A new LGBT center is set to open Monday in Boyle Heights, offering what backers say are sorely needed bilingual services for gay Latinos in Los Angeles' Eastside neighborhoods.
The Los Angeles LGBT Center and Latino Equality Alliance teamed up to create the Clarence Street facility, called Mi Centro, which will provide youth and senior programs, family counseling, immigration support and legal services for transgender people.
Leaders of the Los Angeles LGBT Center say thousands of Eastside residents already travel to their Hollywood facilities for culturally sensitive, LGBT-specific services. Mi Centro, they say, is part of an ongoing effort to expand programs across the city and better serve Latinos.
"If you spend any time at the center, you will see how Latino their client base is, because Latinos are everywhere," Mercedes Marquez, a board member for both the center and Latino Equality Alliance, said at a recent dedication for Mi Centro. "But here on the Eastside, this is our cultural home. This is our community of joy and celebration and sorrow."
Mi Centro will be housed in a renovated warehouse across the street from the Pico Gardens public housing project. It will have about 1,000 square feet of dedicated space, as well as shared space with other tenants in the building owned by City Labs Boyle Heights, which provides office space for nonprofits and small businesses.
"Finally, we get a little piece of heaven on the Eastside for us to be able to be who we are," state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said at the dedication. Lara, who is gay, predicted Mi Centro would quickly outgrow its space because of popular demand.
Polls show that in recent years there has been a significant increase in acceptance of homosexuality among Latinos. A Pew Research Center conducted in May showed that 56% of Latinos supported same-sex marriage. In 2006 only 30% were in favor.
Still, local LGBT leaders say homophobia persists and that the need for safe spaces for gay Latinos is great.
"The struggles continue," said Marquez, a married lesbian. "As you get deeper into communities, we see how inequality lives everywhere, whether we have the right to marry or not."
Juan Castillo-Alvarado, Latino Equality Alliance's director of public education programs, who is gay, works with students and parents at Boyle Heights' Mendez and Roosevelt high schools, teaching them about bullying, homophobia and family acceptance.
It is common, he said, for religious families to "say just to go to church, talk to God, confess your sins." Or they will kick them out of the house, he said, "as a form of tough love."
Castillo-Alvarado knows from experience: his deeply religious father kicked his younger brother, who is also gay, out of the house as a teenager and had a strained relationship with both of his gay sons for years.
"Some of these kids just have no space," he said. "They're bullied at home and school."
Mi Centro, he said, will be a refuge for many young people, a place where they can relax and be themselves.
Among the groups meeting there will be the Latino Equality Alliance's LGBTQA Youth Council, a growing group that has never had a dedicated meeting space.
Lorri L. Jean, the chief executive of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said she hoped that having a center in Boyle Heights would embolden people to be open about their sexuality and gender identity in their own neighborhood.
"Us being here is going to be a surprise, and perhaps a shock, to some people in the neighborhood," Jean said. "Some are going to love it, others aren't. But we've always been really good neighbors."