THE GRAN VARONES (Posts tagged portrait)

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See, that’s what the app is perfect for.

Sounds perfect Wahhhh, I don’t wanna

chris: my brother really continues to teach me how to be unapologetically me. he is so unapologetically him ALL the time. like, i have never met another person who is able to be like “i don’t give a fuck if you don’t like anything about me. i’m pretty sure about who i am.” i’ve even told this to people about you (andrew), you are going to do what you want to do, when and how you want to do it and that’s it. that’s something i have learned because out of the two of us, i am the more reserved one. i am figuring out that i can be be that way too and that there is nothing wrong with me and he teaches me that.

andrew: you (chris) teach me to never be afraid to stand up. seeing you defend me when you felt i needed to be defended has always been very inspiring. we would be on the train and somebody would say something crazy about me and my brother would be like, “what the did you say!?” we much homophobia we DON’T get inside our home, we don’t live in a bubble. we don’t live in a place that is always going to be safe to be queer. and so i see you (chris) as a hero. your ability to stand up for people. you taught me “if my queer friends and family aren’t safe, i’m not safe.” that is something i have learned from you.

chris (he/him) & andrew (he/they)

bronx, new york

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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i know there are days where the oppression feels like glue. Somewhere, somebody, is melting that glue with sex, with substance, with story, because it’s spring during a pandemic, and there is a body here that makes heat when you rub it. I praise science & brujeria. I was a boy that became a graveyard for a virus that doesn’t die. Welcome to our homecoming, there is no word for cure here, now that we are medicine.

José, He/They

Durham, NC

Gran Varones Fellow

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I have always tried to inform people what it life was like behind bars as a transgender latina and as an hiv positive trans latina. people think that we are supported and we are not. we have to survive on our own in there just like we have to when we are on the outside. It was hard to get medications and hormones. Prison staff treat trans women like shit. Other people like inmates see that and thinks it’s ok to treat you like shit too. So you have to fight for everything.

I am blessed because my family has always accepted me. My mother and my brothers and sisters have always supported me. This is the kind of love that I want everyone to know because it kept me alive. Family is important.

When I was released around 2004, I started working with Galaei, (an hiv org in philly), and doing condom outreach. I was able to help make difference because Trans women still need support around HIV. Trans women in prison still need us to advocate for them. We need to stand up for them. Trust me, I know.”

June Martinez, she/her

Philadelphia, Pa

Interviewed & Photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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I would pass by the clinic but I would never enter, standing in front of the door I would think, “Do I go in or not.” I made five attempts before going in. And when I entered, I sat down, and next to me someone sat down. The older gentleman says “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” Then I turned and the person was gone. During that time in my life, I was sad and almost asleep on the train. Someone next to me in a woman’s voice tells me “Smile because not everything in life is easy.” After those two events, they became signs that I had to do something. I was always sad and at that time things were much more stigmatized.

The first year in coming to the US was very hard. I wanted to go back I didn’t want to be here, the food didn’t have taste, the people, I didn’t know how to move about. But after 5 years, I knew how to mobilize, I commuted by myself, I didn’t depend on anyone and my mindset changed. Once a person becomes self-sufficient it’s like they adapt. You begin making friends here and there. And when you least think about it, with my friends back in Colombia, I would call them every eight days and then I never called them again. My life is here in Chicago, I am a part of this.

They tell me that when I go to New York or anywhere else, “Where is your home?” Well, Chicago because the city opened its doors to me, it welcomed me. I know that in Colombia you can never have the medications I have here. If I go to Colombia I die, my life ends there. It is very difficult because those medications are expensive.

If you are diagnosed, you have to continue living, you can’t backtrack. To think that you are being given the opportunity to live, to be a better person, it’s like a life lesson. That living day by day is the only way to continue.

Fernando, He/Him/His

Chicago, IL

Interviewed & Photographed by: J. Aces Lira

Gran Varones Fellow

Chicago, IL

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i grew up in a latino catholic family. mexican family from puebla and we just grew up going to church. on a good week, like 4, 5 times a week. we were always very involved in the church. until i came out to my church friends and then i was low-key exiled.

i was prescribed that word “faggot” and then later “fem” before i knew what they were. so when i was like 5, kids were already saying, “that’s a faggot” and i was like, “well, i guess that’s what i am.” but i didn’t know what it meant until i was like 11.

in a primarily latinx immigrant community, everybody around me looked like me but i was the only queer person that i knew for a very long time. it was very lonely. it wasn’t until i got to high school that i met other queer people.

