To Be Gay, Puerto Rican, and from North Philly

Interview with Louie A. Ortíz, director of the film “The Gran Varones”

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There is a saying that rings all too true for communities living at the margins: If you don’t record your own history, then someone else will do it for you.

That’s simply unacceptable for Louie A. Ortíz, a photographer and activist born and bred in North Philadelphia with a gregarious sense of humor and a strong sense of social responsibility.

“I want to photograph every gay Latino in existence [because] our stories are not being recorded,” expresses Ortíz in a voice that exudes both determination and pride.

That’s exactly what he’s doing with The Gran Varones, a storytelling project with Sean Laughlin and Anthony Leon.

The ambitious endeavor utilizes both photography and film to document the stories of gay and queer-identifying Boricua and Latino men around the country, with a strong base in Philly. The title of the film, meaning “the great men”, was inspired by Willie Colón’s salsa song of the same name, the lyrics of which recount the tragic consequences of homophobia.

But the project is clearly less a lamentation and more of a celebration. “[It highlights] the resilience of Latino queers and gays,” says Ortíz. While accentuating the individual and collective strength of often forgotten members of our communities, – those whom mainstream white queers would rather erase from memory – The Gran Varones also works to motivate others to tell their stories.

“I want to inspire people to do their own projects, in their own neighborhoods,” declares Ortíz as he discussed the vision and origins of the project. He himself never had formal training in photography. This makes the piece of work even more arousing and organic; it reveals the incredible talent that is riddled throughout the Boricua Diaspora.

TheGranVaronesEnvisioned primarily as a photography-based project to document gay Latinos in the city, The Gran Varones soon branched into film, pushed in part by community interest.

There were also so many narrators that yearned to share their stories, such as coming-out, being HIV positive or a drag queen performing in the ‘hood – all of which is in the film.

One particular story that impacted Ortíz was from David Torres, the Puerto Rican former director of a queer Latino social justice organization.

“I thought of him as too white, but I reached out and he wanted to bring his father who was also gay.”

Having a gay father wasn’t the only aspect of the Torres’ life that surprised Ortíz. He also realized that he passed judgement on him in similar ways in which he felt judged by others in his Boricua community.

“He felt out of place with gay Latinos. He didn’t feel Puerto Rican enough.”

This is something Ortíz felt for a long time. The lack of a “typical” coming-out experience and being brought up around non-Puerto Ricans made him feel out-of-place.

“My mom always had drag queens around,” he says with a chuckle. “And in the ‘90s there were no gay Latino communities – you either went to the white community or black community, and since I grew up in a black community, I hung out with black queens.”

However, instead of retreating he worked harder to build community with other gay Boricuas and Latinos – which the film helped him to do – because he’s still “unapologetically Puerto Rican.”

This is clearly evident in the project, which seeks to move away from essentializing and exoticizing imagery.

“In the film we got all body types, because I didn’t want a film that folks come to gawk at cute Puerto Rican guys.”

Producers of The Gran Varones: Sean Laughlin, Louie A. Ortíz, and Anthony Leon.

Producers of The Gran Varones: Sean Laughlin, Louie A. Ortíz, and Anthony Leon.

The Gran Varones has also been a tool to have crucial conversations with his 12-year-old son, of whom he’s the sole caregiver and brings to the film’s interviews. Now his son asks him about his own coming-out experience and which pronouns to use when addressing the interviewees. This is a prime example of the incredible power of community-based film to spark dialogue and critical thinking.

The Gran Varones premiered in Philadelphia on September 27 to a crowd of over 100 people at the Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas. It will continue to be shown to audiences around the country. For more information, take a look at the website, here.

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Xavi Burgos Peña

Xavi Burgos Peña is co-founder of La Respuesta magazine. He is a Boricua/ Dominicano of the Diaspora who has lived his life between New York City and Chicago. His professional experience is mostly in the area of community-building, including youth development, social marketing, and organizing against gentrification. His journalism credits include being editor and chief designer for Que Ondee Sola magazine, columnist for La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, contributor to Gozamos magazine, and guest writer for Claridad newspaper in Puerto Rico. Contact: xavi@larespuestamedia.com 

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