Inland: A Safe Zone for Gay Latino Youth
More and more centers are opening up for LGBTQ Latino youth and their families to have an Honest Conversation with sometimes difficult subject matter. These centers are so important for our youth to feel safe and to learn how to love and take care of themselves.
Alex Aldana was so desperate to talk to other young gay people that for three months he traveled nearly 100 miles from Palm Desert to Pomona to attend a weekly gay and lesbian youth group meeting.
He quickly bonded with other participants — and he learned how to protect himself from HIV infection.
“People received me with open arms as family,” Aldana said.
Aldana, 24, later became a facilitator for the youth group, called Sabores. On Thursday, he brought Sabores to Coachella, its first Riverside County location. Another Sabores meeting began last week in San Bernardino. Both groups will meet weekly.
Sabores is run by Bienestar, an East Los Angeles-based group that focuses primarily on HIV prevention and health awareness among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Latinos. Bienestar means “well-being.”
Sabores’ aim is to reduce HIV transmission, and it does so as much through boosting self-esteem and building a sense of community among participants as it does through distributing medical information.
“If you don’t value yourself, you’re not going to respect your own body,” Aldana said.
The group’s focus on gay Latinos means participants can better relate to one other, he said.
Sabores means flavors in Spanish, and the name reflects the diversity within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, said Victor Sanchez, director of youth services for Bienestar.
Sanchez created Sabores two decades ago and, with the expansion to Coachella, it is now in all but one of Bienestar’s nine offices in Los Angeles, San Diego and Riverside counties. The organization briefly had a San Bernardino youth group in 2009, but it was discontinued when Bienestar closed its San Bernardino office after a loss of state funding.
Bienestar hopes to find money to again open a San Bernardino office, Sanchez said. For now, Sabores — which depends mostly on federal funds — is meeting at San Bernardino’s Gabrielle Mulvane Community Center.
Sabores is especially needed in places such as the Inland area, where there are far fewer services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth than in Los Angeles, Sanchez said. “There needs to be a support system that addresses feelings of isolation and loneliness, and they (gay youth) need to be educated about their own sexuality, maintaining their health and the importance of educating their families,” Sanchez said.
Sabores is the only Inland program targeted toward gay Latino youth. Other Inland gay youth groups are not Latino-specific.
Erick De La Torre, 21, who facilitates a Sabores group in Pomona, said Sabores provides a substance-free environment for young gay people who might otherwise turn to alcohol or drugs to socialize or to numb the pain of rejection and bigotry. People who feel isolated are more likely to agree to unsafe sex, said De La Torre, of San Bernardino.
“They’re thinking, ‘Oh, here’s someone offering something I’m not getting from my family. Here’s someone supporting me. I’ll trust that person. I’ll have unsafe sex,’” he said.
Ten people attended the San Bernardino group’s first meeting, which is geared toward adults aged 18 to 24. Bienestar plans to later start a meeting for those 14 to 17.
Sabores groups tackle issues such as safer sex, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, healthy relationships and substance abuse. But the group is also about fun. Outings to the beach and the movies are planned.
George Garcia, 23, facilitator of the San Bernardino group and a San Bernardino resident, predicted more people would attend San Bernardino Sabores meetings as promotion of it is stepped up through Facebook and presentations at Inland bars, colleges, health fairs and other community events.
In San Bernardino, as elsewhere, non-Latinos attend the group and are welcome. But most participants are Latino, and that helps lead to bonding over shared experiences.
Before Aldana discovered Sabores, he went to a Coachella Valley gay drop-in center. He immediately felt uncomfortable. He was the youngest person there and the only Latino.
“I couldn’t relate,” Aldana said. “How can I even express what’s going on with me if they can’t relate to it?”
Aldana said that, in the past, he sometimes had unsafe sex after drinking too much. At Sabores, he learned not only how to correctly put on a condom, but also how to insist on safer sex with a sexual partner who doesn’t want to use one. He was told how alcohol and drugs can lead people to take more sexual risks. He credits Sabores for keeping him HIV-negative.
Felipe Contreras found out about San Bernardino Sabores from his Friday night Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance group at the Mulvane Center.
Contreras is 20 and in November will be too old for the alliance, which is only for those aged 13 to 20. He has been attending alliance sessions for several months and is glad he can continue going to Sabores meetings.
“It’s a safe zone,” Contreras said. “No one judges us for our orientation or how we dress.”
RELATING TO PRESSURE
Kevin Chann, 17, the son of Cambodian immigrants, said he can relate to gay and lesbian people from Latin American immigrant families, because they sometimes face the same challenges and pressures he does.
When Chann came out as gay to his parents four years ago, his mother broke down crying. His father told him he no longer had a son and ordered him to leave their San Bernardino house. Kevin said his mother persuaded her husband to let him stay. But, despite living under the same roof, his father didn’t talk to him for three years.
“They’re very old-school,” Chann said after last week’s Sabores meeting. “My mom said if we were still in Cambodia, if I was born and raised there, they’d kill me.”
His mother warns Chann not to tell relatives and friends about his sexual orientation, because it would bring shame on his family and cause others to shun them. Chann said he has come out to his two siblings and his cousins, who are young and accepting of his sexuality. But he hasn’t told his culturally conservative aunts and uncles.
Chann said he still feels close to his mother. But he’s frustrated because she believes his homosexuality is a sign that he doesn’t love her.
“She still thinks it’s a choice,” he said. “I tell her if that was true, it wouldn’t make sense. Growing up in a strict Asian family, I’d be straight. But I’m not.”
When Garcia asked Sabores participants to discuss the last time they were called a hateful name, Chann said, “Today my mom called me a faggot.”
When he asked them to name their favorite place, Chann said, “Anywhere but home.”
Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com
East Los Angeles-based Bienestar recently inaugurated two Inland groups aimed at reducing HIV transmission among young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The San Bernardino meeting is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays at Gabrielle Mulvane Community Center, 860 Gilbert St. It is targeted toward those aged 18 to 24. For information, call 909-397-7660.
The Coachella meeting is every Thursday night. The location changes each week during the summer. The age range is 14 to 24. For information, call 760-398-3166.
Photo Taken By: William Wilson Lewis III/The Press-Enterprise