When activist Julio Rodriguez was 5 years old, a teacher forced him to stand up in class and choose another namemaybe John, she suggested, since people couldn't pronounce "Julio." By the time he got home, he had become "Peter." When he told his family to make the change, his fatherJulio Sr.was the only one to refuse.
"It was this sense of, 'Let's pull you away from your family, your country of origin and homogenize you,'" the younger Rodriguez recently told Windy City Times. "Even though I didn't know it at the time, I recognized in some way that this was the beginning of people trying to put a wedge between me and who I was."
Within that first week of school, Rodriguez lost his first name and quickly realized it wasn't safe to tell people he was gay, either. It would be decades until he made the switch back to "Julio" and started living fully by celebrating himself as a Puerto Rican gay man, he said.
But these early moments of injustice stayed with him. Rodriguez co-founded the Association of Latino Men for Action (ALMA) in 1989an organization that modified its name to Association of Latino/as Motivating Action in 2012 to better serve and represent a broader constituency. As such, Rodriguez has participated in numerous community actions, advocating on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS funding to marriage equality.
By the time of ALMA's founding, the Latinx LGBTQ+ community needed action. Discrimination was rampant and the AIDS crisis was an ever-present challenge. Rodriguez watched many of his friends get sick and die. Society treated them as ghosts even before they were gone, he recalled.
"When I think about ALMA and the Latino LGBTQ movement, it was about fighting to be seen and heard," Rodriguez said. "It was not because we expected someone else to do it, but because we were going to do it."
From the start, Rodriguez wanted the organization to go beyond promoting social eventshe wanted it to demand change. He has never stopped volunteering for ALMA, except for a brief stint working in Washington, D.C. that only affirmed how he wanted his footprint to be in Chicago.
"[Growing up], I didn't have people that I could turn to," he said. "I realized that I needed to come back to Chicago, because I had a responsibility to the kids like me."
Rodriguez said that as a child, he lived a chaotic life, brought on by institutional and structural failures. To protect himself, he learned how to stay invisible.
By the time he attended high school, none of his friends could even say where he lived. Prompted by his mother's schizophrenic episodes, Rodriguez's family had to move around nearly every year, and he didn't want anyone to know.
"She would come into my room and she would just sit at the end of my bed, and she would just say, 'You know, I love you. Don't forget; I'm lost, but I love you," he said, tearing up. "Those times were really hard because me and my family really had no one to turn to."
Rodriguez now understands how the stigma surrounding mental illness made it difficult for her to get help. He also can see how systems meant to supposedly help him actually perpetuated harm, he said. Toward the end of middle school, his father had to move out of their home, in part because people frequently called the police on them and it was dangerous to have him stayRodriguez said his family knew the officers would stereotype his father as a threat.
His junior year, he returned home one day to find his apartment in disarray. There was an eerie quiet that greeted him, a quiet that he'd never experienced before, he said. The silence broke when his neighbor told him his mom and sister had fled.
"I thought to myself, 'I don't know what's going to happen,'" he said. "But I'm not going back to the life I had."
Rodiguez said he stayed on the streets for about two days until he realized he could live in the back room of the Baskin-Robbins he managed. About six months later, he'd moved into his own apartment.
One day, on his way back to that apartment, he got on the busonly to find his father driving it. He recalled how his father, with tears in his eyes, realized that Rodriguez had been forced to grow up and be independent before he reached adulthood.
He doesn't overgeneralize his experiences to his entire community, but Rodriguez said he's careful to acknowledge the history and policy behind his circumstances. Naming those issues of discrimination and working against them became his life's work.
Through his experiences, he said he wanted to make sure that other people wouldn't need to feel invisible, he said. He recalled one of the first times he felt truly seen, as he represented ALMA while marching in the Puerto Rican People's Parade. Behind him was a float with his dad; in front of him was a sign, proclaiming, "Association of Latino Men for Action," and in smaller text, "for homosexuals."
"It was about not being hidden, not being afraid to be my full self," he said. "I'm Puerto Rican and gay. I'm not just Puerto Rican. And I don't want to just be Puerto Rican."
Ever since then, he's made a point of emphasizing visibility with ALMA.
"That's what [ALMA]'s last couple of decades has really been aboutnot forgetting that we need to connect to people individually, but also remembering that we have to amplify their experiences in the broader context of the larger community," he said. "Otherwise, we just become footnotes in the history of the LGBTQ movement. We can't have another 30 years of just being a footnote."
Mona Noriega, who ran the queer Latina-focused organization Amigas Latinas for years and last year retired from her post heading the city's Commission on Human Relations, said that ALMA is unique. Not only has it lasted a long timewhich is uncommon for a volunteer-run organizationbut it changed to fit the needs of the community with its 2012 name change, she said.
"Without [Rodriguez], it would not last that long," Noriega said. "That's an absolute. He is the blood of the organization."
Rodriguez admitted he feels the weight of ALMA remaining one of the only LGBTQ+ Latinx-oriented nonprofits in Chicago. With COVID-19, immigration issues and violence threatening the LGBTQ+ Latinx community, he said spaces to come together and create progress are especially crucial.
"I've learned that my life is hanging in the balance," he said. "It's important for me to figure out: How do I get a new generation of leaders to have the same sense of urgency, as we did during the AIDS pandemic? Because I think we're back to a life-and-death situation."
At 62, Rodriguez has spent about half his life organizing with ALMA and nearly a whole lifetime thinking about these issues. But as he gets older, he said he realizes those issues don't disappear. And for as long as they continue, he said, all he can do is keep up the work.
"The future is knocking on our door," he said. "And we have to figure out what our answer is."