, raising their nieces and nephews. We are going to highlight all the queer Latino men who don't get asked to sit on a panel -- which meant that we weren't going to universities to ask for queer Latino men.
Students have access to language. They have access to platforms. The ones who don't are the ones who are trying to make ends meet, that don't get to march in pride parades.
That was our goal. In the past two years, it's become something bigger than I had ever imagined -- ever imagined.
Let's talk about how Gran Varones connects to HIV within the Latino gay/queer community. Can you tell me: Do you also highlight, or do any special features, with men living with HIV?
Yes. When we first started, I was intentional in not asking about HIV. That can be tricky. I know I was interviewing queer Latino men who, again, don't get asked to share their stories, to be really public about being out, right? Because it's different having your picture on Grindr -- that's very limited; it's only from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. if you're lucky -- and having your picture on a website forever. So then to add -- to talk about HIV? I think that in the beginning people would have shied away from it.
I also didn't want it to be seen as an HIV/gay project. For some people, those things are equivalent to each other. But, while we were interviewing, people would disclose as part of their story. You know, like Ricky was the first to disclose that he was HIV positive, and how that experience in the Latino community differed from his experience in the black community. Again, he grew up, moving to black gay culture the same way I did. When he was diagnosed it was the black trans and black gay men who carried him through. And it was Puerto Rican gay men who saw him as a leper. And that's for many reasons, right?
I think that opened up the door for folks to share that kind of conversation. We were intentional about posting those things. Because, again, this is where the service provider does come in. Because I'm like, "OK, so you know this is going to go up, right?" I wanted to be really clear about what the implications might be. Right? Of us sharing. Because, you know, when you talk about your life with someone, if the connection is amazing, you will share things. So I always check in: "Are you OK with me sharing this? I know that we've got it on paper. I want to circle back."
We have some pieces. I think the last one we did was Jorian, who is 22, and talks about being diagnosed, having to tell his mother and his father, and having to move back to Philly after being in the hospital. And there was also Aden, or Adrian, that we posted maybe two months ago, who, too, shared his story about how he was lying in the hospital when he was diagnosed.
All the stories are alike, so we include them. But every time I post them, the influx of the shares and the conversation is amazing. People talk about HIV, and people talk about gay men, but people seldom talk about HIV and Latino men from the experiential component. We hear statistics. We hear about stigma. But seldom do we hear stories about people who are saying, "This is what happened to me."
I think that has definitely opened up the conversation for queer Latinos. Because now I get inboxes all the time about folks who were just tested but don't know where to go for treatment.
How do you find the people that you take the portraits of? Is it just a conversation and you happen to be snapping photos while you're talking to them?
OK. Like I said, I only hung out with black queens. All my friends were black. I worked at black gay queer organizations. So when I started this project, I had maybe three Puerto Rican friends. So I was like, OK, I want to reconnect intentionally and build a community with other queer Latinos. And I remembered I had always wanted to, but always felt outside of them. We just had different cultural -- you know -- pop culture references. They loved Selena and Olga Tañón, and I was like, "You haven't heard of Teena Marie?"
So, even in a basic conversation, we didn't connect. I watched BET, Donnie Simpson, and they watched Telemundo. We just never could connect or get the same kind of joke references. So when I started this project, I literally had to befriend hundreds and hundreds of queer Latinos of Philadelphia and slowly build community and, you know, courageously reach out to people. "Hey, this is my idea. Can I take your photo?"
Some people were taken aback. And I understand because, again, like everywhere, we were reaching out to folks who don't always get asked to share their stories. So they wind up believing that they don't have one. It was, really, just really building community.
I've got to say that I'm always thankful for the seven who agreed to do it when I had no website or anything to show them as an example. They trusted me from the very beginning. But it was like showing up to baby showers. If someone posted that they got into nursing school, it was like inboxes, saying, "Congratulations. If you need support, we're here." If someone posted, "I need help with a resume," I'd reach out to him and say, "Hey, I can support you. Send me your draft." It was like showing up for them, and then asking them to show up for Gran Varones. So it was a slow start getting people to trust me. Because it is creepy for a stranger to say, "Hey, can I take a picture of you?"
But that's how it's been. Our model has always been: We go to where they are at whatever time they want to meet. We never make them come to us. If they prefer us to meet them somewhere, we do that. It's always on their own terms. Folks have canceled; we don't shame them.
We have to be really, really flexible -- which was humbling. Because if you've worked in nonprofit for as long as I have, you can get tricked into believing that people need to come to you. Right? And I had to let go of all of that. I don't have a service to provide, and that's OK. I'm not showing up as a service provider, which means I have to relinquish some of that power and some of that privilege. And once I began to do that, it was like now I have friends that I would never have had three years ago.
That's always been our motto: be really grassroots; meet them where they are; and allow them to talk about who they are, what they want to share. Some people are comfortable being interviewed on camera and some people are not. But, again, we don't shame. We explain that however, we tell our story is necessary; and however we do it, that's OK.
It sounds like in doing this project you also went out and created a community -- or at least unified a community that you weren't a part of, necessarily.
It's insane. I always feel that people think that I'm the godmother, that I'm the madrina, of Varones. Because I'll get inbox messages, like, "Yo Louie, Carlos said that he's going to beat somebody's ass. Tell him he gotta take that down? The Gran Varones should be healing." And I'm like, I appreciate that we're wanted to intervene. But Varones is not about being a role model. I love that you think that. I'm humbled that people think that. But I always have to remind people that I'm not checking. I'm not in the business of telling people what they can do, or what they can't say, or how they should express themselves. Because, in Varones, everyone is allowed to be a part of it.
