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Louie: Thank you for coming to Philly to meet with me. I really appreciate it. I had wanted to ask you for a while to interview for the project but was afraid.
Peter: Why? I love the project. I am glad to do this. I have so many stories.
Louie: Let’s...

Louie: Thank you for coming to Philly to meet with me. I really appreciate it. I had wanted to ask you for a while to interview for the project but was afraid.

Peter: Why? I love the project. I am glad to do this. I have so many stories.

Louie: Let’s start with you. Tell me a little about yourself.

Peter: I’m from New York originally. I grew up partly in Glen Clove, Long Island and Delaware. I went to high school in Delaware. I came out…no I didn’t come out, my mother pulled me “out.” A cousin of mine moved from Puerto Rico to North Philly. He passed away, his name was Alfredo. Alfredo was a big queen. I always knew he was a big queen, ya know just “under cover.” Well honey, he got drunk one night and came home to my cousin’s house and was telling my cousin he met these guys and blah, blah, blah. Well they told my stepdad. So my mom told me and I am laughing because I thought it was funny. Mommy goes, she says to me in Spanish, “Don’t laugh about his situation because you into that sort of lifestyle too.” I was 18 at the time and I said “Oh. Well this is my signal to come out.” So eventually I left high school and I came out. I was like “Fuck It. I am not going to be “straight.” I’m not going to pretend.” Because I was pretending. The whole time, I dated girls and that stuff. I did that more for my stepdad than my mom because of that whole machismo thing. So I came out. I said, “My mother knows so I am cool.” Mommy goes “You don’t think I knew? I knew ever since you were little. I was just waiting for you to tell me.” So I don’t have a traditional “coming out” story. I didn’t tell my mom, she told me.

Louie: So what originally brought you to Philly?

Peter: I met this guy who had the same name as the singer Bobby Brown. He was this black dude who lived in North Philly. We met at Smarts* and we started communicating on the phone, ya know it was 80s. he “supposedly” loved me and I “loved” him so I moved to Philly. I didn’t even give my notice. I up and left, I disappeared. My mother didn’t even know where I was for a whole month ‘cuz I was in love. I was 21 at the time and just started going to the clubs.

Louie: Were there other gay Latinos?

Peter: It was me and miss David. Then I met a few other ones. I met Alexis, Pedro, he had long hair and liked to vogue. I met all those Puerto Ricans. But there was a divide because I hung around a whole bunch of black kids. They (the Latino queens) didn’t like because they thought I was trying to be “black.” I was just being me. I got along with everybody but they were ones trying to throw me shade. It was hard at first because you want to be around other Puerto Ricans that were gay and you want to be included in that community because they are not many of us began of the struggle we have amongst ourselves as Latinos.

Louie: How did you get involved in the Ballroom scene?

Peter: The balls, I was introduced to in 1988. I saw people Voguing and carrying on and I didn’t know what it was. And I was like “I wanna do that!” I started learning it by going to the Nile*. It was interesting and I caught on real quick. My first House was the House of Prestige. I was the only Puerto Rican in that House. My category was hair affair and old way. The ballroom was picking up here in Philly. Later I joined the House of Africa. Tracy Africa’s house opened a chapter here in Philly. I did Butch Queen Up In Drags for their House.

Louie: So you are in Delaware now. Why did you move back there and what is gay life out there?

Peter: talk about the gays in Delaware. Let’s talk about the Latino gays in Delaware. There’s hardly none. And the few there that they have are whack. It’s truthful. Then they have the nerve to give you shade and I’m like “Gurl, we should stick together.” Gay life in Delaware is very limited. Philly gay life is “OK” now but Philly back in the day was fun. There was a golden era up to ’94. They have all these new clubs but they are geared to the white gays. They don’t gear to us. Even New York has changed. Nothing’s the same.

Peter DaVilla-Montes, Delaware

Interviewed & Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

*Smarts & The Nile were gay night clubs in Philadelphia that had a large black following. Both clubs were closed by the mid-90’s.

