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Group becomes lifeline to migrants in Mexico border city

Gaby Zavala co-founded Resource Center Matamoros

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More than 2,000 people are currently living in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MATAMOROS, Mexico — It was shortly before noon on Jan. 14 when Gaby Zavala, co-founder of Resource Center Matamoros, walked into a camp in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in which more than 2,000 migrants are currently living.

Zavala passed a man who was getting his beard trimmed in a makeshift barbershop before she arrived in the portion of the camp that Resource Center Matamoros manages. Zavala began to speak with a group of migrants and volunteers, including Reuven Magder, a 12-year-old boy from D.C., who were erecting a tent for two families from Honduras and Ecuador who had just arrived in the camp.

Zavala said the Mexican government last month built a canopy over the tents after officials learned Resource Center Matamoros was planning to install “better shelters” that would be “more appropriate for a refugee camp setting.” Zavala told the Washington Blade the organization now works with Mexican immigration authorities “to help set people up under them with better, more spacious tents.”

“We’re working as a collaborative to relate to the Mexican government,” she said.

From left: Reuven Magder and his father, Dan Magder, of D.C., listen to Gaby Zavala, co-founder of the Resource Center Matamoros, in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The camp is located adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge that spans the Rio Grande and connects Matamoros with Brownsville, Texas. Resource Center Matamoros is among the myriad groups that provide assistance to migrants who live there.

Zavala noted Resource Center Matamoros was the first group to bring clean, treated water to the camp. She said the drowning of a 15-year-old girl in the Rio Grande prompted her to bring water tanks into the camp and build privacy tents with cups, buckets and donated shampoo and conditioner that migrants could use to bathe.

“Before that people were bathing in the river, washing clothes in the river, using the restroom in the river,” said Zavala.

Resource Center Matamoros last October moved into a building that is across the street from the camp.

Lawyers for Good Government’s Proyecto Corazon and the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) work alongside private attorneys at Resource Center Matamoros to provide legal assistance to migrants who have asked for asylum in the U.S. Resource Center Matamoros also provides a variety of other services that include massage therapy and yoga for migrants who have suffered trauma.

Resource Center Matamoros next month will launch an HIV testing program in the camp. Ray Rodríguez, a gay Cuban man who asked for asylum in the U.S., were among the migrants who were working at Resource Center Matamoros on the day the Blade visited.

“People, when they left their countries, they were fully functional people,” said Zavala during an interview in her office. “They had jobs. They had houses, they were supporting their children. They were self-sufficient at one point.”

“The whole migration has victimized them … in so many different ways,” she added. “So, they are now basically, left as a dependent, dependent on other people for food and for shelter.”

Zavala, 37, has been a community organizer for nearly two decades. The Valley AIDS Council, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, and Planned Parenthood are among the groups for which she has worked. Zavala’s family is also from Matamoros.

Zavala in 2018 began to cook food for migrants in Matamoros. She later brought them to “consultorios” in the city where they could see doctors and receive medications.

Zavala last spring started to provide meals, clean clothes, personal hygiene items and other items to migrants who U.S. Customs and Immigration Services and U.S. Border Patrol dropped off at Brownsville’s main bus station, which is a few blocks from the Gateway International Bridge. Zavala also helped organize a respite center for migrants at a Brownsville church.

“It just made sense that we were to take the people at the bus station to them so that they can take a shower, they can get information about what’s happening, get supplies that they needed,” she said.

Resource Center Matamoros co-founder Gaby Zavala in her office in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A State Department travel advisory urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Mexico’s Tamaulipas state in which Matamoros is located because of “crime and kidnapping.” Many of the migrants who live in the Matamoros camp have been forced to return to Mexico under the Trump administration’s controversial “remain in Mexico” policy and await the outcome of their U.S. asylum cases there.

“Now we have MPP,” Zavala told the Blade, referring to the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy that includes a requirement for migrants to place their name on a waiting list in order to apply for asylum at a U.S. port of entry. “And now we have several others that have just been implemented that are completely unfair, and they leave asylum seekers available in this country.”

Zavala, who identifies as bisexual, also told the Blade that LGBTQ migrants who live in the camp are even more vulnerable to mistreatment, discrimination and even violence from groups that include drug cartels and Mexican police officers.

“For me seeing that in the context of the camp is hurtful,” she said.

Resource Center Matamoros works with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a group that provides assistance to LGBTQ migrants. Resource Center Matamoros also provides LGBTQ migrants with a space in which they can privately meet with lawyers and volunteers.

Zavala said she hopes to provide HIV tests to up to 150 migrants a month once the program launches and connect those who test positive to HIV/AIDS clinics known by the Spanish acronym CAPASITS (Centro Ambulatorio para la Prevención y Atención en SIDA e Infecciones de Transmisión Sexual) that the Mexican government operates. Zavala conceded the program will prove challenging, in part, because LGBTQ migrants in Matamoros are often not out and have fled countries where violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is rampant.

“You really have to take extra, extra caution when you’re having a ‘charla’ because rumors run through the camp like wildfire,” she added, noting confidentiality remains a top priority. “It’s very sensitive.”

Resource Center Matamoros is ‘a big family’

Zavala told the Blade she has faced resistance from organizations outside the Rio Grande Valley who “feel like you can’t do it … and want to usurp all the hard that we’ve ever done.” Zavala also said she has felt judged and not supported in her efforts to help migrants, but stressed she has become part of the “main stakeholders of the work in Matamoros.”

Zavala also described Resource Center Matamoros “a big family.”

“What I have found here is life, is love, is compassion,” she said. “We all take care of each other and I’ve never felt so backed by a group of people.”   

A girl mops a tent platform at a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. Resource Center Matamoros manages this portion of the camp that is under a canopy the Mexican government built. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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