As COVID-19 upends all aspects of life around the globe, one group that is especially vulnerable is Central American asylum-seekers to the U.S., currently held back behind the border in Mexico due to Trump immigration policy. Mexican border cities including Juarez, Matamoros, and Tijuana have become the site of crowded migrant encampments that public-health experts say are tinderboxes for potentially devastating COVID-19 outbreaks. Meanwhile, on the Texas side of the border, majority-Latinx Rio Grande Valley cities including Brownsville, McAllen, and Harlingen have their own vulnerable populations to look after.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that among those aiding people on both sides of the border are LGBTQ folks, who’ve long known what it’s like to be vulnerable. TheBody chatted on May 12 with Oscar Lopez, who leads the Harlingen-based Poderosos, which means “powerful ones” in Spanish. The group serves and advocates for LGBTQ Latinx folks, especially around the issues of HIV and sexual health.
After we heard Lopez speak during a May 7 NMAC-sponsored webinar on the link between COVID-19 and immigration, we asked him to talk with us in further depth about those issues. He graciously agreed to—and shared about not only what U.S. border folks are doing for migrants in Matamoros, but about what his and other communities are doing for one another on the U.S. side in this challenging time.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Oscar. Thank you so much for chatting with us today about the great work you and others are doing right now down on the Texas-Mexico border. Tell us a bit about yourself first.
Oscar Lopez: Sure, thanks. I grew up here. My family is from Brownsville—we go back to when this area was still part of Mexico. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, we have about 1.2 million Latinos making up about 89% of the population. There’s lots of farmland and strip malls, and more than half the billboards are in Spanish. We have 14 bridges and one ferry that go between here and Mexico. And Brownsville has the second-busiest port in the U.S. When I was in my early 20s, I lived and worked in Austin, then got hired by NMAC and moved to D.C., then worked for the Latino Commission on AIDS in New York City. Seven years ago, I moved back here with my husband, Wally Cantu, who heads the area’s Valley AIDS Council (VAC). I was until recently head of policy and advocacy for them.
When we first got back here, I found that the homophobia and transphobia here was insane. I was supposed to be leading all the HIV prevention efforts for 1.2 million people, because VAC was the only HIV/AIDS agency in the region. So the first thing I proposed to the state of Texas was that we had to tackle homophobia and transphobia if we were going to move the needle in terms of HIV prevention and linkage to care—and the state was very supportive in terms of allowing us to use the funds they’d just awarded us for that purpose in particular.
We had no Pride celebration, no drop-in center, no gay-straight alliances in the schools. So in 2013, we had our first Gay Pride, about 300 people scared to death that someone would shoot them. Last year, we had 15,000 people participate. We did it inside at the University of Texas in McAllen, because prior to that it was 111 degrees outside and we all almost died. We had a film festival and educational workshops. Everything was family-friendly. Some of the RuPaul’s Drag Race girls flew down and did shows both days.
One church sent a priest to send blessings to the masses. On behalf of the church, he asked those in attendance for forgiveness and reminded everyone that God doesn’t make mistakes. Everyone was crying. The impact those words have on a largely Catholic audience is life-changing. For generations, it’s been instilled in the Latinx community that being gay is immoral and that “choosing” to be gay means eternal damnation. Our ability to change that mindset and create dialogue is what makes our event and our intervention a game-changer.
Now there are several support groups and gay-straight alliances on campuses, and both HIV and PrEP [HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis] are being discussed more openly. All the progress on this is a testament to how much Latinos love their kids. So things that were created to help stop the spread of HIV have also given a voice to people and allowed them to take part in their own wellness. Brownsville just created its first-ever LGBT committee to address disparities in the community.
TM: Wow, that is a lot of great work in only seven years. So, tell us about your new organization, Poderosos.
