psa. if we’re mutuals, we’re automatically friends. u don’t need to say things like “sorry to bother” or “sorry im annoying” bc ur not. ur my friend. u can come to me for anything. u need help? im here. wanna chat? hmu. just wanna gush abt your muse? go for it. we’re friends. ily.
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It is sorrow-heavy to count our losses and remember those who were ripped from us—in our collective memory—but we must not let their names go unspoken, because the defeat of memory through oppression and erasure will not encumber us. We shout their names, because they are beautiful, Black and their very existence: magical.
tamika michelle washington
written by: abdul-aliy muhammad
blessed are those who mother the children the world left alone to mind themselves. blessed are the queens who build a queendom for these children to survive and thrive. pepper labeija was both mother and queen and on this #mothersday weekend, we speak her name.
born on november 5, 1948 in the bronx, new york, pepper became the mother of the house of labeija (pronounced la-BAY-zha) in the 1982 after the founding mother, crystal labeija died.
under pepper’s leadership, the house continued to pave the way both drag and ballroom culture. the family structure that has long been the foundation of black and brown ballroom houses was created by the house of labeija and pepper played an integral part of this.
pepper and the house of labeija rose to mainstream prominence when they were featured in the 1990 documentary film, “paris is burning.”
pepper spent most of her life providing refuge for black and brown trans and queer young people during and after the height of the aids and crack epidemic. like many of the house mothers of her time, pepper helped to cultivate a space where black queer and trans people could live out their fantasies and those fantasies included a universe without homophobia, transphobia and racism.
on may 14, 2003, mother pepper labeija became an elder when she died of a heart attack at the age of 54.
in a new york times tribute printed on may 26, 2003, douglas martin wrote, “pepper was the last of the four great queens of modern harlem balls; angie xtravaganza, dorian corey and avis pendavis all died in recent years. these four exuded a sort of wild expressionism that might make las vegas girls seem tame.”
happy mother’s day, pepper! thank you for all of the new earths you helped to create when ours was burning down.
on may 6, 1989, puerto rican freestyle/pop singer, safire, peaked at #12 on the hot 100 and #4 on the AC chart with the ballad, “thinking of you.”
born wilma cosmé in san juan puerto rico and raised in east harlem, safire was one of the first freestyle solo artist to land a deal with a major record label after her first two independently released singles, “don’t break my heart” (1986) and “let me be the one” (1987). both singles helped to break freestyle music, then called “latin hip-hop” at pop radio in new york, chicago, los angeles and miami.
in the summer of 1988, safire released her self-titled debut album on polygram records. the lead single, “boy, i’ve been told,” penned by marc anthony, peaked at #48 on the hot 100 (an accomplishment for a dance song at the time) helped safire land the cover of the spin magazine, becoming the first latina artist to do so.
the follow-up single, “thinking of you”, would become her biggest hit to date across multiple formats. written by safire in memory of her uncle mario santiago who died of AIDS complications in 1984, “thinking” was a heartfelt remembrance of those lost during the onset of the epidemic.
the spanish translation of the song, “el recuerdo de ti”, translated by actor-singer ruben blades, was featured in a AIDS awareness public service announcement that aired on spanish language markets in both the US and across latin america.
in 1989, the number of U.S. reported AIDS cases reached 100,000. safire’s breakthrough hit also served as a breakthrough in HIV prevention messaging targeting latinxs during a period when targeted prevention messages were non-existent.
safire later received an ASCAP song writing award for “thinking.” she continued to record and perform but was not able to duplicate the success of “thinking.” 30 years later, we are still filled with gratitude that she used her platform to raise awareness about HIV. and because of her, her uncle mario santiago will never be forgotten.
Since last August, we have been working hard to make this Gran Varones Fellowship happen. When we launched Gran Varones on this date exactly five years ago, it has been our commitment to build power at the community level. It was this very commitment that inspired us to launch the Gran Varones Positive Digital Arts Fellowship.
Gran Varones was awarded a grant (our very first!) from ViiV Healthcare to launch a year-long (March 2019 – January 2020) national fellowship to develop the leadership of a cohort of six HIV positive Latinx Gay, Queer, Trans and Bisexual Men ages 21-35. This cohort of creatives will be supported with resources to combat HIV stigma and promote family acceptance in Latinx communities through digital storytelling, community building and cultural organizing.
Through an online application process, we received responses from brilliant applicants from all over the country. Narrowing the list down to six people was almost impossible. In fact, we were originally budgeted to select five fellows but decided on six because, well, why not?
We selected six brilliant creatives from just as many cities. We prioritized creatives who are new to the digital organizing and/or storytelling space. And after sharing time and space with them during our first of two convenings a few weeks ago, we are excited about all of the magic that they will be creating as individuals and as a cohort.
In addition to creating content for GV, each fellow will organize a community-based event. This will expand our commitment of building power through storytelling by making it even more accessible. These six fellows are going to create a new earth!
Here are the six Gran Varones Positive Digital Arts Fellowship:
Carlos Moreno (He/They) Los Angeles, CA
A Gemini in his 28th year of existence, Carlos is a proud Chicanx living his truth as an HIV Positive Queer person from Tucson, Arizona. A product of migration, this first generation being strives to make a helpful and lasting impact on the HIV/AIDS community, both globally and locally. He has stood alongside others in the fight against HIV/AIDS in prevention and as well as in care. Unscathed by stigma, He has navigated the last ten years of his life by reclaiming any animosity he’s faced and turned it into a therapeutic artistic expressions. A natural introvert himself, Carlos has struck chords with folks using simple imaging and messaging, leaving faces shocked, surprised, amused, or not in agreement, but definitely began a conversation. Carlos wants nothing more than for other Poz folk to join in on this ARTivism movement, share their experiences and connect with others so that we don’t all feel alone, especially Queer and Trans people of Color. It has been a dream of his to see there be space for distributing such products at events where other LGBTQ/Hetero/ HIV/AIDS information is being accessed. Carlos believes that it is important that people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS have access to the same empowering messages the HIV Negative and prevention communities do, that they are equally represented with pride and equity. Without a real push for some financial assistance, these items may only be limited to the creator and not have the opportunity to help inspire other Poz communities to flourish.
