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Interview

A Talk With Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, Chronicler of Latino Gay and Queer Men in the HIV Era

January 30, 2016

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Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

Louie Ortiz-Fonseca is on a mission to show the diversity and uniqueness of the gay and queer Latino community in his hometown. Through a multimedia storytelling project he launched in 2013 with his friend, Anthony Leon, he seeks to answer the question: What is it like to grow up Latino and gay?

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Ortiz-Fonseca grew up in the mostly poor, mostly black area of North Philly. His mother smoked crack, and his father struggled with heroin addiction. When Ortiz-Fonseca was a teen, his father was diagnosed with HIV and later died from complications related to AIDS. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade.

Despite this adversity, Ortiz-Fonseca looks back at his upbringing as an opportunity to see a rich and diverse culture, particularly in the gay, transgender and queer community. Seeing this diverse community served as the impetus for him to eventually return to school and earn bachelor's and master's degrees. Now living in Washington, D.C., with his 13-year-old son, Ortiz-Fonseca also works in youth advocacy.

Let's start by you telling me a bit about your background.

As with many of my friends, I grew up with very few resources. My mom, like most of my friends' moms, struggled with crack, and my father struggled with heroin addiction and later contracted HIV and succumbed to the complications. But that story wasn't really different from everyone else's on the block. It definitely shaped how I view the world and move through the world.

I'm one of seven brothers. I'm the oldest of the seven. I've always been out. And when people asked if I had any pushback from my family, I would tell them no. I think the addiction that was very present in our household influenced how my mother raised us. She smoked with very different kinds of people, so she had access to different kinds of people -- drag queens, fem queens, trans folks, queer folks -- through the drug addiction. Through that, I never felt judged. I was also, you know, good in that part of my life.

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That's a unique way of looking at how you grew up. Are you just the kind of person who sees opportunity in adversity or was it actually a fortunate side effect of having that going on in your childhood?

You know, I'm always asked, "How is it living in D.C. after living in Philadelphia?" And I think folks usually expect the same ol' answers, like, "Well, it's a different environment. Oh, my God, it's so gentrified," blah, blah, blah.

And all those things are really true. But I think that the class shift has been what has impacted me the most. The longer I'm in D.C., I'm provided a perspective that things that I thought were just my norm, weren't. Growing up with parents who struggled with addiction, if everyone else on the block had those same problems, then you could split hairs. It's not like you could say, "Hey, that's why your mama's on crack," because they'd say, "Well, so is yours." So you'd have to split hairs: "Well, at least my mother doesn't sell the TV."

Our mother didn't sell the TV, right? We still had food in the house. You know, there were times when the electricity was off, but it certainly wasn't -- it might have been for a day or two, until we got the money to pay for it. But I knew other folks who ran extension cords from somebody else's house to light their house. So I think that, because of that, you could say that it's not a traumatic experience. But the vantage point that I always had was kind of like, I've seen how far addiction impacts kids on a daily basis. And my mother did her best to make sure that we didn't go hungry. That's how I kind of view it.

You said that your father contracted HIV. At what point in your life was that? Can you tell me a bit about learning about that, and how he dealt with it?

It had to be, whew, 1990. The winter of 1990, I think, was when my mother told me. And I was already -- I was born in '76, so I was probably like, what? Fifteen, sixteen, at the time? And I was pretty, wild, you know -- watched ACT-UP protests on TV. I was quite an activist, so I knew about it. But of course it was at the time when there were no medications. So I do remember immediately telling myself that we had four more years, at best, with him. And we did. It might have been longer; I think he died in '96, right as the new medications were being released. He died right on the cusp of that.

I don't remember feeling sad because, as I said, I remember reading articles and watching documentaries: And The Band Played On. So I kind of knew, even without having the language -- I wasn't surprised, right? And I also knew that crying about it wasn't going to stop it. So I remember actually dealing with it.

You said you were an activist before you even found out that your father was HIV positive. What pushed you into activism?

I was always out, right? So my family didn't have a problem with it. But when I went outside, people had a problem with it, probably because I was so young -- and this is the late '80s, early '90s. I was unapologetically feminine. I loved Janet Jackson. I did her dances in the street. And I think that made people very, very uncomfortable. There were people who -- even adults who I saw had gay friends -- [had trouble with] the fact that I was so young and unapologetic about my expression and my desire and my attractions. I always heard that I was too young to be gay. Always heard I was too young to be gay! Even before I had my first kiss, I heard I was too young to be gay. Even before I knew what gay really meant, I was told that I was too young to be gay.

I always felt "other." And even when I had gay friends in school, they would stop hanging out with me because I was out and they weren't out.

So I always felt "other." And even when I had gay friends in school, they would stop hanging out with me because I was out and they weren't out. It didn't matter that they wore tight-ass pants and high heels; I was the one who would out them -- not the heels. Go figure. So I remember feeling like, ugh. I remember just being more outspoken about it. It was either hide or assimilate. And I didn't have that privilege. I was never not representing. I didn't have that privilege of assimilating because, most certainly, if I had those skills I would have done it. But I didn't. So I decided just to be brash and comfortable with making people uncomfortable. And because AIDS at that time was an uncomfortable conversation, I was OK with having that conversation or pushing those conversations.

To be so vocal and to know who you are, and actually be comfortable with who you are, as a teenager, it so impressive and far from the norm.

You know what? It still blows my mind. But at that time it wasn't amazing. It was just kind of, like, I don't know. I didn't have anything to compare it to! Because everything about us was other. We grew up in black neighborhoods. So we were never Latino enough; we were always too black. So it was kind of just a line, you know, how people viewed my sexuality. It was just another thing to be other, and I hated it all.

Tell me a bit about what that was like growing up as gay and Latino in Philly.

My mother's second-generation Puerto Rican. And when they moved here, they moved to a part of Philadelphia that's [now] extremely gentrified. But that can be anywhere right now. And my mother went to a black school. My grandmother was on the Main Line, so that was already gentrifying. But then my mother, hanging out with folks who didn't look or sound like us, scared her through the roof. So my mother ran away. We just always lived in black neighborhoods.

I think also because -- even my mother (may she rest in peace) would say that she was always welcomed into black neighborhoods. There was no judgment. But in terms of the Latino community, for me in the '90s -- while we grew up in North Philly and it's predominantly Puerto Ricans, we grew up on the black side. Because Puerto Ricans are on the east side of North Philly. And, as you go west, past 13th Street, it changes drastically. So I've known Puerto Ricans that don't go past 10th Street.

We lived on 9th Street, but we only hung out from 9th to 15th. So even the neighborhood we hung out in -- it was very different. So when I came out, there were no other gay Latinos. Like, no other! So it was like you either had to be white gay or you had to be black gay. And I just felt more comfortable hanging out with black queens. They're the ones that solidified me. They talked about stuff that -- you know, they weren't talking about how hard it was to be gay. They were talking about how hard it was to find food to eat because mom's on crack. And I was like, "And y'all are gay?"

It was that kind of oxygen. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods -- you know, coded for segregation. So folks just never left their parts of the city or their neighborhoods. And me and my mother did.

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