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on saturday, june 11th, we screened this short compilation of gran varones stories at the philadelphia latino film festival. our goal was to highlight the specific stories of varones living in philadelphia.

we then had planned on posting this edit the following day but all of our lives changed on june 12th. since then, we have worked hard to ensure that our stories are told and heard. our goal is to continue to create and post gran varones stories from all over the country. until then, check out our humble mini-doc.

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Anthony: Are you from Orlando?
Alejandro: I grew up like, I jumped from place to place. I was born in Mayagüez (Puerto Rico) then I moved over here. I was raised a lot between here and Altamonte Springs and here (Orlando.) Then I moved to Philly,...

Anthony: Are you from Orlando? 

Alejandro: I grew up like, I jumped from place to place. I was born in Mayagüez (Puerto Rico) then I moved over here. I was raised a lot between here and Altamonte Springs and here (Orlando.) Then I moved to Philly, Jersey, New York – shit like that. I just bounced around a lot. My mom considers herself a gypsy. So she never wanted to stay in one place. 

Anthony: Do you have any siblings? 

Alejandro: I have my older sister from my mom and then I had my two adopted brothers; their my primos and hermanos. They live with their father now. My sister is grown and I am the only one still with my mom. 

Anthony: How long have you been dancing at Parliament House? 

Alejandro: For like four months. I like it a lot. I like the atmosphere. It’s always turned up. Even if it’s dead there is always a few people here. It’s not as crazy as it used to be. I like Parliament house now it’s more calm its not a lot of people trying to fight and shit. 

Anthony: Which room is the best room to dance in? 

Alejandro: The best money is made in the middle room because that is where everyone is going in and out but I switch rooms. I like to dance to different kinds of music. Whenever it’s Latino night, I like being on my side because of the salsa and merengue. Anthony: How has the environment been here after Pulse? Alejandro: A lot people are scared to come out now and it sucks because when you let people like that change the way you love your life freely, they win. We as a people, we have to look out for each other. We all need to stop doing the bochinche, stop trying to be on some bullshit and some drama. We all need to stand together as a people especially everything we have been through growing up. Everyone is against us so why not stand together? 

Anthony: What is a lesson you have learned that you want other varones to know? 

Alejandro: Sometimes you may go through when you’re younger but don’t never let that change you. When I was growing up, I used to get jumped like five times a day. And I used to go home crying, “Mommy, I don’t understand why these people are going against me.” And now I understand that a lot of was – it wasn’t just because I was gay – it was the fact that I wasn’t proud of who I am You need to be proud of who you are and love yourself before you can expect anyone to accept you for who you are. At the end of the day, don’t no one’s opinion matters except the one above – and he doesn’t even judge me, he blesses me everyday. You could have as much faith as you want but work comes with it. I just cant sit here and pray to him every day and hope that he takes care of me, yes, you could put everything in his hands but you gotta work for what you want. 

Anthony: When did you learn this lesson? 

Alejandro: After my car accident, I was tired. It was in 2012, I was crossing the street and there was person trying to beat the red light and he ran me and friend over. I spent three months in the hospital. I didn’t have health insurance so I couldn’t go to physical therapy but I taught myself how to walk again. I forced myself to prove them wrong. They said that I was never gonna walk and look at me now – I’m shaking my ass for money. 

Alejandro, Orlando 

Interviewed by: Anthony Leon 

Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

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Anthony: Where in Philly did you grow up?
Angel: I grew up all over the place. Originally I grew up in the Fairmount section. But then around 9 years old, my mom moved to the Northeast. So we lived near the Franklin mills mall for a while. Then I...

Anthony: Where in Philly did you grow up?

Angel: I grew up all over the place. Originally I grew up in the Fairmount section. But then around 9 years old, my mom moved to the Northeast. So we lived near the Franklin mills mall for a while. Then I lived in Orlando for three years between ‘04 and ‘07. Then in ‘07 I moved back to Philadelphia on my own because I kinda like hated it here. Things just weren’t working out for me. When I moved back to Philly, that is when I felt like I became an adult. I was on my own. I was doing my own thing. I finally got my own place. I felt independent. Philly is where I actually came “out”. Because for a while I was hiding who I was. I was ashamed, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to be the way I am. Especially growing up in a church setting. So for a while I hated myself. I was just very depressed. But finally I decided to start accepting myself, when I finally realized that I am not going to change…that’s when I became my own person. That’s how I became who I am today. Yes, Philadelphia is home but it also has a special place in my heart because the community accepted me for who I am. I never felt that kind of acceptance before. So, yes Philadelphia isn’t perfect. There are issues within the community but at the same time, I am grateful for the people whom I met and the experiences that I had there because it’s molded me into what I have become today. So hopefully I am not terrible person. [LoL]

Anthony: How do you like here in Orlando the second time around?

