Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chicago History Museum features Latino Arts & Activism

Article in Gay Chicago Magazine.
Written by Amy Wooten
March 11-17, 2010 issue, Chicago News.
Also available here.

CHICAGO – Those working to highlight the contributions Latinos have made to Chicago’s GLBT community say there is a long way to go before this segment of the community is fully accepted and recognized.

Chicago History Museum’s March 4 OUT at CHM presentation, “Queer Latinos: Art and Change,” explored the contributions made by local Latino activists and artists, from the organizing done by Amigas Latinas to the work created by local authors and podcasters.

Several participants in the evening’s program highlighted the need for the OUT at CHM event. After all, the contributions of queer Latinos are often overlooked. Moderator and Northwestern professor Ramon Rivera-Servera said that the accounts of GLBT history “hardly ever” recognize Latino activism, especially work done in the Midwest.

Presenters Lourdes Torres and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes are at the forefront of documenting Latino GLBT activists and artists.

Torres, a DePaul professor and author, presented her research of two Chicago Latina lesbian organizations, Llena and Amigas Latinas. Torres said her work with Amigas Latinas over the past 10 years inspired her to document that history, especially because many accounts of Chicago’s GLBT history – even recent ones – overlook the work done by Latina lesbians.

Torres explored the history of the now defunct Llena, as well as Amigas Latinas, to discover their work and identify these organizations as an important part of queer history.

During her presentation, Torres explained the organization’s successes and the barriers they faced. For example, Llena, which started in 1988 and disbanded in 1992, started in the ‘80s, when there were no welcoming spaces for Latina lesbians. The group first met at Horizons, now known as Center on Halsted. After some time, the group found a space in their own neighborhood, because “members started to feel uncomfortable at Horizons,” Torres explained. If members showed up early, white, male Horizon employees would force them to wait outside in the cold and were rude to them, she added. Later, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center welcomed Llena. This was an early push for a lesbian presence in a largely heterosexual space. Later efforts included the creation of an annual, inclusive women’s dance.

While Llena eventually disbanded, Amigas Latinas, which began in 1995, built upon Llena’s expansive vision. “It clearly made its mark and paved the way for Amigas Latinas in the mid-‘90s,” Torres said.

With the ’90s came a more welcoming climate. The ’90s saw the birth of several organizations for women of color, such as Affinity and Women of All Colors/Cultures Together (WACT). But while many groups began during this time period, Amigas Latinas is one of the few Latina organizations in the U.S. to sustain itself over a decade. This success, Torres explained, in part because the organization is willing to meet the changing needs of the community it serves. For example, despite some opposition, Amigas Latinas created transgender programming and events.

They developed into a non-profit by “responding to a changing reality and needs of the community,” Torres added.

Like Torres, Fountain-Stokes’ work revolves around the important contributions made by queer Latinos. His research focuses on the roles played by GLBT Latino artists, such as author Achy Obejas, film director Rose Troche and Feast of Fun podcaster Fausto Fernos.

While there are many individuals who have made artistic contributions to the GLBT community, not all of their efforts are recognized, Fountain-Stokes explained. For example, Troche directed the 1994 independent lesbian film “Go Fish.” The movie was a wild success, but the recognition Troche received by the mainstream gay community came at a price. Fountain-Stokes explained that in discussions of the film and interviews with Troche, her Puerto Rican heritage was often overlooked.

“Rose Troche’s Puerto Rican-ness is often not acknowledged,” Fountain-Stokes said. Some of this is partially because people are unaware that one of the film’s main characters is Puerto Rican or that the Chicago neighborhood the film is set in—Wicker Park—was home to a multicultural lesbian community in the mid-‘90s. However, while the film isn’t easily seen as Latina, it is still important to document, he said.

During a Q&A segment, one participant asked if visibility is still a large barrier for Latino organizations. According to both Torres and Fountain-Stokes, unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to do in this area.

“We still have to make more of a presence and insist on our acceptance in the community,” Torres said.

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