José A. Romero (He/They) Durham, NC
is an abolitionist organizer, immigrant defense strategist, and Poz Poet living in Durham, NC. The first in their bio-family born in the “US”, José is the descendant of working-class immigrants from Morazán, El Salvador and Michoacán, Mexico. Born in Washington State and raised between there and Michoacán, José’s political awakening arose while witnessing kindred femmes undo misogyny and while learning English to confront the borders their family endures. José moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania where they were active in movements to confront anti-blackness/homophobia. In Durham they use their research background and direct-action experience to honor past, present, and future radical ancestors. Inspired by apocalypse and alchemy, José’s abolitionist organizing for black/brown flourishing includes work with Durham Beyond Policing, Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, and various immigrant/queer/trans defenders. They have worked on anti-deportation/sanctuary cases across NC and are a proud member of Southerner’s on New Ground working to end money bail, abolish ICE, and pleasurably undo anti-blackness in Latinx communities. José is currently Directing the first Latinx Southern Regional Health conference for the National Latino Commission on AIDS. They’re working on two collections of poetry titled ICEBREAKERSand POZITIVE. They are the host of an open mic series and queer friendship/dating party collectively called MELT. They make their money working at a queer punk bar, as an interpreter, and as a consultant. You can find/book them at @PupusaPapi_27 on Instagram and @RomeroFlux on Twitter. José dreams of curating an Arabic/Mandarin/Spanish exhibit/mixtape as well as opening and inviting y’all to a mobile Freedom School dedicated to astrobiology, pupusas, synesthesia, and uprising.
J. Aces Lira (He/Him/His) Chicago, IL
Aces Lira is an MSW/MA graduate student in Women Studies and Gender Studies at Loyola University Chicago. As a Research Assistant, he is based in the US Regional Network within the International Partnership for Queer Youth Resilience (INQYR) and is getting a foot in the door on all things research-related. Outside of the books, Aces orchestrates portraits along with art through different mediums and also lives for National Park excursions.
Marci Garcia (He/Him/His) Brownsville, TX
Sometimes life feels just like one of those theatrical plays or big screen movies; a bunch of dialogue, drama, adventure, tragedy and tears, and a lot of laughter and happy moments as well, all combined. My movie opens in Mexico, born and raised until the age of 10. I was a lucky boy that grew up in a very loving family; abuelos, tios, primos and my beautiful parents and brother always by my side. Still, I was a lonely kid. A kid that knew he was different and had a very a hard time fitting in, all the way through high school and college years. Never an obstacle to aspire to go out in the world and follow my dreams though. Today, I feel I am blessed and thankful to life for being different. I didn’t choose to be who I am, I just got lucky. Throughout my professional career I have wanted to find the place where I know I am not only getting a paycheck but also making a positive difference somehow. Again, through life’s unique way of arranging things I believe I have found that. I am currently part of an extraordinary non-profit organization whose goal is to provide sexual education, HIV prevention and wellness services to the community of South Texas. Being here truly inspires me to become more involved, gain knowledge and to help out combat the HIV stigma that is still out there. I know because I see it, I hear it, I live it. I believe I am working for this agency for a reason. I believe I am ready to accept and say who I am, what I am and what I aspire to become.
Dimetri O’Brien (He/Him/His) Washington, DC
Strategic, multidisciplinary designer & social media coordinator with a spirit for service & innovation born in Port of Spain Trinidad with roots in Jackson, MS . Dimetri has worked with a multitude of clients on projects ranging from graphic design to consultation & management and although his skill set is vast, his greatest expertise revolves in the worlds of programming for YMSM ages 18-29, social media, brand identity design, content creation and print collateral. Dimetri currently serves as a communications assistant in Washington, DC managing communications and branding for a national non-profit agency. His graphic design portfolio can be viewed at “dimmydoesit.com”
Raúl Xavier Ramos (He/Him/His/They/Them/Theirs) Brooklyn, NY
Raúl is a 26-year-old Boriqueer social justice organizer based out of Brooklyn, New York. Using graphic design and performance art as forms of accessible political education , Raúl is dedicated to the liberation of all queer and Gender Non-conforming people of color, persons with disabilities, and those that experience realities in ways the culture would call “mentally ill.” Healing justice is at the center of Raúl’s work, having become Poz at the turning point of his adult life. He is unapologetic in how he loves and in the ways he fights for justice.
I have the greatest support system with me being gay. My father accepts me throughout anything I do in my life. My mom passed away but when she was alive, she was down with anything I did. It’s really great being in a family that supports me. I never really had nobody put me down in my family.
interviewed by: anthony leon
photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca
our hearts are heavy. just received the rebuke stating news that brayan has passed. i met brayan two years ago after he reached out expressing interest in sharing his story with the project. he drove over an hour to los angeles to meet with me. i am so grateful we shared time & space. the universe now exists without one of the sweetest and most gentle humans i have ever met.
brayan alain pena rodriguez, we speak your name.