On November 7, 2011, we will officially publish Jesus Ramirez-Valles’s new book Compañeros: Latino Activists in the Face of AIDS, which details how eighty gay, bisexual, and transgender (GBT) Latino activists and volunteers living in Chicago and San Francisco have been touched or transformed by the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Ramirez-Valles, a professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago, answered our questions about Compañeros.
Q: How do you define “Compañeros” and why did you choose this for the title of the book?
A: “Compañeros” refers to people coming together in solidarity to fight against oppressive forces. They create emotional and intellectual bonds. They share a common condition or history. The title of Compañeros actually emerged from the narratives of the activists and volunteers I interviewed for this project. On multiple occasions, participants would use the term “compañeros” to refer to those peers or equals they encountered in HIV/AIDS and LGBT-related community-based organizations and other grassroots groups. I believe the term captures what is unique in the activisms and volunteerism of Latino gay and bisexual men and transgenders.
Q: Was it difficult for any of the people in your book to share their story? If so, why?
A: Generally, all participants were very open about their lives and generous with their time. I think many of them really wanted to share their stories to a larger audience (via this project). There were a few instances in which participants were reserved about their intimate lives. For example, one participant did not want to talk about her relationship with her brother. She briefly mentioned that there were some problems between them earlier in their lives. Then, her voice broke and her eyes got teary. She composed herself and said “let’s move on to the next topic.” In another instance, several participants did not want to elaborate on the emotional and sexual aspects of their lives with partners or boyfriends. As I wrote the manuscript, I decided not to include this facet of their personal lives — even though they shared in the interview process — as I did not believe it was crucial to understanding their lives as activists and volunteers in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Q: Your interviewees were based in San Francisco and Chicago. Did you observe any general differences in their experiences based on geographic location?
A: Yes, there are several differences. The immigration patterns are different. Latino gay and bisexual men and transgenders immigrants in San Francisco come from a larger variety of places — in Latin American and within the United States. Those in Chicago generally come from Mexico, and Puerto Rico and tend to be born and raised in the area. Thus, the people in Chicago have more local family connections than those in San Francisco. Another difference is the level of activism, which appeared to be higher in San Francisco. Likewise, those in San Francisco seem to have a more heightened awareness of discrimination in the form of racism and homophobia than the individuals in Chicago.
Q: When researching this book, what was the most compelling thing that you discovered?
A: The transformation these people experienced by being involved in HIV/AIDS and LGBT affairs. Without a doubt this is what I found to be the most compelling, attractive, and powerful aspects of their stories. Through their activism and volunteerism, these Latinos found and created a sense of themselves and made sense of the world around them. It helped define who they are and where they felt they belonged. The force of these transformations was fueled by the discrimination they saw and experienced around them. Many of these activist encountered homophobia and racism early in their lives, which translated into isolation, dislocation, and a fragile sense of oneself. All of that is changed by being involved in HIV/AIDS and LGBT causes with compañeros.
Q: Why do you believe this topic is important today?
A: As a society, we are still in the midst of a fight against HIV/AIDS, racism and homophobia. Although we have made some progress, there is much to be done. In this fight, the voices of Latino gay and bisexual men and transgenders have not been heard. As a group, they are, and have been, active in HIV/AIDS and LGBT affairs. They have made tremendous contributions. But their stories have been ignored or distorted. Their stories tell us that being involved in community and societal affairs is not only important to change oppressive forces but to find oneself — a sense of who we are and where we belong. The experiences of these activists and volunteers, as told in Compañeros, also help us appreciate the diversity and richness within Latino and LGBT communities. This understanding is needed to create a truly multicultural or plural society.