Latina Lesbian Organizing in Chicago

Latina Lesbian Organizing in Chicago

I. Project Overviewtop

Latina Lesbian Organizing in Chicago is an ongoing research project which seeks to address the gap regarding Latina queer contributions to activism by documenting and exploring the history of two organizations in Chicago – Amigas Latinas, a Latina lesbian, bisexual and transgender organization that was founded in 1995 and Llena, a Latina lesbian organization which ran from about 1988 to 1992.

This project provides a background on the founding of Llena and Amigas Latinas, the efforts of the organizations to bridge the “Latino” and “lesbian” social and political cultures of Chicago, and their successful and unsuccessful efforts to negotiate divergent national and ethnic histories, class and linguistic differences, and the diverse political stances of their membership. It also looks at the coalition-building politics that these groups established with other Latino and queer communities in Chicago.

Accounts of Latina lesbian organizing, and organizing by other people of color around the country, are sorely needed to expand the gay and lesbian historiography that exists by specifically articulating how race and ethnicity shape this vibrant history. These accounts are vitally important to Latina and other queer women of color who do not see specific issues and concerns addressed in white gay and lesbian histories and in Latino(a) and immigrant community histories.

Key goals of project:

  • Document the collective efforts of Latina lesbians to represent, define and defend their identities and to create and occupy public spaces in Chicago
  • Address gap in LGBTQ studies regarding queer Latina contributions to activism

II. Background, Methodology & Observationstop

Background

Professor Lourdes Torres has been a member of Amigas Latinas for 10 years, and it was during her work as a board member that she decided to document the organization’s history. Through her research of Amigas Latinas she discovered the existence of Llena, a Chicago-based organization for Latina lesbians which had disbanded in 1992. Both organizations are explored in this project.

Methodology

Research methods include conducting oral interviews with leaders and members of both groups as well as studying the archival records of Amigas Latinas and Llena; Dr. Torres has acquired minutes, flyers, newsletters, and financial papers of both organizations and reviews media reports on the two organizations in the Chicago gay press.

Llena

History

Although it may not seem like that long ago, Chicago in the 1980s was not the friendliest place for Latina lesbians. In the late 1980s, there were not any public sites in Chicago that openly welcomed Latina lesbians until a small group of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican women decided that it was time to create such a space. They were shocked and thrilled that despite only word of mouth advertising, over 30 women showed up to their first meeting in November 1987; subsequent meetings in those early days often drew between 30 to 40 women. The group decided to call itself “Llena.” Llena is an acronym for Latina Lesbians en Nuestro Ambiente.  Llena in Spanish means complete or full. One former leader remembers coming up with the name after a few meetings. She told me -  quote, “Llena was perfect because that’s how it was at the beginning, we were in our own space and there was a sense of completeness.” The group met every other Friday first at Horizons, a gay and lesbian Center (now Center on Halsted), on Sheffield Ave. in the North Side of the city. They drew all kinds of Latina women; while the original organizers were mostly all first generation Spanish speaking immigrants, they welcomed all Latinas no matter how they identified. According to former members, the meetings were intense, bilingual and chaotic and often lasted four hours or more.  The meetings, social and cultural activities, and parties attracted scores of women of many Latin American national backgrounds, lesbians of all ages from their early 20s to their 60s, married, closeted women, some who were just coming out, veteran dykes, professionals, undocumented women and lesbians from all social classes.

After a while, Llena members decided to find a place in one of their Latino neighborhoods so that the meeting would be more accessible to Latinas. Also, they had started feeling unwelcome at Horizons, which they experienced as a mostly white, gay male space. They complained of rude behavior by the men who ran the Center. For example, if some of the women arrived early, they were not allowed into their meeting room, rather they had to wait outside in the cold. Llena leaders gladly accepted the invitation of Jose Lopez, the executive Director the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, to meet at its Center in the Humboldt Park, a Puerto Rican community. Initially, some of Llena’s members were reluctant to meet at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center because of its radical reputation. Due to the Center’s activism around independence for Puerto Rico, in the late 80s and early 90s, it was a frequent target of FBI surveillance and harassment. Despite these reservations, the group began to meet regularly at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and did so for years.

In 1992, the group disbanded. I am still in the process of learning why Llena ceased to exist. So far, some women I have interviewed offer a range of explanations about the group’s demise. Some suggest that class, political and language issues ultimately were the reasons. Others say that differences of opinion about the direction of the group lead to factions forming and infighting, and still others suggest that personal relationships and dating within the organization lead to irresolvable conflicts and hurt feelings, which destroyed the group. While Llena disbanded, it clearly made its mark and paved the way for the emergence of Amigas Latinas in the mid 1990s.