Angel: Second time around, not so bad. I came to this city feeling very optimistic about the possibilities. I have a new attitude about what to expect when coming to Orlando. Because my first experience in Orlando wasn’t great, which is why I left. But I am a different person than I was in 2007. When I lived here I wasn’t “out”. I worked. I went home. I would play videos games and that was pretty much my life. So coming here this time around, I started off by making friends. There was one friend who I stayed in communication with, Jeff, who was with me that night at Pulse. So I reached out to him and we kinda picked up where things left off. So he showed me around downtown, took me to some clubs and introduced me to some of his friends. I was determined to enjoy the experience of living in Orlando this time around. I like Orlando. Even with everything that has happened. I like Orlando.

Anthony: I recently had a working lunch with someone from Melbourne, Australia and they showed me pictures of a massive vigil they had for Pulse. There were like 200,000 people there. How does that feel to get that kind of support from the world?

Angel: It’s amazing. On Facebook and Instagram, I have received messages from people from all over. People from Spain, Dubai, Australia, New Zealand, so it’s just incredible the amount of support that I have seen from around the world. Of course, within the United States, I have received messages from people from everywhere; the Midwest, the west coast, from home. You know, it’s been amazing. I’m hoping that with all the attention this event has caused, hopefully people will start to think about their actions, think about what is it that they say against the community, think about how they treat people within our community. Now people understand that we more visual now, people are more aware but it doesn’t change he fact that there are people who hate us for who we are and like that night, want to attack us for being who we are. So I am hopeful that with all the support out there will result in positive change.

Anthony: Do you regret moving to Orlando?

Angel: Believe it or not, no. Even after what happened, I don’t regret moving to Orlando. I am not one of those to say “Everything happens for a reason.” Because I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I do believe that some things happen for a reason. What happened at Pulse, I don’t necessarily think there was any good reason for that to happen, I really don’t. But the fact is that it did happen and as result, I am different person today than who I was on June 11th. So I have to try to make the best of my life going forward.

Angel Santiago Jr., Orlando

Interviewed by: Anthony Leon

Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

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It is my experience for many reasons to shut trauma out of my life. On June 12th, 49 people were murdered at Pulse Nightclub’s Latin Night, becoming America’s largest mass shooting in history. Many of the victims were Latino and gay. What had been a safe space was invaded and attacked. Many of the victims were Puerto Rican. They looked like me and my friend Vince. Naturally, I became angry and afraid. As I usually do, I subconsciously blocked those feelings and many more out of my mind. Shortly after, my best friend Louie said “let’s take a Gran Varón trip to Orlando.” I was hesitant yet ready.

We arrived on July 27th (day after my birthday). Over a period of three days we met up with several Varones that are part of the Orlando community. When asking questions for our interviews, I was present yet emotionally detached. Their stories of bravery, resiliency, and recovery were inspiring. Each story weighed heavily on me and yet I still couldn’t connect.

                                                                         Anthony interviewing Angel

That changed on our fourth day of the trip. The morning of July 30th we traveled to Kissimmee, Florida to meet up with Jorge. Louie had met Jorge online and shared with him that we were in the area capturing and archiving stories of Latino Gay men so that our narratives (as told by us) can be shared forever.  Jorge, who had been disconnected from the world, said that he indeed had a story and was ready to open up. We picked him up and what was originally supposed to be lunch turned into 24 hours. Because of our interview schedule we had to quickly leave Kissimmee after lunch and travel to Orlando to do a few interviews. We always meet people where there are at and on their time. We keep to it. Jorge was down to tag along.

