Nestled between Downtown and East Los Angeles, the small working class neighborhood of Boyle Heights is bustling with Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Full of businesses advertising in Spanish, it’s where you can find some of the best pan dulce in town, and it’s also home to Mariachi Plaza, a gathering spot where musicians wait for gigs in their traditional mariachi garb.
But although the community is in many ways the heart of Latino Los Angeles, not all Latino residents feel completely comfortable there. Boyle Heights, like other Latino neighborhoods that are rooted in traditional cultural values, lacks safe spaces for its LGBT members, community leaders say. And even though the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage has begun to make homosexuality less taboo in some areas, LGBT Latinos still face challenges revealing their identities when traditional views of gender or sexuality and machismo exist in their communities.
The LA LGBT Center and the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA) want to change that. The organizations have teamed up to create a resource center in Boyle Heights that will bring more LGBT awareness and resources to the community, in a language and culture they understand.
“Service needs in the Latino LGBT communities of Los Angeles are enormous,” said Mercedes Marquez, board member for both organizations, in a press statement. “The Center and LEA are committed to working together and with other Latino and LGBT service-providing organizations to both deepen services and provide an LGBT space in Boyle Heights dedicated to dialogue and the celebration of Latino LGBT life and culture.”
Services at the center will be bilingual and will include legal services, transgender support services, youth and senior programming and family counseling. The center also hopes to bring new services like mental help for young people, who often experience bullying, and legal help with immigration and housing.
According to state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), as reported in the LA Times, Mi Centro will be “a little piece of heaven on the Eastside for us to be able to be who we are.” It will be a game changer for those who previously had to make a trip all the way to Hollywood, where the LA LGBT Center is located, in order to access these types of resources. “Geographically, LA is so big and even if you drive, even if you have a car and have the time to drive, it’s a two hour drive to Hollywood and back,” said LEA co-founder Ari Gutierrez Arambula.
Now, community members will have access to LGBT services within minutes. The center will act as a complement to the existing LGBT organizations on the east side, which focus much of their work around HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, said Gutierrez Arambula.
Mi Centro will also focus on creating new programming to connect the community’s different generations. For example, Gutierrez Arambula said the center plans to make an altar for Día de Muertos honoring transgender individuals who have been murdered. This, Gutierrez Arambula hopes, will engage both parents and students, two groups they want to heavily reach out to, through a common link: their culture.
The center also seeks to change some of the ideas that currently exist about the LGBT community among straight people. Particularly, it will work with immigrant community members, especially those with children who identify as LGBT, who may not have had a lot of exposure to LGBT issues in their home countries. “They emigrate with the attitudes and knowledge from their home town and if there is limited access to information about LGBT people or facts about HIV… they emigrate those attitudes with them,” Gutierrez Arambula said. “but [that] does not mean that they cannot learn.”
Mi Centro is inside a renovated warehouse and located at 553 S. Clarence St., Los Angeles.
“We’re here, we’re not going away,” Gutierrez Arambula said. “We’re part of the roots of the community and we’re part of the community so we want to be here for the long run.”