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Making Waves of Social Support & Progress in Puerto Rico: Interview with Wilfred Labiosa

The Waves Ahead community center in San Juan, run by Wilfred Labiosa, flies two flags: the trans pride flag with the transgender greek symbol encapsulated in a heart, and the flag of Puerto Rico mixed with the gay pride flag. Both stand as a beacon for LGBT+ Puerto Ricans. 

On 4 June 2021, Latina Republic interviewed Wilfred Labiosa, community organizer and change maker currently based in his natal home of Puerto Rico. In order to pursue higher education in Boston, Labiosa departed from his natal home of Puerto Rico in 1989. While there, Labiosa learned in the classrooms of New England, advocated for meaningful change within the historically white community, and bolstered friendships with other folks in his network. Certainly, Labiosa embarked on his efforts by focusing on his identity as gay and Puerto Rican.

As the adage goes, “There’s no place like home.” Veritably, home is where family is. Such was the case for Labiosa when, in 2014, he returned to Puerto Rico to take care of his mother. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzeheimers. Alongside his dad and aunt, Labiosa would take care of his mom.

As Labiosa asserts, Puerto Rico is an aging island. The island’s median age rose from 36 in 2008 to 43 in 2018, according to Pew Research Center. The country’s share of elders is increasing, and Labiosa felt the pangs of this reality in his own family. The country’s elders need support, as well as other marginalized communities. In light of these needs, Labiosa established Waves Ahead, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the island’s marginalized and vulnerable.

Latina Republic: It’s a pleasure to be here with you, Wilfred. Could you please tell me about yourself, your story, and how you got to this moment?

Labiosa: I’m Wilfred Labiosa and I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. After I graduated high school, I went to school throughout my years in Boston. I obtained my bachelor’s degree at Boston University, then I went for my master’s degree at Suffolk University in the management of nonprofit organizations.

I also obtained a degree in counseling psychology from Northeastern University. Then I went on to work for many years. Afterwards, I finished a doctorate in the school of social work at Simmons University in Boston, and another doctorate in psychology at the University of La Habana. At that time, I worked predominantly in advocating for spaces for us Latino and other diverse folks living in Boston.

Boston has its own idiosyncrasies, from being very racist, clasist, separatist. And I learned a lot from that. I was a Latino advocating for Latino LGBT space within white LGBT spaces. I look white. So, I could get in the door, but then I would open my mouth and then they would slam the door behind me. It was a learning curve for me.

I lived in Boston and surrounding communities for almost 27 years. After a while I could not afford Boston, so I had to move outside of the city. It was still very expensive. Also, I kept coming to Puerto Rico every year; I used to come four or five times a year to visit my family.

I have some family in the States—Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC and so forth—but my immediate family is in Puerto Rico. So, when my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, I flew back here to take care of her and to start the caregiving of her with my dad and my aunt. Because of that I moved back home. I always wanted to move back home.

LR: That happened after you got your education, right? When you were working in Boston creating these spaces for LGBT and other diverse folks?

Labiosa: Yes. I established myself in Boston, and in the entire United States, really. I frequently worked with other leaders of the LGBT community. Throughout the states, I developed Unid@s, which was the organization that brought together Latino LGBT leadership throughout the country.

I developed Latino Pride during LGBT Pride Month in Boston. (Boston has a lot of firsts. But at the same time, it has a lot of firsts of racist and homophobic acts as well.) Latino pride began in Boston. Because Latino LGBT leadership was united, we all started to develop festivals of Latino LGBT pride in many of our states.

Latino pride still exists in Boston, although due to the nationwide Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter, it is going through changes. This year will be the first one with all those changes implemented. The organizers contact me and they ask for my feedback and I provide it, but I’m not so directly involved anymore in Boston Latinx pride (Twitter). Still, the leadership continues to contact me.

Friends and colleagues of mine are all connected in a network. We have known each other since the LLEGÓ years, which was the national LGBT Latino organization that advocated for LGBT Latinos in the 80s and 90s. LLEGÓ is no longer running, however; It dissolved due to financial reasons, which I know because I was a part of the organization. So, we were all involved with LLEGÓ and Unid@s.

When I moved back home to take care of my parents, I saw that there was a need for elder care. Elder care for my mom was terrible, and I advocated a lot for her. I saw a need and I told myself that, if this is my mom—a heterosexual woman married to the same man for over 50 years—then can you imagine LGBT elder care? I saw the need.

Providing food to an LGBT elder. (Photo Courtesy of Waves Ahead.)

I knew of the work of SAGE (advocacy and services for LGBT elders) in the United States. SAGE has affiliates all across the country, and is the largest and earliest organizations advocating for LGBT elders. I knew that there was no SAGE here in Puerto Rico, so I reached out to them (they knew me, so it was easier to connect with them).

I told them that I wanted to bring SAGE to Puerto Rico. I know that there’s a need, and they required data. In 2014, with the help of SAGE, I requested funds to do a needs assessment with 100 Latino LGBT members, as well as allies to the community, to bring them together in one day to learn anecdotally what were the issues and how we could make changes.

With the help of another elder advocacy organization, I was able to run the needs assessment. I then solicited to become a SAGE affiliate, and now I run the SAGE Puerto Rico chapter.

LR: To have had the aid of these large organizations must have brought considerable visibility to LGBT people. Can you please tell me more about what you think the queer community faces in relation to feeling visible and protected. What are some of the challenges that the queer community faces in Puerto Rico?