                                                                             Anthony interview Miguel

Jorge watched as we met up with two different Varones and gathered their interviews. He kept silent but you could tell he was processing the stories being told. After our second interview that day, I invited him to come back to our place for dinner. Again, he was down. We traveled the 30 minutes it took to get to a supermarket near the place we were staying. In that time, Louie separated with another to chat with another Varón in his car and I was with Jorge and Sean in our rental. We laughed from the heart as we told jokes, we shared the music that gets us through our roughest times (Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”), and told each other stories of our families. I felt a developing connection with him, one that wasn’t connected to tragedy.

                                                                              Anthony interviewing Chris

After dinner, it was time to interview Jorge. He shared details of his background and of how he came to accept his identity. I then asked why he agreed to give up a Saturday and tag along with strangers trekking across Central Florida. That’s when he shared that he was with us because the universe kept him from going to his friend’s birthday party at Pulse that night. One of his friends, Rodolfo, did go to the party. Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33, was one of the 49 victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. In that moment, I knew the story that would follow and I felt myself detaching. Jorge wouldn’t allow me to do that. He shared a joke to make me laugh and continued to share his friend’s story with courage I’ve never seen.

                                                                          Anthony interviewing Franqui

I was trying to hold space for him to share his story and instead he was holding space for me. His courage, his kindness, and his smile kept me present and in touch. Because of Jorge and the others we met in Florida, I was able to begin wrapping myself around the pain I’ve felt these last few months. The news won’t report on the strength of the survivors and those impacted. But all throughout the Orlando area, we met brave people that were pushing forward.

It tears at my mind and my heart that Jorge and I almost didn’t meet. The world tries every day to pin Latino Gay and Queer men from each other when it is through our love that we grow and thrive.

I am forever grateful for meeting Jorge and the other Varones.

- Anthony Leon

           Anthony & Jorge taking a selfie when they should have been eating

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Anthony: So you spent the day with us as we interviewed a few varones so you know that we start with your name and a little about your self.
Jorge: My name is Jorge Andujar. My family is originally from Puerto Rico but I was born and raised in...

Anthony: So you spent the day with us as we interviewed a few varones so you know that we start with your name and a little about your self.

Jorge: My name is Jorge Andujar. My family is originally from Puerto Rico but I was born and raised in Buffalo New York and I currently live in Kissimmee, Florida. It’s south of Orlando and I have lived here for almost 2 years.

I came out when I was 19. At the time I was working in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and I was working for a Norwegian cruise line. I was seeing someone at the time. I was in love. It was, as you can say, my first relationship and I wanted to stay and didn’t want to come back home. I think drinking, being in that state of mind, being young and so in love made me get the courage to let my family know that I was gay. But they always knew. They accepted it. They were just waiting for me to come forward. The baggage was unnecessary for me to carry but I carried because I was afraid of being rejected. That’s why I took the job on the cruise line. I went far away as possible so I wouldn’t feel rejected. But that wasn’t the case because I wasn’t rejected. They welcomed me with open arms.
I feel not everyone can say that. I have heard stories of people whose families have not been open with them. One of my good friends who was killed in the Pulse attack, his family was not very welcoming at all. So I can see how so many people feel alone when it comes to coming out. I have to say that I have been very blessed in that aspect. I am not afraid anymore.

Anthony: Tell us about Pulse.

Jorge: I have been to Pulse many times. People weren’t afraid to go to Pulse. Pulse was not known as a dangerous place at all. Pulse was very inviting, had different environments. You didn’t have to watch the drag show if you didn’t want to even though their drag shows were very entertaining. There was an “urban” room as some would call it where they would play Hip-Hop & R&B type of music. You would have the Latino side and the English and then there was patio where there was another bar. It was just a variety. People went there to be themselves. People didn’t go there to start “stuff.” This was a place where a lot of people went to seek comfort. It was the only place besides the other gay bars where people went to be themselves without worrying about who’s watching and who you’re hiding from. Right now, people are going through not being accepted by their loved ones or by the community so this was a place to be yourself and dance all night. This is what brought people together every Saturday night, every Latin night.

Anthony: You mentioned your friend. Who was he?

