LGBTQ&A: Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

The Gran Varones creator chats with us about combatting racism in the Gayborhood and that one time he lived with Gloria Casarez.

Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca

Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca is an afro-Latinx activist and creator of The Gran Varones storytelling project. We got to chat with him about founding the project, combatting racism in the Gayborhood, and once living with the legendary Gloria Casarez.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I am a huge Mariah fan. She reminds me not to take life too seriously. She gets a lot of flak for being “wacky,” but I love it. I guess my fandom for her is evident when I am asked to tell you about me but I start talking about Mariah.

So Mariah is definitely your fave … what about you?
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I grew up Mormon. When I was baptized at age 15, all my queer friends attended. The Elders loved them, though. They kept saying “Louie, this is the greatest baptism ever!” I quit the church after a friend of mine, who was also a young queer Mormon, overheard the leader’s daughter call us “faggots.” He begged me to keep quiet but I couldn’t. So in the middle of service, I stood up and said “Did you call me a faggot, bitch?” Lawd, everyone in that church clutched their pearls. I was reprimanded and no one ever addressed her calling us “faggots.” That was my last day at church. So yeah, I was pretty much always an outspoken queen. Of course, my tactics and style have changed — a little — but I was always that friend who you tell anything to because I’d go the hell off.

Very deep. What are some fun facts?
Let me give you three fun facts. One, I am father of a 13-year-old son who thinks I am NOT cool. Imagine that! Two, I was once in a boy band in the late ’90s, and we called ourselves “No Shame.” And three, as I get older, I find that I have a story for everything. I like it, though —0 makes me appear interesting.

Speaking of interesting, you are also the creator of The Gran Varones. How did that come about?
I was exhausted with the great fallacy that Latino gay men were “hard to find.” We don’t have a space that is just ours. Yes, Woody’s has a Latin Night, but we are visitors that space and quite frankly are treated as such. I was also exhausted with watching those who were charged with speaking for us not acknowledging or knowing all of the complexities that make us beautiful. I also just got tired of being pissed. So my best friends Anthony, Leon and I decided that we will literally go “find” Latino gay men (insert bad joke here) and make our lives and stories visible. If we can’t have a physical space to share our experiences, we will create a virtual one. And that’s what we did. Now after the Pulse tragedy, we are even more committed because we understand that those who narrate the world write the history. When varones look back on this time 20 years from now, I want our history, our lives, to be told by us.

On the topic of the Pulse tragedy, how do you think Philly’s Latinx LGBTQ community is healing from it?
I think we are still healing. I think the healing will always be a part of our lives. We have received tons of emails from Latinxs expressing their appreciation of the Gran Varones project and wanting to now be a part of it. I think the community is looking for opportunities to connect and to share space. Which speaks to how Latinx queers are often an afterthought within the larger gay community.

What do you say to those predominately white-owned gay bars that pride themselves on attempting to have inclusive themes such as “Latin night”?
Yes, some clubs have a Latin night, but beyond that, what have these clubs done to intentionally include Philly’s Latinx queer community? Yes, these clubs have all come together to raise money for victims and families of the Pulse tragedy, but are Latinx queer folks being centered at this event? Are we Latinx queers part of the organizing of the event from the start? As a project, we weren’t being asked to be a part of the planning. I am not sure if it is because they don’t know about us or because we are not a funded project. We were, however, asked if we would like to have our logo on the materials. We declined because we felt that even in tragedy and “tribute” to us, we are an afterthought. We are now at a tipping point, as Latinx queers and as queer people in general. We now have the tools and the basic know-how to intentionally build community that is inclusive and celebratory of all us.

What’s a recent experience that made you feel confident in this?
A few weeks ago, I walked into Tabu and a Latino gay dude started talking to me. We have seen each other around since the ’90s but had never really spoken. He simply said “I am glad you are here and I am glad that you are alive” and started to cry. I hugged him and understood that outside of politics and theories, we are all looking for a connection. As a community, we have to be committed to supporting Latinx queers off of the dance floor too.

You once lived with the legendary Gloria Casarez. What was that experience like and what did you learn from her?
Gloria and I not only lived together, but we were also working together at Galaei. So needless to say we spent a lot of time together. We fought like cats and dogs, I am sure that is because we were both Sagittarius. We also had date night at least once a week. Being friends with Gloria expanded my worldview on everything. Many of the friends she introduced me to are still my friends till this very day. I learned many things while living and being friends with Gloria. But the one thing that now most resonates with me is how she mentored. It is how I mentor. I remember thinking that she was “all knowing.” Now, I have people looking to me for wisdom and I swear, I feel Gloria’s presence every time I am providing feedback, wisdom or just providing support. She taught me how to be an elder. I guess maybe that is why I am no longer afraid of getting older.

What can the Gayborhood and Philly at large do to continue to include and cultivate the Latinx LGBTQ community?
I think for the Gayborhood to intentionally support the Latinx queer community, we will have to courageously address the racism, classism and anti-blackness that continues to exist in the Gayborhood. This conversation requires everyone at the table — I mean everyone. Not just that one Latinx queer person organizers know and then invite to speak for our community. This means including the voices of Latinx queers who do not have positions of “power.” This means actually listening to the community and not just the “experts” or people who get paid to speak for us. This could start with centering Latinx queers at any and every Pulse fundraiser. Now as for Philadelphia at large, this is even more complexed. City officials don’t see us as a community with political power because Philly Latinxs are stereotyped as the community that does not vote. Which is insane because statistically speaking, Philly doesn’t have a huge voter turnout period. I am hoping that will change in the upcoming elections.

What are some specific suggestions you recommend?
Support our art. Support projects like the Gran Varones. Support the work of Galaei. Support them the way this city supports Mazzoni. Support the Latinx trans community. Just because they are not “seen” does not mean that they do not exist. They do, honey. Support the development of Latinx Pride in Philly. We are literally one of the last big cities that do not have one, and not for the lack of trying. Resources are needed for such an endeavor. Lastly, doing all of these above will mean relinquishing power and fighting hard as hell with and for us when are not just surviving tragedy.