Observations

  • Similar to the feminist politics and organizing being articulated across the U.S. at the time, Llena displayed an orientation toward coalition-building and a transnational vision which reflected the possibility of creating a Third World Women of Color feminist movementRight from the beginning, the members of Llena seemed very interested in organizing not just Latinas, but lesbians of all colors. They had an expansive vision of who they were and they were clearly committed to conversations between Llena and other lesbians locally, nationally, and internationally. This perspective is evidenced in Llena’s bilingual newsletter called Lesbiana. The inaugural fall 1990 issue announces: “We are here to Stay!” Articles in the newsletter discuss their dream of creating an inclusive and pluralistic Latina lesbian feminism. One article states, quote: “We are committed to establishing a place for Latina lesbians within the ‘the lesbian community’. In as much as this newsletter will contribute to our visibility and further enrich the lesbian community in Chicago, we also hope that it will help built bridges between our community and the Asian, African American, and white/Anglo lesbian communities.”
  • While in existence, Llena promoted its expansive vision by successfully organizing political, social and cultural events across communitiesAs an example, throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s Llena co-sponsored the very successful annual International Women’s Day Dance. The first dances were held at the Electricians Union Hall on South Ashland and as the events grew they moved downtown to the Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue and attracted over fifteen hundred women.  This effort led to the building of working social and political relationships, networks and coalitions, as well as friendships among women of many different backgrounds who organized the dance. Among the other organizations that organized and cosponsored the events were progressive groups of working class women of color such as Literary Exchange, The Mozambique Women’s Support Project, the Chicago Women in Trades and Women United for a Better Chicago. Only groups whose membership included at least 75% women of color were invited to co-sponsor the dance.
Amigas Latinas

Background

As Tracy Baim documents in Out and Proud in Chicago, Chicago in the mid 1990s experienced a proliferation of organizing by queer people of color. Ethnic identity groups such as Affinity and Chicago Black Lesbians (two groups that represented African American lesbians), Khuli Zaban, (a group that represented South Asian and West Asian queer women) and ALMA (the Association of Latino Men for Action) formed. Amigas Latinas, like many of these other organizations, was actually a splinter group that developed from a larger, multiethnic group, Women of all Colors and Cultures Together (WACT) that hosted potluck lunches once a month throughout the 1990s. One of the founders of WACT, Evette Cardona, was also a founder of Amigas Latinas.

In the summer of 1995, several years after the demise of LLENA, Evette Cardona and a small group of Latina lesbians decided it was time again to bring together Latina lesbians. One source of information was ALMA (the Association of Latino Men for Action), a group that began organizing Latino gay men in the mid 1990s. Amigas Latinas established itself as a strong and visible organization that advocates for the Latina lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LBTQ) community in Chicago. Women who participated in both Llena and Amigas Latinas share a sense that some lessons that were learned from this earlier attempt at Latina lesbian organizing in Chicago may have prevented similar issues from disrupting Amigas Latinas.  And certainly the timing of its emergence with so many other groups in Chicago has been key to its sustainability, but several other factors can perhaps help explain Amigas continued success:

Observations

  • Amigas built on many of Llena’s initiatives and accomplishmentsIn its first call in 1995 to once again organize Latina lesbian and bisexual women, the conveners paid tribute to Llena, clearly indicating they wanted to follow the lead that had been established.
  • Amigas has displayed an ability to change with the timesAmigas started as a support group for lesbian and bisexual Latinas. It became best known for hosting monthly platicas or discussions around multiple issues of concern to Latina lesbians (such as coming out, passing, and dealing with racism and classism), but it has also been successful at adapting to new situations to meet new challenges. Amigas has expanded its focus as a support group to also serve as a leading educator and advocate for the issues of bisexual, queer, and transgender people in the Latino community, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, and in Chicago as a whole. Amigas Latinas has developed into a not-for-profit organization with over 300 members that has been good at periodically assessing what it offers the community and responding to a changing reality.
  • Amigas recognized that Latinas are not a monolithic group and has provided ongoing, targeted programming for Latinas with diverse interestsAmigas offers specific programs for youth, older women, families, etc. as well as more general social and educational events that attempt to bring everyone together. I think that Llena sought to bring together all these women with a range of needs and interests, but failed to address the different needs of its membership. Amigas has been successful at sustaining its organization through a strategy of offering a wide range of specific and general programs to meet the challenges posed by differing agendas and shifting identifications.