Jorge: His name was Rodolfo and he was 33 years old. He was there celebrating a birthday that night and he was killed along with other friends. He was transferred to Puerto Rico. He was laid to rest in San Germán. He didn’t have family here. His friends here were his family. His family at home weren’t very accepting. Going back to the funeral – it’s kinda ironic because – most of the people were very old school and everyone was wearing t-shirts with his photo and a big rainbow going across. They didn’t realize that it was symbol of gay pride. They were talking about what happened and not being very accepting but yet they were wearing a rainbow on their shirt. It was a wake-up call like “people still don’t get it.”

Anthony: How are you holding up?

Jorge: I am at the point now where I am starting to open up to people, talk to people, start over and get to know people. I see people trying to come together as one and put their differences aside. Because this isn’t about who likes who, who doesn’t like who – this is about coming together as one. This is not about team white, team Black or team Latino – this is about team humanity.

Jorge Andujar, Orlando

Interviewed by: Anthony Leon
Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

Backstory: We met Jorge online and he invited us out for lunch. The connection was instant and he wound up tagging along as we drove around Orlando interviewing and meeting up with folks. He shared his story with us during the long ride and agreed to being interviewed on camera after witnessing the process for an entire day.

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so it has been a full week since we returned from our trip to Orlando. admittedly, we are still processing our experience but i will share some highlights.

during our time in Orlando we were able to forge a relationship with QLatinx. their hospitality not only provided healing but served as a foundation during our entire trip. many of the organizers hung out with us, invited us into their homes and into their lives. we were with familia during our entire time there and we are so grateful for our partnership.


one of the many highlights of our trip took place on Friday night. while dancing my ass off at Parliament House, i was introduced to franqui. even with the music blasting, we were able to engage in a conversation about our project. he stated that he once lived in philly and would be more than happy to share his story with us. so on Saturday afternoon, he invited us back to the club so we could interview and photograph him. chyle, when we walked up to the club, he was in a towel and said “yes, I am in towel and what!?” this when i knew his interview would be lit - and it was. his spirit was so welcoming and hsi attitude was so philly. he was yet another reminder of the resiliency and beauty that exists and continues to thrive in Orlando.


we interviewed a total of 8 varones while we were in Orlando. each and every story were both heartbreaking and inspiring. on our last night, we had an impromptu dinner at the house we were staying in. it was so last minute but each varòn pitched in to make it happen. the dinner provided an opportunity for varones to get to know each other and simply just be.

our work in not done. we will continue to work with Qlatinx and do whatever we can to be a part of the growing movement in Orlando. we will continue to share the stories of all varones who so courageously love, live and continue to dance after the pulse massacre.


thank you to chris, miguel, jean, edwin, angel, jorge, joel and franqui for sharing your stories with us. we are beyond humbled, moved and inspired.
thank you to joshua from target and made us feel at home by just being your beautiful femme self. we look forward to hanging out with you at length the next time we in Orlando.


thank you to everyone who donated and did all that they could to make our trip possible. we invite everyone, varones and allies to support latinx queer and trans initiatives in your perspective cities. many of us are doing this work with very little resources and support is needed. if you are not sure what initiatives are happening in your city, inbox us and we will try to support you in connecting with organizers.

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Louie: How long have you been into filming making?
Maarten: Well, let’s see. I think I started in 2010 - 2011 when I formed my independent company Purple Light Films. So not too long before I met you. Your “Start Rhyming, Stop AIDS” video campaign...

Louie: How long have you been into filming making?

Maarten: Well, let’s see. I think I started in 2010 - 2011 when I formed my independent company Purple Light Films. So not too long before I met you. Your “Start Rhyming, Stop AIDS” video campaign was the third project I had ever worked on.

Louie: Oh yeah, I forget that the first time we met in person was the day you filmed me - under a pissy bridge at that!

Maarten: Yup. You were spittin’ your poetry and I was like “Wow! So this is who Louie is.” Then the minute we finished, your ride was there and you were out. I was like “This is so Hollywood” [LOL]

Louie: Oh my gawd! Yes! I forgot about that. It was raining and I did not want to get wet. I also think I was rushing to catch a bus to Baltimore.

Maarten: Well, it was a great experience.

Louie: What got you into film making?