OL: We’re unapologetically queer and focused on sexual health, one block away from Valley AIDS Council. I wanted a space where we could talk about sex and drug use without having to tread carefully in terms of funders. So right now we have three programs. One is social media, changing the conversations happening online. Like with COVID, many of us still live with our extended families, multigenerational, and everyone’s being careful during the day, but we’ve noticed that as soon as the sun sets, the queer hookup apps like Grindr and Scruff are buzzing and people are hooking up. We’re obviously hungry for human touch right now.
So we launched a social campaign in English and Spanish asking, “I know you have needs and desire, but is this the best time to fulfill them, when you are living with your 90-year-old grandma?” Several other HIV organizations have asked if they can share them too. Since we posted them, we’re noticing more online conversations about how lonely people are and how challenging this time is for human intimacy. So, if based on nothing else than the fact that people are talking about it, we’ve done our job.
Additionally, May 13 will be the three-year anniversary of the disappearance of Kimberly Avila, a trans woman from Brownsville who went downtown to the bars, was picked up around midnight, and disappeared. We’ve been very frustrated with the lack of attention from the police department. If this were a heterosexual cisgender woman, a $25,000 reward for information leading to her would be offered. It’s taken the gay community three years to raise $5,000 and then get a $5,000 charitable match, so the reward is $10,000 but she’s still not found. So we’ll be doing the annual vigil for her online as a way of promoting the reward.
We’ve also been raising money for the region’s first-ever shelter for our trans sisters and brothers. The group GENTex has been leading that effort, having raised almost $3,000 so far. They were scheduled to open right before COVID, so they’re taking this time to raise more money.
The other issue we’re addressing is the use among LGBTQ folks of crystal meth, which comes through our region over the bridges from Mexico in its purest form. Some of it stays here before the rest moves on to New York or LA, and we’re seeing online a tremendous amount of addiction that behavioral health experts can’t deal with, because it’s not like heroin, which has withdrawal medication. With meth, you have to go cold turkey. We’re noting a vast number of conversations where young MSM [men who have sex with men] say that meth was a part of their getting HIV. We’re glad PrEP exists, but now it’s so easy for people to say they’re on PrEP, when they’re not really, if they want permission to bareback.
So we’re about to launch a support group for gay and bi men who are addicted to, or concerned about, meth, to get them on PrEP. We’re modeling it on a San Francisco AIDS Foundation program where you come pee in a cup, and if you test clean, you get $30. If you test dirty, you don’t get the $30, but you’re not kicked out of the group. We’re recruiting now and already have 25 people interested. Because the need is so great right now, we might start doing phone conversations during COVID since we can’t meet yet in person.
In fact, recently we were at a meeting at Georgetown University in D.C. with different substance-use leaders around the country to talk about the opioid epidemic. But when we told them about meth, they were intrigued and asked us onto the panel led by Jeffrey Crowley, who was Obama’s AIDS czar. Instantly, the other 30 people in the room nodded their heads and agreed that, yes, meth was more of an issue than heroin, but that heroin had gotten the Trump administration dollars because it was affecting white families. Blacks and Latinos have been heavily impacted by meth. Latinos are the top group for increasing HIV seroconversions, and when the data becomes available, we’ll see that a lot of those were tied to meth use.
TM: Great, glad to see that you are tackling that issue. So on the NMAC event, you talked a bit about the work the LGBTQ community on your side of the border is doing for asylum seekers who are stuck in Mexico per Trump’s orders. Can you expand on that?
OL: Sure. So there’s an aid group for asylum seekers called Team Brownsville that started in July 2018 when hundreds of asylum seekers were coming to the border. Last year, Trump got stricter and began pushing people back into Matamoros on the Mexico side. So now all these people are stuck living in the streets there. Different groups on our side were going over the bridge to feed people and provide them with clothes and first aid. Team Brownsville was started by a couple, Melba and David Lucio, who I’ve known since I was a kid. Then they brought on their friends Sergio Cordova and his partner Michael Benavides. Within a matter of months, Team Brownsville was feeding 1,000 people, then 3,000 people earlier this year. That’s when the chef José Andrés from World Central Kitchen came down and erected a kitchen tent and taught volunteers to cook. Before that, we were taking turns using the kitchen at a local homeless shelter.
