Louie Ortiz Fonseca is the creator of Gran Varones, one of the most vital and authentic cultural history projects of our time. He is also a longtime health advocate currently serving as the director of LGBTQ Health and Rights at Advocates for Youth, a role model parent and fierce gay activist. In the last year, Louie has also been killing the game with his own YouTube series, “Kikis with Louie.” His love for Mariah Carey knows no bounds, nor does his knowledge of pop culture from the ’80s and ’90s. Here is who Louie Ortiz Fonseca thinks he is.
Who are you?
I’m one of eight kids. I grew up in North Philadelphia with a mother who struggled with addiction. I am the father of a son who just turned 17. I’m just becoming comfortable with identifying as an artist. For Gran Varones, I never saw myself as a curator. I never saw myself as a photographer, even though I take everyone’s photos. Now I identify as an artist and storyteller. I’m HIV positive. For my day job, I coordinate programming for young people living with HIV.
How do you identify racially?
I identify as Black and that’s always been the case on government forms. I don’t think I was ever asked that [otherwise.] The conversation around identity has broadened in the last couple of years. But I always identified as Black because they only gave you like Black or White or Asian on government forms.
Have you ever filled out the Census? And if you have, how did you answer the question about race?
I remember filling it out in 2000 and 2010. In 2000, I had this whole thing about “Hispanic,” like it broke down as “his panic.” I would have checked off “goats” before I checked off “Hispanic”! I just didn’t like the word.
Are there other times or places that you’ve answered the question of, “What is your race” differently?
No, because I seldom get asked. When I get asked what my race is, it is not a way to get to know me. It’s more like examining why I’m in a specific space. Because I grew up being told that I was too Black, there is this temptation to conform or prove that I am as Latino as everyone else. Even now, if I’m in a Latinx space, I have to check in with myself: am I being authentic or am I trying to curate a kind of Louie that doesn’t stick out as much? Also, it depends on the space. In ’hood spaces, there’s more understanding of what Blackness and Latino-ness is and how they merge. In movement spaces, it can be more binary and that gives me anxiety.
How will you answer the question on the 2020 Census?
I’ll disclose on what they have for ethnicity [Hispanic, Puerto Rican] and then there’s race. In forms, for me, it’s clear. Race and ethnicity exists separately, but in the same space. In real time and in real spaces, [people act as if] those boxes don’t exist at the same time. I think that’s why for this past year I’ve avoided Latinx spaces. I can tell generally when someone’s asking me more questions, ’cause maybe they’ve never been able to have this kind of conversation. And then there’ve been spaces where it was clear anti-Blackness, either directed toward me or people who are darker than me.
There is this expectation, when we’re finally in a space to be together, that we’re all the same. We get to talk about all the things that are unique to us Latinos. And I think that for Black Latinos, I’ve always felt like I was a monkey wrench. Like in talking about separating families [I say], “That also happens to Black and Brown kids in the’ hood.” And [folks respond] like, “Yeah, but we’re not here to talk about that.”
What is your definition of Latino/Latina/Latinx?
Because I grew up the way that I did, being Latino was always this club that I wondered what it would be like to be a part of. We didn’t go to Puerto Rico for the summer. We didn’t have quinceñeras. I got older and would go to Latin nights at gay clubs and I don’t know how to dance salsa.
I thought I was doing something wrong, that I didn’t read a chapter in a book or didn’t take a specific class. I’m still trying to figure out what being Latino is. Doing Gran Varones has helped me figure that out. I think that we are all trying to figure that out.
The conversation has created this very clumsy, sometimes awkward, sometimes magical, expansion of what Latinx is. I don’t have a definition of it and I think I’m finally okay with that because I think that we are still trying to figure that out.
I’m clear that because I’m lighter skinned and both Latinx and Black, there are a lot of Black spaces I will not take up space in. I’m really conscious about how I present. I won’t use the n-word, because that can be violence itself.
How do you think the multiple—and maybe contested—definitions of Latino, Latina and Latinx impact efforts toward racial justice?
It’s provided an opportunity for Latino folks to talk about race. Race in this country has always been framed literally in Black and White. People in my family struggle to figure out where they see themselves. Now that we’re having the moment to examine what Latinx is, people are having conversations around race in a very different way that moves us forward in what racial justice is. That conversation is expanding. It’s more powerful, there are more voices in that conversation that weren’t there before. If we are okay with examining ourselves, how we relate to each other and how have we been socialized to see each other, I think that there’s only magic on the other side of that.
What is the particular impact of Latinx racial identity on your work?
I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I did not get Latino wrong, that I’m Latinx enough, that I’m Black enough and I’m queer enough.
Recently, I was at a demonstration outside the Supreme Court and this Central American queer young person from Winter Haven, Florida, was talking to a coworker, Lincoln. Lincoln brings him over, and he’s like, “Hey, just gotta’ say that, for a gay Latino like me in a small town, your work has really touched me and given me something to strive toward and to be okay with who I am.” I didn’t even realize that for him, I was Latino enough. That’s the magic of the expansion of Latinidad. What Latinx is gives us multiple points to connect. It doesn’t limit what we know now. That young person connected to all the points that even I didn’t see. We’re not losing who we are. We’re gaining so much more.
Rosana Cruz is a writer, parent, social justice movement leader and intersectional feminist. They have lived in New Orleans for over 20 years and in that time, worked closely with numerous organizations in the struggle for racial justice, LGBTQIA+ liberation and immigrant rights. They currently serve as a senior fellow at Race Forward, the national racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. Essays by Cruz have been published in hipMama, Bridge the Gulf Project, Colorlines and the anthology Mamaphonic. Cruz is a 2017 VONA Voices Fellow. Short fiction by Cruz is forthcoming in the Spring 2020 issue of Black Warrior Review.