Maarten: I came to the states from Peru with my mother and my sister when I was 4 years old. I think the first film I saw was the “Rocky” film and it stuck out to me because it was shot in Philly. Then I saw “Philadelphia” being filmed in Philadelphia. I watched Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington at work. I remember standing in a crowd for 5 hours watching the filming of the scene where Tom Hanks is rolled out in a gurney. I was so fascinated by the cameras and the work it took to get the perfect shot. That’s when I knew I wanted to do film. When I watched the film after it was released, I was blown away that it was about a gay man. I had not known. It was the first time that I was exposed to that narrative. I knew of LGBTQ people growing up but I didn’t know them. “Philadelphia” was my first exposure.

Louie: Where in Philly did you grow up?

Maarten: Man, I was lucky enough to grow up at 6th and Tioga.

Louie: Yes, hunty! That is North Philly down!

Maarten: Yeah, I grew up with the bombas and bodegas! If I could do it all again, I would. I mean, I heard and seen a lot young eyes should not see, but it has kept me humbled, strong and street smart. I know that sounds cliche be it’s true.

Louie: I totally understand. Who did you live there with?

Maarten: My mother worked a lot when I was younger so I was raised my grand parents, specifically my grand mother. She taught me alot. When she talked, I listened. I miss her every freakin’ day of my life. Wish she could have been here during these last couple of years to ground me but I channel my thoughts and prayers into her memory and that provides me support.

Jose Maarten Oyala, Philadelphia

Interviewed & Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

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When you tell your story, you heal yourself and you heal others. As a story telling and legacy project, we not only believe this but this is the foundation of which we work from. Since the Pulse tragedy in Orlando, Florida, we have watched as the larger LGBTQ community and mainstream media erase the lives and stories of the Latinx and black queer people lost, many of whom were Latino gay men.

We were invited by the community to come to Orlando but need to raise $2,500 by July 18th to do what Gran Varones does best - document the lives and stories of Latino gay and queer men.

We know that erasure creates distance. We know that storytelling builds community and keeps memories alive. This is why we were invited to be in Orlando. Our model has always been to meet varones where they are. We will continue to honor that model and we will continue to provide a platform for Latino gay and queer men to be the narrators of our stories; our own legacy.

My best friend Anthony and I, both queer Latinos, in an effort to build the community that we had been longing for, created the Gran Varones Project in 2014. Through grassroots organizing we have been able to interview, photograph and share the stories of over 100 Latino gay and queer men. These stories have built bridges and created visibility. These stories that document our existence and challenge the notion that we are living in the shadows of shame.

We cannot do this without your support. We need $2,500 for travel and lodging, equipment, time off work and for the production of this project dedicated to Orlando and beyond.

A contribution of any amount ($5, $10, 20, 45, 100 or more) to help raise $2,500 will help us make sure the lives and stories of those no longer with us don’t vanish or are not told in their fullest.

We will keep all supporters updated on our journey to Orlando and back so you know what your contribution is helping make happen.

Gran Varones, while not a funded project, continues to be a project driven by the support of varones and allies who believe in our vision and community memebers who have so generously shared their stories and hearts with us.

Your support is greatly appriciated.


Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

Creator of The Gran Varones

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Louie: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today. I think this our first time ever chatting in person.
Jay: Is it?
Louie: Yes. I remember seeing you at Shampoo Night Club but we never really talked.
Jay: Oh I remember those days. Too bad they...

Louie: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today. I think this our first time ever chatting in person.

Jay: Is it?

Louie: Yes. I remember seeing you at Shampoo Night Club but we never really talked.

Jay: Oh I remember those days. Too bad they closed it, right?

Louie: Yes. I used to get my dance on in that damn velvet room. So where in Philly did you grow up?

Jay: I grew up in northern liberties neighborhood which back then it didn’t have that name.

Louie: Yes! I grew up around there too before all the Ricans were pushed out.

Jay: My upbringing was awesome I experienced how a Latino American can enjoy living in the early 80’s enjoying the culture and music both in Spanish and English. I was the oldest in my family and I wanted to become someone that didn’t exist in my family. I didn’t want to become another gay male Hispanic in the “system”, like some who come over to just live out of the government. My view of being in the United States was to fight and strive for opportunities that some of my family members didn’t have.

Louie: When did you come “out”?