i was 14, 15 years old and my queer friends were much older. the trans girls and queer boys would me invite to the clubs. high school, meeting my first boyfriend and going to hiv prevention support groups and meeting this eclectic group of people led to me finding joy in being queer early on.

part of having older friends was that they were like, “this is madonna, she was jacking shit from the ballroom scene,” “this was the aids crisis,” “this was stonewall.” i never felt that didn’t have a rich history as a queer person of color but it was never knowing it mattered.

ruben, he/him/they/them

los angeles, ca

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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i was in the 11th grade. there was this guy that everyone used to say was bisexual. and i was like, “what does being bisexual mean?” i did my research and was like “oh ok. someone who likes both. maybe that’s who i am. maybe i’m bisexual.”

i remember being in computer class and at that time, everyone had piercings. so he had a tongue ring and he was across from the computer and he goes, “hey joel.” and i go, “what?” he opens my hand and puts his tongue ring in my hand. i’m like, “what the fuck?” i look at it and say, playfully, “eww, take it away from me!”

then we were in the auditorium and he was across from me and he yelled, “joel!” and i’m like “what?” and he motioned “i heart you.” and i like “oh my god!”

i think towards the end of that year, i was in a relationship with a girl. she and i met as part of a quinceañera, we were partners. she went to a different high school. so anyways, i’m in school and i go on a bathroom break. all of sudden the guy walks in. as i get ready to leave, he says, “joel, don’t leave.” so i am standing near the bathroom door to exit, he finishes washing his hands and walks up to me and says, “this is something i always wanted to do.” he starts making out with me. so i’m like, “whoa. this feels weird.” we start making out again. all of a sudden, some guy walks into a the bathroom, sees us and is like “oh, wait. uh, i’ll go to the next bathroom.” like it was something “normal” and then he leaves. it was so weird to me.

i was nervous. did i just cheat on my girlfriend? that night, i called diana and i’m like, “listen. something happened today. somebody made out with me.” and she was like, “who is the girl? i’m going to go to your school and beat her butt!” i’m like, “no, it was a guy.” and i swear, this was the first time i heard this word - she was like, “so you’re a faggot?” and she hung up on me. and i never talked to her since.

i mean, i think she should have known. for one of my birthdays, she bought me destiny’s child’s second album, “the writings on the wall.”

joel, he/him/his

orlando, florida

interviewed by: anthony leon

photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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Louie: So we have known each other for at for over 20 years.

Angel: Yeah, we are old! LOL

Louie: Almost lol What was it like for you in the 90s?

Angel: We were coming out with respect being ourselves. We had a club called “El Bravo” and we had so much fun. Everything at that time was on the down low; very different than how it is now. We had drag shows and the locas were everywhere but no one fucked with us.

Louie: What is it like now?

Angel: But now we are who we are opening! Atrevido con respect. You know what I mean? We are out and we don’t care what people say. That’s good, right?

Louie: But of course loca!

Angel: Gran Varòn, I love you.

Louie: I love you too, loca!

Angel Santiago, He/Him/His

Philadelphia, PA

interviewed & photographed: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

[angel was recently involved in a serious hit & run. we wish him a speedy recovery.]

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i remember when i was a little boy, at party events, my uncles and my dad would be playing dominos and the whole gay conversation would be brought up. if a feminine guy walked by, they would be like, “if my son were to be gay, i would kick him out the house. i wouldn’t accept him.” so me, i am taking heed of what they are saying, so i kinda got scared that i couldn’t be myself. so i started changing the way i am, the way i dressed. if i snapped my fingers too much - someone would be like, “you snap your fingers like a girl” or “you roll your eyes.” so little by little, i started changing me.

i was talking to some guy from new york. it was a phone relationship type of thing. i never got to meet him in person but i know that i was so infatuated with him because he sounded so “straight.” people would call me on a daily basis at my sister’s crib. and my sister started telling him that i wasn’t home even when i was. i called him one time and he was like, “your sister keeps telling me you’re not there.” so i felt like i just had to tell her, “hey, i’m gay.” so i went up to her room and told her that if so and so calls me, please pass them to me. i cried when i was telling her. i was like, “i’m in love with this dude and i don’t even know him.” i was young. she said, “yeah, i noticed that now it’s only guys calling you.”

after that, she snitched me out. she told my mother and my mother told my dad and from there it was…boom! now i do me. i can only live for me. it’s not always easy but shit, what is?