And it has those communities. It's so weird that, when [I come] back to North Philly, I'm always hanging out with them. But, again, I'm hanging out with people who I thought that I would never hang out with because of our cultural differences three years ago. But once you get past that perception, it's always, there's so much in common.
We interviewed this one guy who is a friend of, like, my aunt. Well, she's like my aunt like the way that hood people have aunts. I'm not sure who she's related to, but she's my aunt. And her daughter who presents as masculine -- she identifies as a dyke -- posted a picture of this guy named Raoul. And I was like, "Oh, he's got to be queer. Let me request him and I'll tell him that he could be part of the project."
I set up an interview. He says, "I can do it right now."
I said, "No worries. We'll stop by your house before I go to the club." I was like, "What's the address?" He gave me the address and I was like, ugh, that's the block that my brother was murdered on. But I told myself, I said, "We meet them where they are. Since I'm going through stuff, I'll just have an extra long time I have to deal with that trauma."
So we go to his house. We walk in. And I can see that they had a sheet hanging up by the door. And as soon as I walked in, I immediately knew what I was walking into. Because we grew up having sheets hanging by the door -- that was to keep the heat in. So I walked in. I noticed it was really dark and there were, like, maybe two lamps on the floor. And I did a quick surveillance of the space. He had three friends there, smoking blunts, drinking Four Loko. They generously offered us some. I prefer Watermelon now to Four Loko; so that's a fun fact.
I noticed that there was a hot plate. And I noticed all the extension cords. I was harkened back to my childhood, and every day it feels like I'm running from that; I'm one paycheck away from that. I'm always running from that. It was only when I got there that I realized how far I had come. But, at the same time, there was a new generation of Puerto Rican, queer men -- queer young men, because he was only 20 -- who are living in this. And while there was still a celebratory environment and they were partying, it reminded me just how we get tricked into thinking this is the norm. Like, as long as we have lights we're OK. You know what I mean?
So, we don't fight for electricity because at least we've got light. At least we've got the extension cord. We're always tricked into thinking, into living, like that. And then something always comes up. It was like a reminder why I do this -- not to feed my ego, but I was him. I had the luxury of getting a job at a queer agency at 17, and that completely shifted my life. Because it provided me access. It introduced me to hummus. It introduced me to Ani DiFranco. It introduced me to art. It introduced me to things that I would never have otherwise been introduced to, had I not been provided that one summer job.
One of the hardest things, when you see people in this situation, is knowing how much you can help and how much you can't help. How do you battle with the feeling that you aren't doing enough or that you want to do more but you can't, necessarily?
I've had to learn that, in those spaces, I'm not there to fix it. And I'm not there to remind them or to sell them notions of how they can be activists, or how they can advocate. I'm there to document it. And I try really hard not to show up as a service provider. Because it can be condescending and it can really drain you.
That's not to say that I don't want to inbox them the next day and say, "Hey, here are some resources, blah, blah, blah." But I really walk a tight line, because I also don't want them to think that [I'm acting as a service provider].
It's so weird. When we walked into that space, I felt like a [research] student from UPENN in there -- which is so weird, right? Because every day of my life, I always feel like I have to prove that I know big words. I have a master's degree, but how I speak and my language doesn't always represent that. That's always clinging to my mind: that I'm not smart enough, that I'm a dropout. And not out of shame -- it's just always something that I have to battle.
But yet, when I go into spaces like that, I instantly feel as if I'm a visitor in the spaces that I provide. And I remember feeling like a UPENN student to them. And I think: Don't try too hard to be hood because you already are. It's just something -- the code switching goes wrong.
That's why I try not to show up as a service provider. And after we -- when I say we, it's my best friend, Anthony, who moved from Lancaster three years ago -- share time and space about the project, we've instantly built connections. So those conversations and those opportunities to provide support will eventually happen, and very naturally, but not right there on the spot.
What does Gran Varones mean for you as an activist and gay Latino man?
Well, it's national now. Again, I did not want to leave Philly. I did not want to leave Philly. I worked in nonprofit for 18 years before I started Gran Varones. People knew who I was. So I was just always celebrated -- or, I felt that I was always celebrated -- as a great staff member for these agencies, right? Like, "Put Louie on the panel because he'll speak to the great work of GALAEI." "Put Louie on the panel because he'll speak to the great work of Philadelphia FIGHT." And that was amazing. I learned a lot of stuff through that. But seldom are you put on a panel to really speak about your experience without the filter of some nonprofit agency that you're working for.
So it was only through Gran Varones that I felt as if I actually became a force -- that I could literally say what I wanted to say, and communicate how I wanted to communicate, and advocate for other queer Latinos, unapologetically, without having to meet deliverables. And I've finally started getting invited to meetings because of Gran Varones, for Gran Varones.
Right now I have the great opportunity to travel with my job, so I'm able to collect stories nationally. I think locally, in D.C., there is still much work that I have to do. Because I came from Philadelphia; the largest Latino community there is Puerto Rican. And in D.C., there's not so many. I'm helping out the census here, in the DMV.
So, for me, I have to be really intentional and patient, and build a community with folks who don't have the same immigration status that I do. My privilege is that I've never had to worry about my immigration status, ever. So it can be weird, with that privilege, to ask queer Latinos to share their stories when they're not just disclosing publicly that they're queer, right? Some of that story does include being undocumented. So to expect people to come out with that, too -- and then do it publicly -- can very be tricky.
I want to make sure that I'm collecting stories intentionally here in D.C. So I'm just still building community and building trust, much in the same way that I did in Philadelphia.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.