Jay: I came out late when I was 27years old. It wasn’t a bad thing.  My family had wanted me to come out but I was not ready. I was battling with my beliefs and the person who I was.

Louie: What is one thing you regret?

Jay: The one thing I regret doing is leaving my old job at the Public Defenders Association. I have to say it was the best job and a blessing for me.

Louie: Ya know, Mariah left Columbia for Virgin records because of the money. “Glitter” flopped and she was released from her contract. She has since said that was the first and last time she made a decision based on money. I think of that whenever I am being tempted to leave a job just for money.

Jay: I know its scary now to me because of what happened to me. Once I left, I everything went wrong and I lasted a year. I was fired for the first time in my life! The day I was fired, I left the building and rain fell on me. It was like a movie. So I headed to the bar at Woody’s to get drunk. [LMAO]

Louie: What is one thing you don’t regret?

Jay: I don’t regret being honest and blunt about things. I was told to keep my mouth shut when I was growing up. Not anymore.

Jay Ruiz, Philadelphia

Interviewed and Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

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Abuelo Knows
In 2014, I was still living in Georgia and I came to spend December with my family in Miami. With almost one foot still on the bus, I met this guy, PhD student in biochemistry, total nerd (like me) and 30 seconds later we’re seeing each...

Abuelo Knows

In 2014, I was still living in Georgia and I came to spend December with my family in Miami. With almost one foot still on the bus, I met this guy, PhD student in biochemistry, total nerd (like me) and 30 seconds later we’re seeing each other. I’m staying at my abuelo’s place and I’m thinking that I’m being discreet slipping out in the evenings and “having coffee with friends” or “hanging out with friends” for a couple hours more or less every evening since getting here.

Besides me, one of my cousins is also queer. My parents’ generation was emphatic that Abuelo, our familial paragon of Latino masculinity, shouldn’t be told about this. Worried he wouldn’t take it well.

Cut to a couple weeks later and I’m not with my friend because I’m at this soirée that my mom’s boss is throwing. My parents, Abuelo and I are all there.

It’s getting late. I’m sitting next to Abuelo. We’re both well fed. Music is playing. Abuelo is working his teeth with a toothpick. And my friend texts me. I’m pulling out and messing with my phone.

Abuelo, suddenly disinterested in the toothpick says, “Can you tell that someone is calling you right now?”

“Yeah, a friend of mine is just asking how I’m doing.”

Then Abuelo asks, “Is this the same friend that you’ve been seeing in the evenings?”

I’m a little surprised by the question, but I answer truthfully, “Why yes. Yes, it is.”

Abuelo has my full and undivided attention at this point. And then he asks, “Is he nice?”

“Yes he is.”

 "That’s good. I worry about you sometimes and it’s good to know that you’re with someone nice.“

Even after all this time, I’m not used to being at a loss for words. "Thanks.”

At which point, he went back to the toothpick.

Santi moved to Miami a few months ago to help take care of his abuelo, a job he lost Saturday morning when his family’s patriarch passed on. After the funeral on Sunday, which would have been Abuelo’s 100th birthday, Santi will presumably continue his other passions in photography, video and programming.

Shanti is a contributing writer and photographer for Gran Varones. He lives in Miami, Florida.

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Luis: I really like this project and what you are doing.
Louie: Thank you. We need it.
Luis: Yeah, wish this was around when I was younger. Maybe I would have come out sooner.
Louie: Really? When did you come out?
Luis: After I was married with...

Luis: I really like this project and what you are doing.

Louie: Thank you. We need it.

Luis: Yeah, wish this was around when I was younger. Maybe I would have come out sooner.

Louie: Really? When did you come out?

Luis: After I was married with children. I was just scared. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my ex-wife. We are friendly now. I have a good relationship with her and my kids. I was just scared.

Louie: Have you been in a relationship since?

Luis: Yes. We lived together. He really wanted to make it work but I just was not in love anymore. I tried but one day I came home and said “This isn’t working.”

Louie: Are you in a relationship now?

Luis: No way! I like being alone. If it happens, it happens. Life is good now.

