Interview with Roland Polencio
Me: Tell me what your history is? I understand you are Guatemalan.
RP: Yes, I was born and raised in Guatemala. My family was very politically involved. My father was one of those people, he was a small businessman and also a revolutionary. And he wanted to basically get rid of the military dictatorship that Guatemalans had been living with for many decades. So he was killed. I also had another cousin who was 18 when she was killed. My father was disappeared for quite a while until we found his remains.
You know many of my family members went into exile. Some went to Mexico City, Australia, Spain and Vancouver, Canada. Most of them are in Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City now.
My mom was concerned about our safety. She came to the US and she eventually brought us.
The US was providing military aid to Guatemala at that time. So Central Americans were not really eligible for political asylum so when I came here I was almost 18, I was already an adult.
I eventually went to UCLA. That is when I started to come out as a gay man. You know colleges and universities are the environment where many of us find ourselves. Also I got a sense of what being a Latino in the US was. Obviously I felt this sharp contrast with my family who were small businesses. We were not rich but we were somewhat prosperous. Basically here there is the sharp discrimination that many immigrants feel that kind of shaped my consciousness and that along that with the fact that I was coming out as gay Latino man really got me to really think about what I wanted to do. About the conversations that people have about both immigrants and LGBT people.
So in 1982, I was one of the co-founders of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos. Which eventually created the leadership that helped to found Bienestar. I don’t know if you know Oscar De La O but he was the founder of Bienestar.
RP:A lot of that leadership came out of GLLU and of course, many of them are dead now. Many of them died of HIV and AIDS. I lost, I don’t know, seven out of 10 friends. It was a huge epidemic and it hit the activist community really hard. So it was unfortunate about that, aside from the human suffering, just the pain that the pain the community had.
I can think of Jose Ramirez. He was Newyorican. He was one of those individuals who really involved in the civil rights movement. Many involved with the United Farm Workers. They really had a connection to the civil rights movement. I think that we lost that whole generation. And we lost the consciousness and the solidarity thinking that came along with that.
Me: You know I have also been of the opinion that men of that age. I wouldn’t say my numbers were as high as what you are talking about but definitely, I talk about men who I should be growing old with who are not here anymore. I also think because we all grew up with the feminist movement that there was a lot more solidarity with women.
Me: and being able to operate from basic feminist principles of inclusion and equality, that losing so many of that generation, there was a loss of transferring that information, those principles and experience to younger men.
RP: So the hand off in terms of certain values, the basic tenets of the solidarity movement, that whole notion of interconnection and intersecting movements was lost, we lost a lot of that.
I don’t think we have analyzed the huge impact that the loss of that generation has had on the movement and where we are now. I can think of Frank Mendiola who was a farm worker child. He was raised in the farms and he became a union activists. He was the one who organized the Gay and Lesbian Center. He was like 24 and he was organizing the biggest LGBT institution.
So that is part of my history.
In the late 80’s I founded VIVA along with other friends. That was basically and LGBT artists organization.
Me: And then you are a founder of HONOR PAC too?
RP: No, I am not a founder of HONORPAC. I am on the advisory board.
Me: Oh OK.
RP: The main thing about VIVA is that so many of our gay brothers were dying that we created that organization to make sure that we kept their art and memories alive.
One of the impetus for that is that so many gay Latino men were dying we got Latinas and Latinos involved and to really promote our art and the expanded consciousness that comes along with that. So that went on for like four or five years.
Then I went to work at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I was the vice president and chief of operations. Between being a consultant and a full time employee, I was there about eight years.
And then I went to La Clinica Monseñor Oscar Romero. I was the Executive Director there. I was the E.D. for four and a half years.
After that I started my philanthropic work with the foundations. I became the senior program officer at the California Endowment.
Now I have been appointed as the next Executive Director of Equality California.
Me: Well that is quite the story.
RP: It’s a lot.
Me: You’ve gotten a lot done.
Me: The Prop 8 campaign did not turn out the way we wanted it to. I am curious what you were able to do at that time. How were you able to help?
RP: I think I am one of those people who wish we had done more. I also know that there were a lot of blind spots. Things that campaign could have done a lot better. We all have learned a lot of lessons from that. I think that one of the lessons we learned was that we have to talk to the people.
You know we can’t do these things in a vacuum. WE have to have these one to one conversations in all kinds of community and all kinds of languages. We also have to understand that our opponents are very organized and very powerful and they have a lot of money. They have basically built in infrastructure of churches that are not on our side that they can turn on and turn off. So I was one of those people who was not as involved.
I think it is important to acknowledge that. I gave some money and made some phone calls. I remember on election day I was educating voters. It was outside the voting booths within the legal limits. I was out there for about 10 hours. At the end of the day, they wanted to arrest me. I was definitely involved.
I was involved in the Obama campaign. I went to Nevada to knock on doors. I was involved in the Obama campaign a lot more than the Prop 8 campaign.
Me: Just in terms of my own experience, I have to say that this campaign definitely scarred me. I have to say this was because of the really bad treatment I got from Equality California and I mean really bad treatment. Here I was running a hunk of the campaign here in San Jose, got talked to like I was a dog. Talked to incredibly disrespectfully, couldn’t get any resources. I would get resources from people in other counties. I would drive to Santa Cruz to get yard signs. You know that is now way to run a campaign.
There was an evening when some of the labor folks had brought hotel maids to help with phone banking. We did not have a Spanish script. So they were reduced to emptying the garbage cans and cleaning up. I was crying and crying and crying that night. I still apologize to the union people for that.
Then campaign staff person says that they have to check on any scripts to make sure they are culturally competent. Of course! My response in my head though was fuck you, fuck you for treating my folks like this.
I worked with Luis (Lopez, currently a candidate for state Assembly) to get window signs in Spanish. We generated these signs and offered to folks in San Francisco. We also got them done in Vietnamese, too. We got them out all through San Jose.
I offered them to San Francisco and never heard a word. Nothing.
RP: That should have never happened.
RP: Those are stories of things that should have never happened. By the way, my activism was with HONOR PAC, not necessarily with the bigger campaign.
Me: But why did HonorPAC have an office in LA, the were the only ones with an office in LA?
RP: They got some space from Supervisor (Gloria) Molina.
Me: I know but I am just saying that the campaign never opened up anything in LA.
RP: Correct. There was a relationship. If we go back in 2012, which is going to be a daunting task, these things need to be in place.
Me: Well this brings me to my next question. What can you do to heal what has happened between the campaign and Equality California? As much as I am enjoying talking to you now, there is a trust issue that cannot be solved in one phone call. I have other people who are waiting to see and hear this interview. My relationship with Equality California, and the is just one activist who has good credentials. I have knowledge but was never allowed to the table.
So I have two questions. What are you going to do to heal this gigantic rift which first of all needs to be recognized? But second, how can you change the perception in the state? Because you have a board where you have to pay to play. It is not representative. As much as I love Dolores (Huerta), she is not my representative. To me there are problems in terms of communication and representation.
RP: No, those are real issues. I think the fact that I have been involved in the community for so long I understand some of the issues. I want to meet with people. I want to hear what people have to say. I want to have a conversation. How do we integrate activists more in to the organization and figure out a way so that is a part of what we do?
The reality is that we don’t have a common conversation. We don’t have a language we can in some ways that we can converse around. You know what I am saying?
RP: So we are going to have create that, little by little or however it is. There’s a question of access. Who has access, what kind of resources? What kind of decision making? I think that is going to be an issue that we really have to think about.
The other thing is I really want to create a different framework in terms of how we approach our community engagement. By that I mean we need to take up issues that matter to all of our communities. So for instance, health care. I have been involved in health care. We have to expand our notion of what community issues are. I think marriage is definitely an important issue. It is a critical one.
In addition to it being a civil rights issue, it is an economic issue. We know that families that are legally protected also have a better chance of being economically stable, especially those families with children. So we have to frame this as a civil rights issue but as an economic justice issue.
We need to take up other issues that hugely impact our communities and I mean all our communities. Health care is definitely one. Access to affordable health care is a big issue in our community. We have an opportunity with health care reform to create alliances and to create coalitions that have one goal. That one goal is to create access to affordable health care.
Right now the state of California got $10 billion to do a program over the next three years called Bridge to Reform.
Me: I am on the board of the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center so I am really aware of that program.
RP: So you know that one of the goals is to enroll 500,000 people before 2014. I think we need to be part of those efforts. We need to demonstrate our competence in other areas that impact. That’s one approach that I think is going to help to definitely start creating coalitions.
Health care will impact women, people of color, single gay men, married LGBT couples. I mean you name it. There are close to 7 million Californians who do not have health care. I mean that’s a huge number of people affected. This is rich with opportunities for coalition work and to provide palpable benefits to our communities.
Another one is education. There are issues I need to vet with the board. We know that education is the big equalizer or at least has the potential to be.
We also know that having access to higher education is a seminal experience for LGBT people. Most of us came out in college where we were able to get away from our families a little bit, from our traditional settings, rural, urban, what have you. We started to find people like us, people we could relate to in a number of ways. So for many of us, we came out in college. Obviously, kids are coming out a lot earlier.
Aside from the fact that it is an economic justice issue to have access to an affordable, quality education, it is also part of our movement. It is where we shape our identities as activists many times. So this whole thing that is going on with the community colleges, 400,000 fewer students are going to be able access community colleges in the fall of 2011. I think that is like a stake through the heart of our movement. That means 400,000 fewer students are not going to have access to an education. This will have an economic impact and I think this is an economic justice issue.
But also in terms of activism, it really will deplete our troops. We have to start linking these things. We have to start looking at the fact that all these things are connected. All these things impact us in terms of civil rights and economic justice.
The other thing is I think, that and the reason why I am saying civil rights and economic justice we have to create a movement that is not only about civil rights. It is definitely about civil rights. But it is about economic justice. If we don’t take care of the economic justice part of it, we will have an incomplete civil rights movement.
I think that one of the reasons why we still have a Latino underclass and an African American underclass and poor, white underclass is because we haven’t really dealt with the issues of economic justice. I think we need to go beyond the civil rights issues.
Me: You are making me cry. This is where so many of us live, having a commitment to full social justice. When the Arizona law first got passed,(SB 1070, anti-immigrant bill) I wrote something for Karen’s blog (lgbtpov.com). I just got attacked with people saying immigration is not an LGBT issue. I am just wondering, what are you going to do? I don’t know that the organization is prepared.
RP: By the way, I don’t start the job until July 5th so I am just starting to figure these things out. But I know for a fact that they have a Beyond Borders outreach program. Part of that is to start educating the community on immigration issues, to start getting activists sharing with each other and to do coalition work. Equality California got a lot of flak for opposing the Arizona law. They got a lot of hate mail. I think that is a good sign.
Immigration is a civil rights and economic justice issue. We have to frame in that way. It is a civil rights issue because the rights of people are being trampled upon. No human being is illegal. That is such a demeaning and dehumanizing term.
But also it is an economic justice issue. Our economy depends a lot on that labor. We have a consumer society that loves cheap things, inexpensive things. Well, we, in some ways, are conspirators to having undocumented labor. The only way the system can produce what consumers want is if we lower the wages of those people who produce those things whether it is here in the US or outside. And we are saying “Fine.” If all of us benefit from having less expensive food and clothing, from less expensive housing then you can go down the line and document what undocumented labor contributes to the economy. Then we need to take care of those individuals who create those benefits for us.
It is a hard conversation to have but I think we need to have that conversation. I mean the same people who are putting the anti-gay propositions on the ballot are the same people who are anti-immigrant.
So if the gay movement becomes anti-immigrant we are basically strengthening our enemies. We need to be really watchful about that.
We have what I would call a hypocrisy economy where we want the benefits of the hands of the labor, the undocumented labor where we want the hands but not the whole body.
Me: I have a question about the education bill that was moving in Sacramento. I was wondering why there wasn’t more of an effort to educate us about what was going on in Sacramento, the wins in Sacramento? I think the effort was being done just through social networks. I hope you will address that because that is not an inclusive way of communicating. About the wins and the losses. I would like to see more of an effort to educate us and for us to go show and lobby. I would like to have diverse people show up.
RP: We have to figure that out and somehow work on creating a mechanism to have people more involved, more informed with the tool so we can create that movement that we are talking about. I think that will be a real challenge. How do we create that loop with communities and with individuals who want to be involved and make a difference.
We have to look at the legislation. You were asking me about how to get more connected to the community. Of course there is a process. It will not happen overnight. I was giving you a framework and an approach.
Equality California has passed about 71 bills. We need to do an analysis in terms of what does this mean about localities. We need to see if these bills create partnerships with local activists to start implementing those at a local level so that it really has an impact on the quality of life in those communities. It is not going to be in every community but we have the ability to not take over but can be the nervous system, connecting the synergy with best practices. To share what does work, what doesn’t work. To find out what is unique about one place, to know what is not unique about one place. I really want to create that network, that nervous system, that backbone to connecting our California movement a little bit more.
Me: I don’t know that this is Equality California’s job but there seems to be a lot of functioning Latino LGBT organizations in southern California but there is nothing up in northern California. A friend of mine in San Francisco and I tried last year to start a Latino LGBT organization up here. We couldn’t get a fiscal sponsor. We couldn’t get anybody to do that. It just seems like in part of the conversations it seems like it would be a natural fit for you and the rest of the staff could be hooking up people from different parts of the state so we can be having conversations about how do we work, how are we more effective and how to work together to be more united.
And if, oh gawd, we have to go back to the ballot in 2012, what are we going to do? For me, 2012 is too soon anyway.
RP: I have some thoughts. We are in a quandary. We are in a quandary. On one hand we have a Presidential election that gives us an opportunity to get a lot of progressive people out there to vote. Also, we had a bit of a generational shift because we had younger people, we had a number of Latinos become voters. We had a sizeable Latino generational shift.
Then we have Obama saying that he is evolving on the issue of marriage equality. That’s an indication that he might actually come out for marriage equality. We don’t know that but it is putting everyone on notice. They are not challenging DOMA. They were really strong on DADT. This is the holy trinity of issues: marriage, military and DOMA. So this is the only missing piece in that triad of issues. So that’s the opportunity.
The challenges are this election is 18 months from now. We are supposed to have a game plan. We are supposed to have a fund raising plan. We supposed to have our community united, including our allies.
Ninety percent of our pro-equality votes are going to come from our allies. The unions are supportive. The faith based communities, the civil rights organizations. The elected officials, you name it, right? We want to know that those allies are going to be there with us.
The unions have their own struggles going on. They are fighting for their lives. Not as much in California but certainly they are starting to feel the pressure.
Then we have to add this other piece – the lawsuit. Lots of resources have been shifted to that. They have raised millions and millions. Lots of the pro-equality money has already been invested in this lawsuit. They might not be as comfortable funding a ballot initiative in 2012.
This is a very complicated situation where you have tremendous opportunities and tremendous challenges. I think that part of the town hall meetings is to get some of that information but also to have to go outside of our community as well. Like I said, we depend on the 90% or so that are not just coming from our community.
Me: Here, Santa Clara county went for Prop 22 way back when. We flipped this county by like 32 points. I will say because I was outside the campaign that I could run the campaign in a way that I knew was more effective.
RP: So you had your ear to the ground.
Me: Exactly. A lot of people don’t know this about Silicon Valley. But 64% of the population is either immigrant or children of immigrants. We have the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Obviously it was critical that we get things out in Vietnamese. We had people out there talking about it.
That is one of the reasons we were able to change the vote here because of our relationships with the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community. Right now I am working with a group called Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) to talk about immigration issues here in Silicon Valley. So I am the only non-Asian in the group. But I am doing outreach into the LGBT community, working collaboratively with the biggest Asian group here. So for me that is what it needs to look like – Latinos and Asians working collaboratively in the state of California.
RP: I have just a little more time left. I am just so glad that we connected. We shall continue our conversations.
Me: I have two questions. Three questions. Are you familiar with how some Latinos in New York state are pounding on us against marriage? Reverend Ruben Diaz, who is an elected official in the state house. He is really homophobic. Last week he had a rally.
RP: I have heard of him but I am not as intimately acquainted with him or what he is doing there.
Me: When I publish this on Andres’s blog you should read the other items on his blog. I will forward you the link so you can see what they are dealing with in New York.
I am working with him on this interview because he has a huge Latino readership. He does work in both Spanish and English and monitors the press in Latin America.
The last question I have for you, are you going to be moving up here?
RP: I am going to be based in Los Angeles. But I will be traveling throughout the state.
Me: So then the center of the gay universe will be in WeHo now?
RP: You could say that (laughing). That is one of the things I am looking forward to. I am LA based. I looking forward to working with people around the state.
I went to the Courage Campaign’s training in Fresno. We take so much for granted in LA. I was so moved by the courage and passion of people in the Central Valley. It was like going back to the 1950’s. I was just so impressed with the passion and commitment. That inspired me for months. Well even today. It was very touching. I was very touched.
Me: I am glad to hear that. I have really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for your time.
RP: Thank you. I am sure we will talk again.