The first meeting of ProLatino was held in February 1992 at the Billy DeFrank Center. Thirteen people attended. The group formed out of the need for a safe environment for gay Latinos to meet and discuss their community, health, and HIV/AIDS. J Alejandro (Alex) Campos Vidrio was the first president of the group, and Omar Nunez was vice-president.
Alex organized meetings every other Tuesday, asking participants to bring a new person with them at each meeting. The group grew from 13 to 27, then 38, and kept going from there. Eventually, they couldn’t fit in the original meeting rooms. They moved to the main ballroom in the Billy DeFrank Center’s Stockton Avenue location. Sixty people came to each meeting and participated in a variety of events.
Although forming ProLatino was a huge step in the direction of healing the LGBTQ+ Latino community, Alex’s goal of creating a safe environment was still not met. Working with Esperanza Garcia Walters, they wrote a grant proposal to host a retreat for the LGBTQ+ Latino community, which they received. The first retreat was held at a Catholic center in Mission San Juan Bautista with 30 gay men participating. Discussions included breaking down institutionalized and cultural homophobia, and the layers of growing up gay in a community that rejected them. They heard stories like being dragged by a horse through their hometowns in Mexico for being gay, or wanting to commit suicide because of their sexuality. These were shared in a safe space with a focus on healing. The retreat was so successful that over time they offered as many retreats as they could afford, which is what Alex had set out to accomplish.
The initial years were very busy. In 1993 they were invited to be part of the San Jose gay parade, the first Latino group to march in it. Members who did drag were embraced as a way to show that no one from any part of the LGBTQ community was excluded. ProLatino worked with other LGBTQ organizations to be more welcoming of the Latino community. At ARIS, for example, they worked to create the group “Entre Hombres” for gay Latino men who were HIV positive. They produced information about AIDS in Spanish, the only such literature available.
Alex remembers the Latino community had the idea that if you were gay, it makes you part woman, which makes you less than a man. “This idea makes you feel and think that you don’t deserve much, but ProLatino broke through those barriers,” he said. Alex made sure to reach out to other groups, including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others. “Our group felt safe because it wasn’t led by a white man–it was led by peers in the community,” he said.
In 1996, the group became a 501(c)(3) with a board of directors and co-chairs to run the organization. Omar Nunez was one of only two people who remained active with the group from the time it formed in 1992 until it went out of existence around 2011/2012. He remembers the retreats fondly. “They were open to everyone who wanted to attend, and people came from all over the Bay Area. Many of the men who attended were immigrants who only spoke Spanish. The retreats created a safe space for them that they had never experienced. It was very empowering.”
The workshops put on by ProLatino were very popular. They provided a place separate from the bars where people could get to know each other. “There was a tremendous void for the Latino community,” said Omar. “Here we were, almost a majority of the population, and there was nothing for us. ProLatino filled that void. It provided social and cultural programs, along with AIDS prevention services. Along with retreats, we did exhibits, education, art, theater, and parties. I’d say we had a couple hundred people a year attend our programs, resulting in well over a thousand gay Latinos connecting to our group.”
“It was an interesting and wonderful time,” said Omar. “People were ready and willing to do something for their community. It was a very unique period. I haven’t seen that type of community spirit since. It may never happen again.”
In 2005, Omar ran the program “Vida y Salud” (Life and Health) for gay Latino men with HIV.
In 2010, he was hired at the Santa Clara County’s PACE Clinic, a county-run clinic for HIV/AIDS patients. As a Community Health Outreach Specialist, he does outreach for the clinic, education for new patients, and interpretation services for doctors.
In 2000, with the support of Miquel Perez, David Castro was elected president of ProLatino. He remembers it as a tough time to get program funding because of the stiff competition for dollars. Since ProLatino had become a non-profit, they were able to receive grants from the state to provide HIV/AIDS services to the Spanish-speaking community. “Neil Christie was very supportive of us and he wrote a request for funding for a new support group,” David said. The center, which would become the Neil Christie Living Center after Neil passed away from AIDS, is where ProLatino began to have educational programs for the Spanish-speaking community. Eventually, due to lack of funding, The Health Trust began to manage the center.
The blending of ProLatino as a social group and the non-profit “Grupo ProLatino de San Jose” proved to be problematic, especially since David was advocating for both. Eventually, the non-profit lost its financing and no longer had money to pay staff. David then left the board and moved to Arizona in 2005 where he attended college and got a BA in Spanish and English translation and interpretation and continued to work on his master’s degree.
David has fond memories of the services that ProLatino provided to the Spanish-speaking community. “I used to get calls from married men with children who learned they were HIV positive, and it was difficult for them to handle their personal life. They only spoke Spanish so they didn’t know which way to go or what to do, and many wanted to commit suicide. I would meet with them after work and we would talk for hours about everything that was going on. I would eventually get them services, and I felt very good about that.”