Diversity in latin@ cultures
A national organization for LGBTQ Latin@’s has formed to address the distinct issues facing a culturally and historically diverse community. Unid@s Board Co-Chair Jorge Cestou describes what a national LGBTQ Latin@ voice can accomplish.
Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist?
At a very early age, I realized that in this country of ours, the United States of America, I belonged to a group of people referred to as "Hispanics" and/or "Latinos." I was raised in the Mexico-Texas border and was very well connected to my Latino roots. In the early 1990s, I migrated to Chicago, which welcomed me with open arms but I had to get accustomed to a new city with high diversity. The identification that I had done at an early age about being part of Hispanics and/or Latinos was accentuated even more when I tried to maneuver my way through the various circles that I was entering. I soon discovered that I also belonged to the LGBT circle and that even there, people looked at me differently. I also became cognizant of the inequities that exist in the Latino LGBT community, which triggered me to become an activist. My mantra is: Be the change that you want to see in the world, by Gandhi.
You currently serve as one of three co-chairs of Unid@s, a Washington, DC-based national organization for LGBT Latin@s. How did Unid@s come about?
Unid@s was created because of the need for Latin@ LGBT representation at the national level. Leaders from throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico had conversations about our community needing this national representation and formed a committee called "Sigamos Adelante" (translation: moving forward) to formalize these conversations. They formed another committee called "Timon" (translation: helm) and moved from conversations into action to form what Unid@s is now: The National Latino LGBT Human Rights Organization, an organization with regional representatives and representation from the overall LGBT spectrum.
What is the mission and vision of Unid@s?
The mission of Unid@s is to create a multi-issue approach for advocacy, education and convening of and for our communities. Guided by economic justice, feminist, anti-racist, environmental and pro-peace value, Unid@s joins a global effort to transform systems and policies that oppress our communities to create the just and equitable world we know possible.
Unid@s is the response from the national LGBT Latin@ leadership to create space for a LGBT Latin@ presence and voice at the national policy tables.
For those unfamiliar with the use of "@" in your organization's name, can you share its purpose?
In the Spanish language we have gender imbedded in it. The word "unidos" translates to "united," but it's only in the masculine form. In order for us not to be repetitive and be inclusive we use the "@" sign to represent the masculine and feminine of the word. (Unid@s = unidos and unidas.) "Unid@s" means united for the masculine and feminine at the same time.
This toolkit is exploring how funders can better promote racial equity in this country among LGBTQ communities. Through your work at Unid@s or through other experiences, how have you seen racial, economic and gender inequities affect LGBTQ Latin@s?
Latino LGBT racial, economic and gender inequities exist because of social constructions that exist in our communities. The first construct that our community gets attached to is the one of being Latinos. We as Latinos experience inequities because we speak Spanish and simply because people don't know about our cultures... yes "cultures" not just "culture." Latinos come from many different cultures. Besides the inequities that we encounter as Latinos, we also have the LGBT inequities that have to do with our cultures and the culture in the U.S. I have seen inequities with Latino LGBTs in their places of employment, in housing opportunities, in immigration processes, etc.
Unid@s was recently invited by the White House for the 40th Stonewall Riots Anniversary Reception, where it delivered a letter to the President on LGBT Latin@ issues and requested a formal follow-up meeting with White House staff. What did it mean for Unid@s to be at this reception? And how should the White Houseand other federal bodiesengage LGBT Latin@s?
The participation of Unid@s at the Presidential Reception for the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, was a historic moment for us as an organization. It symbolized that President Obama is interested in being inclusive and that he valued our participation in this historic LGBT remembrance. The White House and other federal bodies must engage LGBT Latinos as they do with any other group of individuals. In order to have full representation of our communities, these federal bodies need to be inclusive. They need to hear from all the leaders in this country and not just a few. We as Latino LGBTs have differences from the traditional LGBT Caucasian perspective. Latinos are the biggest minority in this country. If the White House and/or other federal bodies don't count with our opinions, they will start realizing the lack of Latino support to them as our votes will decline.
Unid@s also wants to make sure that LGBTQ Latin@ community leaders throughout the country help shape the direction of the organization. How has Unid@s engaged in base building? What are some early ideas about a structure that would ensure that Unid@s, an organization working in DC, is rooted in grassroots leadership?
Unid@s board structure allows for and welcomes community input at the regional level. The board members who are regional representatives meet with leaders in their respective areas to connect their efforts to our National Latin@ LGBT Movement.
Even at the executive level, Unid@s is not just a one-man show. Its executive structure requires three co-chairs: one male, one female and one transgender or gender non-conforming.
Even though Unid@s is based in Washington, DC, its board of directors is comprised of regional leaders. These board members represent specific regions or our country. We have individuals that represent seven regions:, including the West, the North Central, the South Central, the Midwest, the South East, the North East and Puerto Rico. We also have a representative to address specific states with high densities of Latinos: California, New York, Illinois and Texas.
What are some successesin our society, in our political movements, in the mediathat you'd like to see in your lifetime?
I'm a believer that justice prevails over injustice. I want to live to see equality in marriage and also want to see this nation become a bilingual (English-Spanish) nation.
Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?
Foundations and grant makers interested in funding LGBT communities of color need to be in touch with and supportive of the communities that they are interested in reaching. They need to be flexible as to how these communities are interested in facilitating their process. The aspect of culture is critical in our communities and how we go about making an impact in our communities might be seen as untraditional and different at times but we, as communities of color, know and understand our constituency better than anyone else. Don't just utilize the "cookie cutter" approach and apply it to everyone.
Jorge Cestou, Board Co-Chair, Unid@s, The National Latin@ LGBT Human Rights Organization (Washington, DC)
Jorge Cestou serves as a Co-Chair of Unid@s, the National Latin@ LGBT Human Rights Organization in Washington, DC. He is the Deputy Director of Programs for The Resurrection Project in Chicago, which works to create healthy communities through organizing, education, and community development, as well as the Treasurer of the Association of Latino Men For Action and a board member of the Center on Halsted, Chicago's LGBT Community Center.
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