moses, he/him/his

philadelphia, pa

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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i discovered poetry when i was about 15 going on 16. i was a good kid. i’ve always liked books but i was really bashful. i was super shy. i was dealing with the fact that i was growing up in this neighborhood. no one really understands me. i’m growing up in extreme poverty. coming to terms that i’m queer. i’m coming to terms that i am undocumented. so it just feels like, “damn, can you throw something else?”

i was always told that being feminine was bad. for me, being feminine was in everything that i do. it was even in how i spoke. it’s in my vocal cords. you can hear it. it not like i can hide it.

i remember that it was the other boys constantly policing me and saying, “you’re a fag cuz you talk like that” or “why do you wanna be a girl?” we would play video games and i would always pick chung lee or sonya or kitana. i was like, “yaaasss!” but it was something innate. it wasn’t something that i could hide.

even in our community as gay people, feminine people are viewed as something that is not desirable. for the longest time, i was like, in order for a guy to like me, i had to act a certain way, dress a certain way. but that’s not me. i’m a nerdy bitch.

i’m taking ownership of that femininity and being like, “yo, this is how i am.” if me being feminine intimidates you, there’s nothing i can do. i’m not going to change.

these are the common social pressures that we all face but nobody’s admitting it publicly. even the most butchest person probably feels like, “i have to perform this masculinity in order be desirable.” i don’t want to replicate that in my own community. i should be allowed to express myself the way i want to and not feel like, ya know, i’m gonna kiss dick just because i like kitana.

yosimar, he/him/his

los angeles, ca.

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i’m 20 years old and i grew up in charlotte carolina. it was a bit awkward at times because it’s a very christian city. in the bible belt, everybody is very sketchy about everybody as far as how they live their life and every judgmental but i feel that my family was a good outlet for me to be able to myself or a version of myself, let’s just say. i grew up with two older brothers and an older sister. my sister is the only other gay person in the family…that we know of. but it was difficult to come out to my family even though they all knew. it was hard for me to actually say the words, “hey mom, dad, i’m gay.”

it was harder to come out to my mom or have my mom find out first before my dad because my dad is from new york. nobody is afraid to be themselves in new york, really. he had a best friend that he was a roommate with that was gay. my dad was a ballet dancer so he was around tons of gay people all of the time. but my mom, she’s from a small town called fairmount, west virginia. where you don’t say anything about gay or anything like that. that’s not something you talk about.

i think it’s better. a little better. i know my parents are still a little uncomfortable with it. i can’t go to them and say, “hey mom or hey dad, i’m having boy troubles.” i can’t do that because i know they’ll get aggressive and get angry and say, “no, let’s not talk about that.” but if my brothers were like, “we’re having girl troubles” they’ll be like, “what happened.” so whenever i tell them that “so and so asked me on a date” can you take me. they’re a little reluctant at times. so it’s kinda hard to decipher if whether or not they’re fully okay with it. i think i made it pretty clear at one point when i told them that either you accept it and love me or you just say goodbye.

william figueroa, he/him/his

charlotte, nc

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it was 1989 when act-up became active in puerto rico. that’s how i met my friend, josé. he was part of the latino caucus of act-up. i was working at a restaurant and that’s how i heard about it and got actively involved. they came here and trained us. at the beginning, we were having the meeting at gay bar, so of course, hundreds of people showed up. but when they found out what they had to do, it became minimal. but we were able to call out the government on a lot of unjust things that they were doing in relation to the aids epidemic in puerto rico. as a matter of fact, AZT was made in puerto rico. and it would be made here and sent to the states and then sent back to us so that we could pay taxes on it. that’s how fucked we are as a colony.

fernando, he/him/his

san juan, puerto rico

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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A throwback to my childhood, kicking it back in toon town with an irritating pick eye living my best life with the mains. I remember waking up super drowsy after a scary movie night watching “Evil Dead” and the tio’s, tia’s, and grandma surprising the kids with a trip to Magic Kingdom. I think back and try to imagine how much work they all put in to send the entire family to an amusement park and it really fills my heart at their commitment to giving us the best childhood they could given our financial circumstances.

The entire time the cousin’s collective would run around taking everything in; the long lines, the rubber-textured buildings, and the hopes of crossing paths with Mickey. And really, I had my own agenda to get some of the chisme from Daisy, Minnie, and as many of the princesses as possible. I recall me and my prima being the fashionable divas with the jackets wrapped around the waist and our “super-fast” athletic shoes. Nobody couldn’t tell us nothing with our looks, energy, and ice-cream.