Conclusion

Both LLENA and Amigas Latinas expanded the options for Latina lesbians in Chicago. They offered (and Amigas Latinas continues to offer) a space for queer Latinas to meet other queer Latinas and to discuss issues that were central to our lives. LLENA was the first organization to offer Latina lesbians a space (outside of a few bars where Latina lesbians felt welcome) to call their own. With its diverse membership that included immigrant, Spanish monolingual first generation Latinas, 2nd generation, English dominant women, married, older closeted women, 20-year new dykes, etc., LLENA worked to bring this complex community together with is vision of a transnational, global lesbian feminism. Unfortunately, LLENA was not successful at mediating all the differences within the group and at dealing with internal group dynamics but if offered an inspiring early example of Latina lesbian organizing. Amigas has been successful at sustaining its organization through a strategy of offering a wide range of programs for the diverse constituents of the Chicago Latina queer community while it has also worked to bridge national and international issues through its work around immigrant rights. It continues to meet the challenges posed by differing agendas and shifting identifications.

III. Leadership Team and Community Partnerstop

DePaul University
  • Dr. Lourdes Torres, Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies

Dr. Lourdes Torres is the Vincent de Paul Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University. She obtained her B.A. at SUNY Stony Brook and both her M.A. And PhD at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. Lourdes teaches courses on Latinos in the US, LGBTQ studies, and sociolinguistics. She is the author of Puerto Rican Discourse and Co-editor of Tortilleras: Hispanic and Latina Lesbian Expression and Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Her essays have appeared in Meridians, MELUS, Centro Journal, and International Journal of Bilingualism. She recently co-edited a special issue of NWSA Journal on Latina Sexualities. She is currently working on a study of Latina lesbian organizing in Chicago, as well as a study of Spanish use across generations in Mexican and Puerto Rican communities in Chicago.

  • Emily Williams, Graduate Research Assistant

Emily Williams is originally from Beloit, Wisconsin where she also attended undergraduate school at Beloit College. At Beloit College, Emily was a McNair Scholar and a four year varsity athlete. Emily holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and is a Master of Arts candidate in Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul. Emily has professional experience in social work, teaching, and youth-programming management. Her research interests include: critical race studies, Black feminism, and American Black women’s experiences.

  • Yvonne Valencia, Student Research Assistant
Amigas Latinas
  • Evette Cardona, Co-Founder
  • Rosa Yadira Ortiz, Board President
  • Alicia Vega, Board Programming Co-Chair

About Amigas Latinas

Amigas Latinas was founded in 1995. Initially conceived of as a support group for lesbians and bisexuals, Amigas Latinas has established itself as a strong and visible organization that advocates for the Latina lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LBTQ) community in Chicago.

Amigas Latinas is unique because it is one of the few Latina lesbian organizations in the United States that has sustained itself over a decade and continues to meet the needs of the Latina lesbian community. In 2003 Amigas Latinas achieved not-for-profit organizational status and has grown to over 300 members. Through its various programs, Amigas Latinas works to educate and empower queer Latinas, as well as to educate service providers, the Latino community, the general gay community and legislators about the issues relevant to the Latina LBTQ community.

LLENA
  • Carmen Abrego
  • Amparo Jimenez
  • Jamie Jimenez
  • Marilyn Morales
  • Mona Noriega

About Llena

Llena was a Latina lesbian organization in Chicago which ran from 1988 to 1992. Llena is an acronym for Latina Lesbians en Nuestro Ambiente, and in Spanish means complete or full.

IV. Funding & Sponsorstop

The William and Irene Beck Foundation

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a long time sponsor of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and provides generous financial support for community based research and special projects, graduate assistantships, the faculty fellowship program, and other underwriting. The Foundation was a generous supporter of the Latina Lesbian Organizing in Chicago project.

About

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that provides grants, contributions, and in-kind services to other not-for-profit organizations with 501(C)3 status. It is a family foundation committed to helping programs that work against discrimination, particularly related to racism and sexism. Its primary foci are directed toward those with financial needs by providing program support and educational opportunities for low-income youth, children, as well as opportunities for job-related training for adults.

The foundation is intended to act as a catalyst for change, and supports innovative ideas, plans, and projects; it takes a pro-active part in the prevention of further problems. Its board and family members participate in as well as contribute to programs involving education, youth, and the disadvantaged. The foundation seeks to ally itself with activities and organizations which reach out to those who most need help.

DePaul University Faculty Research & Development Summer Research Grant

V. Publications and Researchtop