A Conversation with Roland Palencia, Incoming Executive Director of Equality California (Part 1)
By Gloria Nieto
When I first heard that Equality California had hired a Latino to be the new executive director to say that I was shocked would be an understatement. Having played a significant role fighting Prop 8 in San Jose, I was one of many who voiced criticisms of the No on Prop 8 campaign. Primarily, I was concerned about the lack of message and outreach to people of color.
I thought this selection might be a golden moment for the advancement of Latinos, both in the state and nationally. After conferring with my two hermanos, Andres Duque in New York and Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano in San Francisco, I decided to ask for an interview with Roland Palencia, the incoming Executive Director. I was immediately offered times to interview Roland. He generously spoke with me for an hour and answered all my questions.
Just to be completely transparent: I have a vested interest in Roland succeeding. I did not approach this interview in any way but wanting another Latino to lead the LGBT movement in California on a path that included all forms of social justice. This was not done as a neutral journalist but as a member of the Latino LGBT community in California wanting full equality for all.
Gloria Nieto: Tell me what your history is. I understand you are Guatemalan.
Roland Palencia: Yes, I was born and raised in Guatemala. My family was very politically involved. My father was one of those people – he was a small businessman and also a revolutionary. And he wanted to basically get rid of the military dictatorship that Guatemalans had been living with for many decades. So he was killed. I also had another cousin who was 18 when she was killed. My father was “disappeared” for quite a while until we found his remains.
You know many of my family members went into exile. Some went to Mexico City, Australia, Spain and Vancouver, Canada. Most of them are in Vancouver, Canada and Mexico City now.
My mom was concerned about our safety. She came to the US and she eventually brought us.
The US was providing military aid to Guatemala at that time. So Central Americans were not really eligible for political asylum so when I came here I was almost 18. I was already an adult.
I eventually went to UCLA. That is when I started to come out as a gay man. You know colleges and universities are the environment where many of us find ourselves. Also I got a sense of what being a Latino in the US was. Obviously I felt this sharp contrast with my family who were small businesses [sic]. We were not rich but we were somewhat prosperous. Basically here there is the sharp discrimination that many immigrants feel that kind of shaped my consciousness and that along with the fact that I was coming out as gay Latino man, really got me to really think about what I wanted to do [and] about the conversations that people have about both immigrants and LGBT people.
So in 1982, I was one of the co-founders of Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos, which eventually created the leadership that helped to found Bienestar. I don’t know if you know Oscar De La O but he was the founder of Bienestar.
RP:A lot of that leadership came out of GLLU and of course, many of them are dead now. Many of them died of HIV and AIDS. I lost, I don’t know, seven out of 10 friends. It was a huge epidemic and it hit the activist community really hard. So it was unfortunate about that, aside from the human suffering, just the pain that the community had.
I can think of Jose Ramirez. He was New York-ican. He was one of those individuals who really involved in the civil rights movement. Many involved with the United Farm Workers. They really had a connection to the civil rights movement. I think that we lost that whole generation. And we lost the consciousness and the solidarity thinking that came along with that.
GN: You know, I have also been of the opinion that men of that age – I wouldn’t say my numbers were as high as what you are talking about – but definitely, I talk about men who I should be growing old with who are not here anymore. I also think because we all grew up with the feminist movement that there was a lot more solidarity with women.
GN: And being able to operate from basic feminist principles of inclusion and equality, that losing so many of that generation, there was a loss of transferring that information, those principles and experience to younger men.
RP: So the hand-off, in terms of certain values, the basic tenets of the solidarity movement – that whole notion of interconnection and intersecting movements was lost, we lost a lot of that.
I don’t think we have analyzed the huge impact that the loss of that generation has had on the movement and where we are now. I can think of Frank Mendiola, who was a farm worker child. He was raised in the farms and he became a union activist. He was the one who organized the staff into a union at the Gay and Lesbian Center. He was like 24 and he was union organizing at the biggest LGBT institution.
So that is part of my history.
In the late 80’s, I founded VIVA along with other friends. That was basically an LGBT artists organization.
GN: And then you are a founder of HONOR PAC too?
RP: No, I am not a founder of HONORPAC. I am on the advisory board.
GN: Oh, OK.
RP: The main thing about VIVA is that so many of our gay brothers were dying that we created that organization to make sure that we kept their art and memories alive.
One impetus for that is that so many gay Latino men were dying, we got Latinas and Latinos involved and to really promote our art and the expanded consciousness that comes along with that. So that went on for like four or five years.
Then I went to work at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I was the vice president and chief of operations. Between being a consultant and a full time employee, I was there about eight years.
And then I went to La Clinica Monseñor Oscar Romero. I was the Executive Director there. I was the E.D. for four and a half years.
After that I started my philanthropic work with the foundations. I became the senior program officer at the California Endowment.
Now I have been appointed as the next Executive Director of Equality California.
GN: Well that is quite the story.
RP: It’s a lot.