Luis, Philadelphia

Interviewed & Photographed by: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

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My mother began smoking crack in the summer of 1986. At that time, it was widely known as “crack rock.” I was 9 years old and I already had mastered the art of secrecy. I didn’t call it art or survival; it was just life under the “rock.” I learned many things that summer that would forever change me.

I learned to check the spoons for burn residue before using them. I taught my brothers to do the same. I learned to hide my single speaker radio before going to school. I taught my brothers to do the same. I learned to play in the dark when the electricity was cut off. I learned that people were more than comfortable calling my mother “crack head” in front of our young eyes and ears. I learned to grow numb and I taught my brothers to do the same.

The greatest lesson I learned was not to be ashamed of my mother. Trust me when I say that this was no easy task during a time when life was polarized by dichotomies of “clean” or “dirty,” “crack head” or human.

These lessons sustained our sanity. These lessons fortified me, along with millions of black and brown families in the 1980s and ‘90s, tried to survive life under the “rock.”

Being the oldest child, I was charged with ensuring that my brothers were fed and taken care of. While I resented the responsibility, it provided me a kind of access to my mother that my brothers didn’t have. After coming down from her high, she would wake me from my sleep to play board games with her at 2 a.m. She would tell me about how AIDS had stolen her friends and how bad she missed them. She would tell me that I was the “good” one and it was my responsibility to keep my younger brother Nicholas out of trouble. We talked about pretty much everything – except life under the “rock.”

It was difficult for anyone in my neighborhood to call someone else’s mother a “crack head” without quickly being reminded that their mother too was a “crack head.” So, the insults had to be more specific; hairs had to be split: “Well at least my mother didn’t sell the TV.” “Well at least we have food in the house.”

My brothers and I were lucky in this sense. Our mother had done neither and so we found solace in that. I believe that this alone helped us to survive with whatever dignity we had left as I watched the will to live disappear from the eyes of other kids living in and being surrounded by crack addiction.

As noted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, more than one thousand stories about crack appeared in the press in 1986, with NBC reporting over 400 reports on the crack “epidemic” alone. The media coverage was instrumental in shaping the nation’s perception of those who struggled with and/or were directly impacted by crack addiction. This perception has since been inherited by a new generation of HIV advocates and activists, who only associate the Presidency of Ronald Reagan with his failed response to AIDS. But those who survived the Reagan years also associate that time with the government’s swift and violent response to crack that stole the lives and promise of many, deliberately destroying black and brown families.

Thirty years later, the conversation about addiction has shifted dramatically. The same government that demonized, dehumanized and then criminalized people like my mother now urges us all to remember that people struggling with addiction have a disease and require love, patience and treatment. This reminder comes just as the face of addiction is now that of white affluent youth struggling with heroin addiction. This compassion, while critical and necessary, was not made available to black and brown communities that struggled with the presence of crack. I will venture to say that this approach is still NOT available to individuals who still struggle in the shadows of a crack addiction.

Yes, it is important that we evolve as a society and it is equally important that we make amends with ourselves for allowing this to happen on our watch. Even more importantly, we cannot validate our evolution without a true account of what happened, who it happened to and why it happened in the first place.

I have come a long way from the small room I shared with my mother and brothers. I no longer have to check spoons for burn residue but I no longer have family to bear witness to the atrocities we survived.

My mother struggled with addiction until her death last June. My brother Nicholas was murdered in 2001. I sometimes struggle with survivor’s guilt. This is not uncommon for those who have survived war. Every day, I am learning to reconcile my survival with the sacrifices my mother and brother made for me to live life out from under the “rock.”

Atonement is often the last act of any complete apology. As a nation, how do we atone for the heinous behavior of the government during the Reagan years? It’s simple: We don’t ignore the heroes of my generation. Instead, we honor the legacies of my mother and every mother who provided light in darkest days of the war raged on our families. We memorialize them like we would the heroes who were lost in battle.

Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca is an Afro-Boricua artist born and raised in Philadelphia. Louie understands firsthand the impact of intersecting oppressions of racism, homophobia, poverty, and AIDS-phobia. These experiences inspire his commitment to document the lives and oral history of Latino gay and queer men through his project, “The Gran Varones.” Louie is also the 2015 winner of the Hispanic Choice Awards Creative Artist of the Year.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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