At the top of a narrow flight of stairs tucked amidst a busy line of restaurants and shops on West 26th Street in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood is one of two headquarters of Project VIDA. Visitors will immediately find the kind of welcome from staff and volunteers that is akin to that of a returning relative and the intoxicating smell of food cooking from a kitchen in the rear of the building. It is a modest space but packed, from wall to wall, with a wealth of information on everything from HIV/AIDS awareness to immigration issues.
Project VIDA was founded in 1992 in order "to address the unique needs and concerns of Latino and African American individuals at risk for or currently living with HIV/AIDS." Volunteers stood in a hardware store, distributing free condoms to the residents of Little Village. The organization has further enhanced its mission to "improve quality of life and reduce health disparities in underserved communities by promoting self-empowerment and providing holistic health education and direct services."
Every Tuesday evening, the offices resonate with the vibrant energy of the neighborhood's LGBTQ youth. Differences in race, gender, sexual orientation or gender preference do not seem to exist here. The kids introduce themselves by sharing their names, preferred gender pronoun and personal inspiration. Sitting side-by-side in a comfortable, vividly-decorated meeting room, they are participants in the Committed, Responsible, United ( CRU ) program. It has been running for over ten years and offers a safe and encouraging environment where kids can discuss everything from sexual health to relationships, coming out, and HIV/AIDS prevention. They have cooking sessions together, movie nights and even scavenger hunts around the neighborhood.
On April 29, they gathered to talk with a longtime veteran in the field of human services who is also one of the most tireless and celebrated advocates for LGBTQ Latinos and Latinas: Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame member Julio Rodriguez. "I don't have a preferred pronoun," Rodriguez told his audience. "And that's been an evolution, being comfortable being called 'girl' when my immediate reaction to that was always fear when I was your ages. So it's good for me to own it and to own the woman I am becausewhether we want to admit it or notthere's a woman in all of us."
Antonio Elizondo, the program coordinator for CRU, said, "I want to shine a light on youth needs and make sure we address them and be on the same page. Tonight, I thought we could look at the work Julio has done with immigration. If you are undocumented, it's tough to know which health services you can access, what identification you need and who you can talk to that you can trust."
Rodriguez told the group with the candid and intimate story of his life growing up in the once Puerto Rican neighborhood that became Boystown and, in particular, his relationship with the woman who still inspires him today: his late mother. He said that he came out twice; the first time as gay and the second as a Puerto Rican. The latter occurred in his childhood classroom. His teacher had no idea what a Puerto Rican was. "She said 'Until we figure out what you are, I'm going to call you John,'" Rodriguez recalled. "That was the first time I realized that my coming out was not good for me or the people around me because it made them uncomfortable."
By the time he was 9, Rodriguez was calling himself Peter. "I told my parents thatin order for me to succeed in this countrythey could never come to school," he said. "So every major milestone in my life, none of my parents ever came to."
His mother's deteriorating mental health forced Rodriguez into homelessness, and he had to learn how to navigate the toughest circumstances life in the United States could dole out. "When you're somebody who comes from a different country or a different culture, in this country the first thing you learn is you'd better find a way to survive," he said. "My worst abusers were guys who were gay who were afraid they were going to be found out."
In the mid 1970safter a violent incident between his mother and the landlordhe spent two days on Lakeview's streets. "It was a pretty rough community," he recalled. "A lot of gang activity, but a very strong trans community. Actually more visible then than today. Much more connected and much more protective. They were my allies. It was them who kept me from becoming a victim of the sex trade."
At an early age, Rodriguez learned how to become his family's case manager. He applied for food stamps and cash assistance. "I learned how to work the system," he said. "If you don't have the language and you don't know how to work the system, the system sees you as invisible. One of the things I learned early on was to be an advocate. It was in many ways my salvation."
Rodriguez encouraged his young audience to become good case managers themselves by learning as much as possible about immigration issues. "In the United States, knowledge is power," he said. "The more you know, the more valuable you become, the more you can challenge people and say 'you can't do that.' Every one of us in this room has the power to help people learn something that they don't already know and the power to use that knowledge to get what they need."