Labiosa: Yes, visibility for sure. To your questions: in general I think that we all want to be included in whatever movement is happening. This is very regional, because in some states, regions, and countries outside of the United States (outside of our cocoon of the United States), there are still many struggles where people are asking to be included, supported, and validated. In some countries in Latin America specifically, we still need to be validated, we still need to be included and accepted. The struggle is everywhere.

Then, I said regionally because in the United States there’s some towns outside of these metropolises where people still need to be validated for their intersectionalities. I see the issue as a balancing act that depends on where you are. If I moved from San Juan to another town here in Puerto Rico, then it would be very different than here.

Specifically to your second question. We are facing a lot of homicides against our brothers and sisters who are transgender; We are the center point of the crisis that is happening in the United States. We are the center point of the crisis in the debate about our US citizenship.

The past administration did not accept us as such, and they treated us as colonial—which we are—but we don’t have to be treated as third or fourth class citizens. We are US citizens. If you’re born here in Puerto Rico, then you’re a US citizen. Needless to say, I think that in Puerto Rico, we have a lot to fight for.

We’re still struggling over the usage of conversion therapy: it is still being used. We are a society full of ultra conservative churches. We still need to struggle for our treatment as equals, which we are not. In Puerto Rico, we have very few legislators who are inclusive of LGBT language, but many are not.

Justin Santiago, LGBT Puerto Rican activist, is seen pictured here in a rally held in San Juan on 2 May against femicide. Justin is an outspoken activist against conversion therapy, using his own experiences to fuel his activism. (Source: Jose (Tito) Fuentes for NBC News).

So we have a lot of struggles, you know, going on in Puerto Rico, from homicides, to trying to be treated equally. And we still have a lot of mistreatment towards our elders. Puerto Rico is an ageing state, if you want to call it that. By the year of 2025, the majority of people here will be elders: 55 and above. If we don’t advocate for ourselves, then no one else will.

LR: Do you have a vision for waves ahead? What do you see in the future for yourself and the organization?

Labiosa: Well, that’s a very complex question because there’s so much that I want to accomplish before I’m no longer on this earth. I have some solid ideas.

For every year now since 2017, I have conducted needs assessments. I use this data—analyzed via scientific methods—to establish programs. Recently, we finished an assessment across the country for people living with HIV/AIDS, specifically LGBT elders.

We do both quantitative and qualitative assessments, and I am currently waiting for the analysis of those results. Really what I have learned is that the LGBT community in Puerto Rico needs at least four community centers. These centers act as safe spaces where LGBT people can seek help. Right now, we have two centers: one in San Juan and one in Cabo Rojo.

According to Washington Blade on 16 May 2019: “A ribbon-cutting ceremony for Puerto Rico’s first center for LGBT elders took place in San Juan on [14 May].”

Former mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz spoke at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of the San Juan center. Wilfred Labiosa is shown on the left. (Source: Wilfred Labiosa for Washington Blade).
Map of the locations of Waves Ahead/Sage PR’s community centers. (Photo Courtesy of Waves Ahead).

We determined that we need at least four different community centers to have as safe spaces. The island is small, but the roads can be complicated. So, I want to make these centers keeping accessibility in mind.

My short term goal for Waves, then, is to manage at least four community centers. This year, we’ll be opening the third center. And early next year, the fourth one, hopefully. My long term goal involves developing housing units that we can call our own and be safe in. Equally enough, also developing a transition shelter for LGBT youth and adults that have been kicked out of their homes. They can come to the transitional shelter in their transition of becoming independent.

One caveat that I want to point out is that LGBT elders can tend to go back to the closet when they get sick and seek out help from family. I want to avoid this phenomenon of going back to the closet. Something else I want to point out is the toll that mental health and suicide has on Puerto Ricans.

In the following video, New York Times reporter Caitlin Dickerson talks to suicide prevention hotline operators. Made shortly after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the video is an exposé into an emerging public mental health crisis.

In their mission of providing a safe space for LGBT Puerto Ricans, Waves Ahead has opened a meditation room in their San Juan center pictured below.

LR: Thank you for this interview, Wilfred. Would you like to give a final message to the community and to your colleagues?

Labiosa: Thank you for this opportunity to remind folks, who are LGBT and elder, that they are not alone. Please seek assistance and ask questions to better prepare yourself for the future as an LGBT+ older adult. Tomorrow is yet to come and although it might not be easy, there is always someone and/or an organization to help. Let’s treat our mental health just like we treat our physical health.

To my colleagues, please be open minded and seek trainings so that you can assist ALL of the intersectionalities of the individual. As professionals working in the field, we can make the difference respecting ALL kinds of expressions of Love, and points of views. Although you are the professional, it doesn’t mean that you know it all. We can learn so much from our LGBT+ Elders.

Currently, Waves Ahead is fundraising for a project on Food Sustainability for LGBT+ elder adults. To donate, visit here. To donate directly to Waves Ahead, visit here.

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San Juan

1149 Ave Américo Miranda,
San Juan, PR 00921
787.940.8851 waves@wavesahead.org

Cabo Rojo

Mestre and Baldorioty Street Corner, Old Recycling and Environmental Health Center Cabo Rojo, PR 006231
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Maunabo

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Maunabo, PR 00707.
787.940.8851
waves@wavesahead.org,
caborojo@wavesahead.org