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Back to the Barrio: LGBT Organization Returns to Kensington

May 5, 2015 Category: Purpose

Framed by a tree-lined corner of Norris Square Park in West Kensington, a 20th-century brownstone has quietly become the new home of GALAEI, the social justice organization for queer Latinos.

Just days after the organization’s departure from a Center City office building, GALAEI’s new three-story home, complete with architectural flourishes and original hardware, was cluttered with boxes.

“For us, it was an obvious and essential move,” said Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of GALAEI. “We needed to be in community, in a neighborhood that was very heavily Latino, in an area that does not have any services for queer people. We knew that doing so would be really game changing for Philadelphia.”

GALAEI is labeling itself, she added, as the first LGBT organization to be in a neighborhood. Most groups focused on LGBT issues are concentrated in Center City.

Norris Square, in the sightline of the Market-Frankford Line, is a verdant oasis in a densely populated section of West Kensington.

Along the perimeter of the park are networked organizations — Norris Square Neighborhood Project, West Kensington Ministry, and Norris Square Senior Center, among others — all working to support Latinos.

As a social justice organization, GALAEI was attracted to that interconnectedness. The move is an opportunity to build alliances with the community and address common goals.

“There’s a group of institutions around a gathering place, and we wanted to re-insert ourselves into a fabric that was community. That was Norris Square,” said Rafael Alvarez, a GALAEI board member.

A Return to the “Barrio”

GALAEI’s move is also a homecoming of sorts, a return to the “barrio” where the organization got its start nearly 30 years ago.

Back then, when GALAEI was located on “El Bloque del Oro,” a lively commercial district that runs along Fifth Street, the Latino communities of North Philadelphia were not interested in its message and unnerved by the group’s focus on HIV testing and resources, according to Alvarez.

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A hostile reception, along with incidents of vandalism, discomforted the staff. “That location was not conducive to building a common understanding,” he said.

GALAEI decamped for the “gayborhood” in the early 90s, where it provided a range of counseling and sexual health services.

There, the organization that describes itself as a “home” for queer Latinos was removed from its primary community. Because many Latinos are hard-pressed to leave their neighborhoods, explained Alvarez, it was more difficult to reach them. The time had come for GALAEI to go home.

Another factor influenced GALAEI’s return. Two years ago, when the organization initiated a “Positivo” campaign to reduce stigmas associated with identifying as gay, it discovered that the majority of Latinos interviewed were already “very affirming” of their loved ones, Gonzales said.

“The cultural issue is not that there’s homophobia, but that no one in the Latino community is talking aloud about the fact that they are affirming of their family and friends that are gay,” she added.

Alvarez, who works in city government and lives in the “barrio,” summed up the Latino community’s thought process another way.

Because of the cultural shift toward acceptance, “there was no need for a young person or an older person to go downtown and escape what their neighbors would see as undesirable. I can be a queen on my block because now I’m not afraid of a repercussion,” he said.

So far, GALAEI’s reception in the neighborhood has been positive.

“We see nothing but folks embracing us,” said Gonzales, who described the relocation as a chance to work on grassroots issues in an organic and intentional way.

The organization’s presence and inclusive, affirmative message, she added, is an equally important example for the Latino community.

“It seems trivial, but when you don’t see images of yourself anywhere, you don’t necessarily know how to be or who you are,” Gonzales said.

“We want to be able to have that space where people can come and be themselves, no matter how they identify, that really embraces all our identities and all of who we are.”

Image via Erin Kane


Norris Square Community Garden

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