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Queer Latinx Youth Amplify Their Voices Using Telenovelas
As a teenager in the ’90s, I looked forward to finishing my homework early nearly every night so I could watch a telenovela with my mom and abuelita. Latin American soap operas captured my imagination most when their melodrama and magical realism addressed social issues. As a queer Latinx youth from Colombia, I sat riveted to the screen when the characters struggled with classism, immigration, and racism. But I was disillusioned because the few queer characters who took center stage reinforced stereotypes and provided comic relief.
In reality, queer Latinx youth are much more complex. A 2019 focus group we conducted with parents, youth, health providers, and educators in Corvallis and Portland, Oregon, found that queer Latinx youth can face dual forces of isolation. They experience racism and xenophobia within queer spaces, and transphobia and homophobia in ethnic community spaces. At the intersection of queer and Latinx communities, we found that these youth experience identity strain that leaves them feeling unworthy and lacking someone in whom to confide.
Believing their isolation is a result of being timid, introverted, or having inadequate social skills, the queer Latinx youth in the focus group blamed themselves. Their reaction is consistent with findings about queer youth in general: pervasive social isolation and rejection drive them to feel unsafe in school and at home, and to attempt suicide.
Queer youth of color need a change of narrative. As director of the Engaging the Next Latinx Allies for Change and Equity (ENLACE) program, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I set out to create a telenovela starring queer Latinx youth in their own stories of bravery. The newly launched ENLACE series can be found on YouTube (and here on the YES! site). The videos are all created by queer Latinx youth who participated in a filmmaking workshop led by Outside the Frame and Oregon State University, where I am an assistant professor and director of the Global Health Program.
Parents of queer Latinx youth, along with other family and friends, have a powerful opportunity to be their children’s advocates.
The episodes include the story of Nat, an 18-year-old born in Portland, Oregon, who uses they/them pronouns. They are a person with a physical disability, severe social anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Nat explains, “I don’t think I’d last very long if I didn’t have access to health care.”
Their father was deported to Mexico when Nat was 2. Their mother is White. In Nat’s telenovela, their mom draws a grotesque parallel between traversing the gender binary and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border: “‘They’ isn’t a real thing,” Nat’s mother proclaims. “No one’s gonna respect you if you live in some kinda fantasy world. You are just like your father. Like, what did he think? He could cross the border and live in some magical world. And where is he now? He’s in Mexico. There are boys, and there are girls.”
Nat demands that their mom support them: “It is hard enough dealing with people outside of this house, but coming home and still not feeling safe and accepted—it’s too much.”
Nat’s interaction with their mom raises an important point about queer Latinx youth: Their parents, along with other family and friends, have a powerful opportunity to be their children’s advocates. Many Latinx parents in the ENLACE community advisory board grappled with traditional Catholic teaching that homosexuality is a sin; however, they held that no matter what, no child should be made to feel so alone that they attempt suicide. A 2020 national survey found that 40% of LGBTQ youth and 52% of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered suicide.
When people share personal journeys of marginalization, even others who do not share their precise identity can find solidarity.
When I came out at the age of 13, my abuelita moved our family to an independent Catholic Church, not affiliated with Rome, that welcomed LGBTQ people. To let me know she understood how it felt to be rejected, she bravely told me the story of having been excommunicated in Colombia because she wanted to start contraceptives after almost dying when she had her 10th child. As both my grandmother and the queer Latinx protagonists in the videos show, when people share personal journeys of marginalization, even others who do not share their precise identity can find solidarity.
As such, the youth who created these telenovela-inspired videos hope they can be used as part of a toolkit to train allies or strengthen intersectional brave spaces. For example, the youth believe the videos can be used to amplify representation of queer youth of color in institutional settings, including 4-H clubs, Genders and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) in schools and family support groups (such as PFLAG) across the country. Together, the series explores school bullying, family rejection, self-harm, and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border—all to let youth with similar experiences know “there’s a whole community out there,” they are not “alien,” and they do not have to feel alone.
Jonathan Garcia , Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Program Director of Global Health at Oregon State University. Born in Medellin, Colombia, his work strives to achieve health equity for Latinx queer immigrants like himself. As Program Director of the ENLACE Program, he amplifies the voices of queer youth to bridge solidarity for public health and social justice. Jonathan earned a B.A. in Political Science from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University. In 2021, he was awarded the ASPPH Early Career Teaching Excellence Award in recognition of his outstanding teaching and mentoring. He is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. Jonathan lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese.