History greeted National Coming Out Day in the Rio Grande Valley as the Valley AIDS Council announced on Sunday the grand opening of Casa Orgullo — the first-ever LGBTQ youth drop-in center aimed at providing a safe and brave space for members of the community.
Through a livestream on Facebook , the youth center’s director Josephine Flores and Steven Cano, the community mobilizations coordinator for VAC and Casa Orgullo, spoke of the mission and goals for the facility.
“At Casa Orgullo, we offer education, prevention, help and social service programs tailored to young people, ages 13-17,” Flores said of the youth center’s mission statement. “Our programs are designed to create a safe space where all youths feel respected, welcomed to be themselves.”
Due to the pandemic, Cano said the events and activities for the youth center will be held virtually. When they feel it is safe to do so, the doors to Casa Orgullo will open.
In addition to announcing the grand opening, the livestream also included testimonials from various figures, organizers and activists celebrating Casa Orgullo.
Kicking off the testimonials were VAC’s CEO Wally Cantu and COO Lizette Saenz, who spoke of the lack of safe space for youths in the Valley.
“We are committed to provide kindness, compassion, respect and care for each LGBTQ youth that goes through our doors,” Saenz said.
“We respect you, we accept you, your experiences matter,” Cantu said, addressing LGBTQ youth. “We will be here to support you every step of the way.”
Cantu noted the work couldn’t have been done without the hard work from their partners and leaders: Texas Freedom Network, Texas Rising, Planned Parenthood, GENTex, the South Texas Equality Project (STEP), the Texas HIV Syndicate, the Brownsville LGBTQIA Task Force, and Harlingen school board president Eladio Jaimez.
Saenz noted the Brownsville LGBTQIA Task Force is the only one of its kind in the Valley. Created on Dec. 3, 2019, the task force was created to explore strategies for improving awareness, advocacy, policy, inclusivity and cultural competency on issues impacting LGBTQ people in Brownsville, according to county records.
“We continue to make history as a community, not just in Brownsville, but across the Rio Grande Valley with amazing projects and initiatives like Casa Orgullo,” Jose Colon-Uvalles, also known as Kween Beatrix and the co-chair of the task force, said during their testimonial.
Celebrating and congratulating VAC for creating and introducing the youth center for the community, Colon-Uvalles also spoke of how beneficial Casa Orgullo will be for LGBTQ youth.
“We know our community, our queer and trans youth are the most impacted by homophobia, discrimination, bullying, harassment, often times finding themselves experiencing homelessness, often not having a place to go to find out information and to get the help that they need so they can live happy and successful lives.
“We can continue to break barriers and continue to challenge the norms of what is possible within our community and our region here in the border,” Colon-Uvalles said.
Fellow task force members Bere Cruz and Roy De Los Santos were also in attendance, wishing the youth center luck and congratulating their efforts.
“It’s so important for youth to have a space where they can have access to different types of resources, especially a space where they can explore conversations and their sexualities, gender identity and what that means to them,” Cruz said.
“As a member of the Brownsville Task Force, I’m able to engage more and more with the public. One thing is very clear” De Los Santos said. “There’s always more opportunity to do more good.”
Various activists and community members spoke at the event: Luna Thekween, Texas HIV Syndicate member Pedro Coronado, a member from Texas Rising, a mother of a transgender child and STEP President Gabriel Sanchez.
Valley figures also at the event included Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, 499th state District Judge Renee Betancourt, 398th state District Judge Keno Vasquez, and Jaimez of the Harlingen school board — all expressing excitement and congratulations for Casa Orgullo.
“Casa Orgullo will provide a safe space where youth can access mental health services, educational workshops with regards to sexually transmitted infections, HIV testing and recreational activities like movie nights, sports, game nights, and so much more,” Rodriguez said. “As a first of its kind in Hidalgo County, I am proud to welcome Valley AIDS Council Casa Orgullo.”
The livestream also included guest speaker Jade Josette, the president of GENTex who was able to see a glimpse of Casa Orgullo during the beginning of the project.
“Providing this youth center is such a beautiful thing because it’s going to be a life changing situation for individuals,” Josette said. “This will be a beacon for somebody who might be questioning their identity or if somebody doesn’t have a place to go or that support.”
In celebration, there were two fun-filled virtual drag performances: one by Luna Thekween, who lip-synched Beyonce’s cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Adele and Dua Lipa. “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the other performance, was a nod to old Hollywood starring Devotion Dubois and Deja Divanesse.
Before ending, Cano urged youth LGBTQ members and allies to fill out their survey, because they’d like to hear from them and what opinions they have.
“Remember that your voice is to be heard,” he said.
If you are a young person in crisis or need a safe and judgment-free place to talk, Casa Orgullo and the offices at VAC in McAllen can be reached at (956) 668-1155.
“Remember to vote, because your voice matters,” Cantu stated.
“In closing, bienvenidos a Casa Orgullo. Nuestro orgullo es su orgullo,” Saenz said in Spanish: “Welcome to Casa Orgullo, our pride is your pride.”
At the end of the livestream, the comments session were filled with love and support from the community as well.
”Looooove this, our border community needed this,” a comment read. “We need more resources for our bicultural, bilingual LGBT population.”
”Hearing so many queer voices and experiences in the RGV is so inspiring,” another user wrote. “It combats stigmas that are faced by and within the (LGBTQ) community.”
To watch the livestream, visit Valley AIDS Council on Facebook.