By: Iliana Figueroa
I ride the bus with my girlfriend to Chicago’s Division Street, practicing the questions that I will be asking during my interview with two queer activists. During the ride, we begin discussing Father’s Day and how great it would be if she joined my family and I that morning. It scares me when she asks if I will introduce her as my girlfriend. When I ask her if it is necessary, she responds “no” and gives me a reassuring kiss on the cheek. “I wouldn’t be comfortable,” she says. “I don’t even know Spanish.”
Exiting the bus on Division Street, she holds my hand as I hold my breath. My aunt owns a record shop down the block and I’m wondering if she’ll see us. I start remembering sitting with my parents in front of her store during the summer as a child. They would sit outside talking and drinking for hours, while I would often go inside the store staring at the hundreds of old Salsa records that were for sale, usually bearing the faces of Puerto Rican men with thick mustaches and trombones in their hands. I can’t remember the last time I stepped into that shop. My family that lives in the Humboldt Park neighborhood hasn’t seen me in many years now. They don’t know I’m a dyke and I am not trying to have them find out. I tell my girlfriend I will finish in a couple hours, look around with caution before I lean in to kiss her.
The smell of roasted chicken and garlic almost distracts me from what I came here to do. Today, I am meeting with Dulce Quintero and Nilsa Irizarry, organizers for Orgullo En Acción, to speak about their annual Latin@ Pride Picnic.
We sit down at Papa’s Cache Sabroso, a popular restaurant in the neighborhood, and begin introducing ourselves to one another. I’ve spoken and shared space with Dulce before, but this is my first time meeting Nilsa. I thank them both for offering their time. I tell them my girlfriend and I have a date later that night. They share their excitement for me. I realize how much safer I feel compared to just a few minutes ago.
Jíbaritos and rice are ordered and we’re ready to eat and talk together. Over dinner, Dulce shares with me that the picnic organizers knew they wanted to plan an event that would last more than just an hour or so, but would also create a space that would be more intentional and “allowed the chance to bring people together, celebrate and break bread.” They knew that it needed to be a picnic. “We wanted to have a picnic [that’s] inclusive and allows families to come,” Nilsa chimes in. “We can have activities, the kids would be able to play con las piñatas and we could have performers [and] play games.”
Nilsa, one of the co-founders and former board members of Orgullo En Acción, explains that the group started as five activists who knew each other in a variety of capacities. Nilsa was formerly a part of the National Latino/a Lesbian Organization (LLEGO), where she met future Orgullo members. She and the other four activists understood the importance of Latin@ solidarity when it comes to being queer. Many spaces that understand and recognize the hardships and disparities that come with being Latin@ or someone of color, do not always recognize the intersectionality of being a Brown or Black person who is also queer or transgender. As we chat about the upcoming event, it makes me think: what does this mean for the many of us who have multiple facets to our identities? Where are the safe spaces to have the complexities of our identities acknowledged and respected?
In 2006, Orgullo En Acción dedicated themselves to the idea of a Latin@ PRIDE Picnic in Gill Park, which is in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, a busy gay nightlife district. The bars and clubs in Boystown are notorious for having a following by white, middle to upper class gay men, leaving little room for anyone who fits outside of this demographic. For many other queer or trans people of color, Boystown isn’t always accessible nor are the residents and patrons tolerant of our presence. After realizing how problematic Gill Park could be for many people in the QTPOC (queer/trans people of color) community, the event organizers decided to move the picnic to Humboldt Park, a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood. “At the time we wanted visibility in a community where [the queer community] wasn’t as present,” Nilsa says. “I mean Humboldt Park, even though it is open minded, there wasn’t a lot going on at the time. We wanted to be present in the community where we live, where our culture is.”
Orgullo is very intentional of following an anti-oppression framework; collectively they developed “8 Points of Unity,” one of them being familia. Throughout the interview, Dulce and Nilsa always refer back to familia as an example of what their picnic celebrates and also what it creates between community members. Familia can mean so many different things to queer and trans people. Since I’ve come out to myself, I have realized how dear and necessary my chosen family is. Only a few members of my biological family know that I am queer, but even with them, my queerness is at best ignored and at worst ridiculed. My chosen family has consisted of best and good friends, mentors who have also struggled with coming out, and sometimes anyone that will listen.
I know that I can’t always walk down Division Street holding my partner’s hand without feeling hesitant, but on July 27 – the day of the picnic – there will be a space in Humboldt Park full of LGBTQQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning), Latin@s, and allies who I can introduce my girlfriend to. The family that will surround me this day won’t look twice when we hold hands or kiss. I do not need to pick whether I am Puerto rican or queer. Both will be acceptable and both will be celebrated.
Iliana is a queer Fat Boricua Dyke. She was born and raised in the Northwest side of Chicago. She grew up under the care of her grandparents, who migrated to Chicago from San Juan and Guánica in the mid ‘60s. She studied Gender & Women Studies along with Sociology in undergrad, and currently works for Rape Victim Advocates as a legal and medical advocate. Through her professional and private life she speaks up against sexual violence and the ways it disportionately affects women of color; continuously trying to find restorative and transformative ways to be solutions and ultimately end rape. She’s an organizer for the Chicago Dyke March and is part of the outreach team for Orgullo En Acción. Some of her favorite things are pineapple pizza and cuddling with her chihuahua Yunior.