Then there’s another asylum-seeker aid group called Angry Tías and Abuelas [angry aunts and grandmas], which includes the head of the local PFLAG. So all us openly queer people have come together from Day One with various Catholic charity groups to take care of all these populations. It’s beautiful to see. That means fundraising, grocery shopping, cooking twice a day. On Mother’s Day, which is a big deal in Latin America, Team Brownsville brought over 1,000 cupcakes and cookies to the moms in the refugee camps.
Team Brownsville also pays for bus tickets to help asylum seekers get to family in the U.S. when they are released. And every Sunday, they do Escuelita de la Banqueta, “Sidewalk School.” They go across the bridge and separate the asylum kids by age and give them lessons, because otherwise they have no schooling whatsoever right now. As long as you have a U.S. passport, you can cross the bridge and help. We’ve seen people from all over the U.S. come here and help.
TM: And how would you say that COVID-19 is impacting all these efforts?
OL: It’s definitely caused them to be less visible. There are still volunteers consistently in Matamoros but overall less interaction between the asylum-seekers and the general population because of the fear of COVID. On the U.S. side of the border, almost nobody has been COVID-tested. On the other side, the NGO [non-governmental organization] Global Response Management has come in and set up small tents and have now tested all 3,000 people for COVID and found not one single positive result.
But they are finding HIV and measles, and they don’t have the meds to treat them. And this is also as people with HIV are being deported from the U.S. back to countries they hardly know. I got a message on Facebook from a young man who’d been recently deported back to Honduras, asking if I could help him find HIV meds. He grew up in the U.S. his whole life.
TM: In terms of the situation at the border, how do you think this is all going to end? In a perfect (or better) world (or administration), how would this be handled, especially given the current COVID crisis and the challenges it presents around people interacting at all?
OL: Let’s be frank—we’ve never lived under a perfect administration, and as much as many of us appreciated President Obama, folks often forget how many ICE raids were conducted under him and how many people were deported, including Dreamers, who had never known a country other than the United States.
Ideally, I would like to see whoever is in office next year work across party lines to ensure that Dreamers are protected regardless of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) decision pending before the Supreme Court. Well over 100,000 DACA recipients are frontline, essential workers. Ending DACA would likely result in significant economic, health, and societal harms, especially in the Southern part of the U.S.
Frankly, the only reason we are having an immigrant crisis on the border is because our current Commander in Chief wants to appeal to a small but very vocal and engaged base. Under President Trump, we have had children in cages, in some cases separated forever from their parents. We have infants appearing without a family member before judges. We have overcrowded, standing-room-only detention centers during a pandemic, where immigrants have not been provided with soap and water or masks—and neither have been the men or women who guard them.
Federal officials should immediately decrease the number of people held in detention centers. And elected officials should ensure a moratorium on ICE enforcement activities and local law enforcement immigration-related detentions and stops. Our refugees should be treated with dignity. They have every legal right to seek asylum.
TM: You’ve returned to HIV prevention work in the Rio Grande Valley 23 years after leaving. How does your current work compare to the work you did before? What is most challenging and most rewarding about it?
OL: I was born and raised in the borderland. The loss of my friends to AIDS when I was 19 is what drew me to this work in the first place. My desire to be closer to my immediate family, as my mom has gotten older, was as good a reason as any to leave New York City and head South.
The thing that hit me the hardest on Day One of starting work here was that I was no longer burying our clients and loved ones, as I once had. Instead, I was working for the only HIV organization in a region of 1.2 million people, 89% of whom are Latinx. I was overseeing a large team responsible for HIV/STI testing, harm reduction counseling, access to PrEP, linking new positives to treatment, and ensuring that the needs and the priorities of the Rio Grande Valley would now be part of a larger national movement.