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Inside Nikki López’s life on the ‘borderlands’ of identity

Nikki López. August 25, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople
DJ, poet, organizer, queer woman, Latinx and now executive director — these are all Nikki López’s identities. None of them should seem contradictory.

People — especially queer Latinx — tend to “have to choose” what issue affects them the most, López said. “We’re sort of forced to have to talk about it in single terms,” which is ultimately impossible because “all of these issues impact how we move through the world. We have to tell our stories because our stories are complicated.”

In September, she’ll be taking over as executive director of GALAEI, a multiservice nonprofit based in Norris Square that serves Philadelphia’s queer Latinx community. Her passion for the work is directly influenced by her own experiences growing up poor and queer in the only Puerto Rican family in her Daytona Beach neighborhood.

"We have to tell our stories because our stories are complicated."
Nikki López

“I was immediately faced with what [poet] Gloria Anzaldua says is what it means to live in the borderlands of all these identities” without community, she said.

López first worked with GALAEI from 2011 to 2014 — when she left to pursue an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark — as a youth programming coordinator, conducting case management for youth with high-risk patterns of sexual behavior and running workshops about gender identity and sexual health in high schools.

In 2012, the org underwent a strategic planning process and shifted its focus from HIV prevention to more holistic social justice issues concerning queer Latinx, a move in which López played a part. GALAEI still conducts HIV testing, but now incorporates programming such as a summer reading series for youth to learn about queer Latinx artists (they’re currently reading Gabby Rivera’sJuliet Takes a Breath), workshops for those working in the School District of Philadelphia to learn about how to better address LGBTQ students’ needs, and the Trans Health Information Project, which offers referrals to trans people in need of health services.

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To address the myriad social issues — including discrimination, deportation and poverty — faced by her community, López knows she needs to be intentional in inviting those GALAEI serves to have a say in what services and programming are offered.

"We don’t have a lot of spaces for healing, spaces to just be ourselves."
Nikki López

“Oftentimes what happens in nonprofit and social justice work [is] most action and movement towards those issues are reactionary. The community responds based upon what happened,” López said. “And what I really want to be thinking about in the queer Latinx community in Philadelphia is moving away from that model of being reactionary by being preventative.”

As she sees it, GALAEI exists to be a “hub” for queer Latinx in Philadelphia, where people in that community can feel like they’re home — a safe space, like the one López creates on the dance floor when she’s DJing.

“We’re a community that has experienced so much trauma. We don’t have a lot of spaces for healing, spaces to just be ourselves,” said López, who has faced gendered violence in traditional dance settings. “For many folks, the dance floor kind of becomes that space” — one free from homophobia and transphobia.

It’s about “having other tools in my toolbox,” she said, to make Philadelphia a more welcoming city for people like her, who live at the borderlands.

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