While many of us in this picture were so young and the memories potentially faint for some, this experience remains symbolically important and vivid for me. I’m not a huge fan of the franchise now but I did experience my grandma’s love for the different characters. She would have the Disney merchandise throughout her trailer and most notably the Mickey and Minnie plush dolls that sat next to her rotary dial phone. She’s not pictured in this one, but I know she enjoyed this day as much as we did.


J. Aces Lira (He/Him/His) Chicago, IL

Aces Lira is a Gran Varones Fellow. His is a 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.

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i grew up in costa rica, in a taiwanese family that migrated to costa rica in the late 70’s. growing up in costa rica was quite interesting because i was this asian person that didn’t feel like they belonged there. it was always this sense of otherness. children would always call me “chino” or “japonés” even though we were taiwanese.

in latin america there are these derogatory songs towards asians like “chino cochino” and “la china una china se perdió.” all these things, they used to sing to us and they made us feel like shit. my sister and i talk about it all the time. we hated it. so talking to other latin asians it helps - but then you add that layer of being queer.

i am sure you watched “selena”, right? when abraham tells selena and AB that its hard to be mexican-american in the US because they are not mexican enough for mexicans and they’re not american enough for americans. so i feel like i am always there. like when i go to taiwan to visit family, i’m not taiwanese enough, i’m always like the foreigner. when i’m in costa rica, i never feel ike i fully belong because i’m this asian person down there who eats “weird” things. here in the united states, i’m this asian with a spanish accent. there is a little bit of refuge hanging out with, there’s a group in the bay area called “latin asians of the bay area”, we used to be more active but we kinda dissolved a bit but it was nice to relate to other latin asians here in the US that were either born or raised or lived in the latin americas that kinda faced the issues we faced.

i had $300 and my backpack the year that i moved to the states. i was 17, it was really hard cuz it was not planned. i didn’t speak english every well. i lived with these two random gays guys that i knew from at the time, one was 29 and the other 32 years old in baton rouge, lousinana. they took care of me. they taught me how to speak english, they taught me how to drive. so yeah, that was a tough year because i had to learn a lot. It was rough but thankfully, i made it and i’m here.

george, he/him/his

san francisco, ca.

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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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.

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As far back as I can remember, being a little kid in my bedroom, I would dance and put on little stage shows and lip-sync in the mirror before I even saw that on TV, ya know. I definitely grew up watching MTV and I was like a video baby where it was...

As far back as I can remember, being a little kid in my bedroom, I would dance and put on little stage shows and lip-sync in the mirror before I even saw that on TV, ya know. I definitely grew up watching MTV and I was like a video baby where it was like, “whose music video is on TV?” Now they don’t play video on MTV. So when it was time to graduate high school, I was like, “Well, I need to go to college, what is that going to look like?” And I thought, “What do I want to do?” and I could never find clothes for myself, the way I envisioned them in my head, so I went to fashion school. Graduate Fashion School and I was working in the industry for a little bit, and I was till kinda bored and my soul always wanted to dance. One weekend I decided to go take a dance class and when I was done with that dance class, the instructor pulled me to side and he said, “Who’s your dance agent?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “You’re not signed?” I was like, “No, this is my first dance class.” He was like, “Oh my god. You did really well. You need to be doing this.”

I was doing fashion and then I was a back-dancer. I quit my job so that I could audition. I was booking a few commercials, coca-cola commercials, a few stage shows here and there, dancing back-up for some artists; I loved it but there something more calling me. One day, over Christmas break, I was in my kitchen and I just started spitting out lyrics and started writing them down. My first song, “Bangie Power”, came from that. I worked with a producer to come up with the song and I did a video for it; choreographed, styled it and I was like, “This is it!” I’m putting my fashion with my dance and what I have to say into this visual package. That’s when I found that I was home as an artist.

My first two performances, at Mustache Mondays and at Carnival, which is a Choreographers Ball, I knew that’s what I was to do. It was the easiest, effortless thing I could do. It was easier than just designing for another brand; it was easier than being a back-up dance and fitting in into a cast of like 10. Taking center stage, just expressing myself in all my authenticity, was the easiest thing for me to do that I was like, “I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” No matter how hard it gets, no matter what I have to do, no matter how in debt I am, no matter where I’m living, who’s couch I’m crashing on, this is what I’m gonna do.

It’s that dream that I had when I was little kid. I would go to bed and dream of me being on this stage doing these elaborate performances that didn’t make sense then but now I’m like holy shit, I’m in my dream.

AB Soto, He/Him/His
Los Angeles, CA

interviewed & photographed by: louie a. ortiz-fonseca

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