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Puerto Rican Cultural Center hosts out gay Massachusetts councilors
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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The streets of the Paseo Boricua ( Puerto Rican Promenade ) in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago were possibly the most vibrant and jubilant in the city Sept. 3 as the 23rd annual Fiesta Boricua—described as "one of the Midwest's most important branded Latino festivals"—kicked off two days of music, dance, arts, crafts and cuisine.

Founded by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center of Chicago ( PRCC )—the largest, community-based Puerto Rican organization in the Midwest, for over twenty years Fiesta Boricua has become an integral part of the firmly established identity of the neighborhood.

Yet, this year, the festival featured two stark reminders of what happens when identity becomes a casualty of hatred.

Over half of the 49 courageous fallen in the June 12 Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre were Puerto Rican. The pictures of the 49 which led this year's Chicago Pride Parade were saved and installed on a Division Street wall in the heart of the Paseo Boricua.

On another wall at the corner of Campbell and Division, Puerto Rican artist Richard Santiago had begun work on a mural honoring their memories.

It was Humboldt Park and Fiesta Boricua's celebration of community that provided Holyoke Mass. City Councilor Nelson Roman with his first experience of Chicago.

Roman is a native of Connecticut who moved to Western Massachusetts following initial rejection by his family when he came out. He spent two years homeless while infected with HIV/AIDS. Roman prevailed, eventually becoming a homeless case manager and community organizer.

Inspired by Holyoke's first openly gay mayor Alex Morse, along with lesbian and Puerto Rican city councilor Jossie Valentin ( now in her second term after her 2013 election as the first lesbian ever to hold that office ), Roman decided to run himself.

Today, he and Valentin are the only openly gay members of the Holyoke City Council.

Both were in Chicago due to the PRCC's national work around the fiscal crisis currently faced by Puerto Rico. PRCC representatives from met Roman in Massachusetts and invited him to visit the city as part of a delegation.

Activist and PRCC board member Roberto Sanabria hosted a Sept. 3 reception at his beautiful apartment overlooking the Paseo Boricua to welcome Roman and Valentin.

"I am overwhelmed with joy and excitement," Roman told Windy City Times. "Especially coming here to the Paseo Boricua and seeing the Orlando vigil wall or the Pride as well as the Puerto Rican flags. I haven't even gone to the downtown area. This is Chicago and it has been an amazing experience."

"The city of Holyoke has about 40,000 residents and about 49 percent of them are Latino," Valentin said. "But, when you look at the political representation, there's 15 city councilors and only four of us are Latino. For me, running was part of the phrase 'if you're not at the table, you are on the menu'. As a woman, as a Latina and as a lesbian, I felt like it was important that I run with all of those identities at the forefront."

"This is the first time in its history that Holyoke has two Latino, openly LGBT elected who are social justice oriented," she added. "Both of us our similar in the narrative we are trying to frame. For example, it took a very long time for elected officials to start talking about the importance of the Black Lives Matter ( BLM ) movement. In 2014, I decided to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest in Holyoke. To this day, I get a lot of criticism for doing that but, for me, it was a no-brainer. We're here to talk about oppression and how to change things."

"The way I feel that we govern and participate in government is in an activist's role," Roman said. "Holyoke has the number one hormone treatment facility and medical center for transgender individuals. Programs like Needle Exchange are something that Jossie and I believe in and fight for. We support an LGBT youth group in Holyoke. It is a very proactive approach to a lot of the issues that we are facing."

Valentin recently put forward a resolution opposing North Carolina's anti-transgender legislation while asserting that Holyoke stands against such oppression. Roman noted that, this year, Holyoke will host its first World AIDS Day activities including a vigil.

"Some of our colleagues didn't get Jossie's resolution," he said. "But we rallied them. When it comes to human or civil rights you have to be fearless and not worry about whether you are going to win reelection or not."

Yet the outcome of the November 7 general election does concern them both.

"It's increasingly critical not just at the top of the ticket, but at even local board levels," Roman said. "Outside the island of Puerto Rico, there's 5.5 million of us living in the U.S. and 3.5 million on the island. Wherever our diaspora is, we have an opportunity to sway this election. If we don't, it will embolden racist, homophobic and transphobic individuals to pass laws to restrict our rights and take us back to a time where we have to live in fear of being who we are."

For more information about the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, visit: .

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