Familia es familia: A lesson in leadership from Latinx LGBTQ youth

There are six obstacles and issues that Cris Sotomayor, Youth Services Manager at the San Diego LGBT Community Center identified as being key for young, queer Latinx to address and overcome before they can take their place as leaders in their generation in a session called Familia Es Familia: A Lesson in Leadership from Latinx LGBTQ Youth at the 2019 UnidosUS Conference in San Diego.

Cris Sotomayor at the 2019 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Diego.
Cris Sotomayor at the 2019 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Diego.

“The first is the lack of sufficient financial means in our formative years. The second is a lack of spaces constructed by us and for us. The third is the lack of mentorship opportunities and accessible role models. The fourth is the structure of power whose fundamental purpose to dissuade Latinx people from political engagement. The fifth is political aggression directed at Black, undocumented, and trans communities, and the sixth is the intersection of identities as queer and Latinx people,” Sotomayor said.

“We need to dismantle and unlearn the lies that we have been taught about ourselves.”

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“We need to dismantle and unlearn the lies that we have been taught about ourselves,” Sotomayor continued, emphasizing that accepting one’s identity is key to showing up for yourself and for other members of the community.

Sotomayor moved to Miami from Puerto Rico when they were eight years old and started working when they were 13 years old. “My parents wanted me and my brother to access a quality of life that they did not feel they had at home,” Sotomayor explained.

But, as Sotomayor continued, the institutions in the United States were not made for queer Latinxs. “Working through high school left me with a disastrous academic record,” Sotomayor admitted.

However, Sotomayor was also quick to point to the power of civic engagement. “Please vote, and not just every four years for president,” they implored. “It is the one power that many of us have to enact change.”

They also encouraged members of the audience to identify someone younger than them in the community that they could mentor, and address the gap in role models that became clear during the workshop’s opening activity.

But beyond those calls to action, Sotomayor encouraged the audience to become educated on how to create social movements that can be harnessed to create lasting change.

Transborder story

“Mine is a transborder story,” said Wesley Palau, Coordinator of Equity and Inclusion at the San Diego Pride Center. Born in San Diego, Palau was raised in Tijuana until their family moved to south San Diego when Palau was in the 11th grade.

Palau shared that they eventually met a girl online and began a relationship with her. However, when they wanted their girlfriend to visit they ended up unintentionally coming out to their parents as lesbian.

“When I shared this with my parents, my dad said that I had two days to come into the life of God, or move out,” Palau explained.

Given this choice, Palau used the money they had to travel to Oregon, where their girlfriend lived with her mom. However, it quickly became clear that she was having trouble supporting both of them as a single mother.

Palau made the decision to leave their home, before realizing that they had nowhere else to go. They soon became homeless.

“My dad had always taught me how to survive in the wild but an urban jungle is completely different,” Palau said.

They soon fell into a crowd of other homeless LGBTQ youth. One member of the group⁠—West⁠—stood out.

“West embodied what it meant to be a leader,” they explained. West helped members of the group learn important tips about surviving on the street, like understanding that cars in parking garages stay warm for a period of time, and can be helpful when the temperature drops.

Although Palau did get into college, the transition from being homeless to being in school was one that they were unprepared to navigate. During their first year, they were placed on academic probation and forced to withdraw.

“It was a world that I wasn’t prepared to inhabit,” they explained.

However, it was through their university that their mother was able to reconnect with them. It was at that point that Palau learned that their mother had been trying unsuccessfully to contact them since shortly after they left home.

Their mother had also since begun studying for a degree in women’s studies, and was campaigning against the Defense of Marriage Act. She encouraged Palau to come home and start over.

“It was because of my family’s support that I was able to start again” Palau said.

Change started with student voices

Palau explained that when they were a student, there was no university policy at San Diego State that would allow them to put their chosen name on their ID card.

By this time, Palau had begun to identify as genderqueer, and having their birth name on their ID card was a source of stress. “My name was something that really did impact my dysphoria,” they explained.

They recounted their first day of class, where they had just finished introducing themselves to their classmates with their chosen name—Wes. But as soon as the professor began the class and started to call out students’ names, they were again faced with the name that they had been given at birth.

At the time, there was no university policy that allowed chosen names to appear on student IDs or in university records. There was also a lack of events that would allow the community to come together.

“Changes started with student voices,” said Palau.

Because of student advocacy, the number of gender neutral bathrooms increased from 7 to 44. Additionally, students have the option of selecting a chosen name that will appear on certain official university records, like class lists and transcripts. Palau also announced that the university has just hired their first non-binary professor. Further, the Pride Center at San Diego State–where Palau works–also works hard to put on events that will bring the community together.

“It’s good to have community around you that you know will support you no matter what,” Palau concluded.

At the end of the session, Palau and Sotomayor led the audience through one of the activities in the ALAS I: Welcoming LGBTQ Youth that was focused on mapping out a timeline of LGBTQ leadership and accomplishments.

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