PGN: Starting with ...
TC: I was born in San Juan, P.R. My father was in the Army so we did a lot of traveling. He was stationed in Hawaii, Georgia, you name it ... We even lived in Panama for seven years. I’d guess you’d say I was an Army brat. My mother was a seamstress for many years. They’re both mostly retired now but my father does work as a translator in Trenton.
TC: He’d been stationed in Ft. Dix and my parents decided to stay here. We’ve been in this area since ’78. I just moved into the city about a year ago. I’ve always loved Philadelphia. You know, I used to work at Shampoo on Friday nights, so I’m over the drive back and forth to Jersey. I was lucky enough to buy a condo in the Fairmount section of the city. I love being in Philly — love it, love it.
PGN: Other than here, what was a favorite place to live?
TC: Probably Panama. I remember going to the beach, singing in the choir at church, playing softball and doing a lot of family things. It was a very quiet way of life. It’s funny: I was at a party just yesterday and there were a lot of Panamanians there and they were telling me how much it’s changed. I’d love to go back and see it as an adult.
PGN: Something fun you liked to do with your family?
TC: I come from a very musical family. My father played the guitar and my mother could sing, so we enjoyed singing for fun. I played a little guitar too.
PGN: Sibling rivalries?
TC: Well, I’m the middle child of three sisters. With three girls, as you might expect, we’d argue a lot but we loved each other.
PGN: What was the worst thing you did to each other?
TC: [Laughs.] Oh, let me see... The first thing that comes to mind was when I was 7 or 8 and I was sitting on the railing at the top of the stairs with my feet dangling. I put myself in that predicament because I would always pretend to be Superman. I’d tie a towel around my neck and pretend to fly, so I was standing at the top of the railing and my sister grabbed me and held me over it until my mom came.
PGN: Favorite game?
TC: I just loved playing softball. My father was the coach and I was always the smallest one, so he’d put me way out in right field. One day the girl that played first base couldn’t be there, so they put me on for the heck of it. I caught everything that came my way and I haven’t left the infield since then.
PGN: Any other sports?
TC: Yes, I played basketball, I played field hockey and volleyball in college, powder puff football ... I was always a jock.
PGN: Where did you go to college?
TC: I got an associate’s degree in travel and tourism from Harcum College. When it came time to do my practicum, I wasn’t happy because the practicum time was running into my softball time. A friend of mine said, “You like sports so much, why don’t you become a phys-ed teacher?” So I got my travel degree and then went to Glassboro State, now called Rowan University, and got a bachelor’s in health and physical education. I’ll be starting my 23rd year of teaching in September. In 2003, I got a master’s in education at Wilmington University.
PGN: What age do you teach?
TC: I taught at Camden High School for 18 years and now I teach in an elementary school and I love it! The little ones are so much fun. They want to play, they want to learn, it’s great. I enjoy going to work every day.
PGN: Do you participate in Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign?
TC: We have our own curriculum that we use. We just started a healthy-snack program. We got a grant from the state and they’re sending us all sorts of fruits and vegetables twice a week. We are getting the kids to eat mangos, peaches, asparagus, star fruit — things they would normally not be exposed to. It’s going very well.
PGN: We hear the statistics about childhood obesity: Does it ring true to you?
TC: Oh yes, it’s horrible! Definitely, it’s so sad. I work with kids that come from impoverished homes and so many families are really uneducated about food. There’s no exercising, the kids sit around all day and the food comes from McDonald’s or Checkers or it’s all fried. It’s a shame. I had my high-school kids watch the film “Super Size Me” and, after it was over, they were like, “That’s bad, but then what are we supposed to eat?” They didn’t even know what food options were out there. And even if they are aware, the cost of healthy options are prohibitive for a lot of people.
PGN: You must be a good mentor to your kids. Tell me about one who was special.
TC: Yeah, it’s kind of cute, some of them really get attached. In high school, I had a student for four years who used to follow me everywhere — a young black girl — and she was very shy. I coached her in volleyball and basketball and softball and took her under my wing a little. She was really introverted but smart and I wanted her to come out of her shell. She ended up being the valedictorian and went on to become a marine biologist. She’s sent me emails and told me about the effect I had on her, so that was really nice. [Smiles.] If I’ve helped one person, it’s a job well done!
PGN: Other than sports, what do you like to do?
TC: Oh gosh, a lot of things. I recently bought a motorcycle, a cruiser, and I love it. I have a DJ business on the side and I do private parties, weddings, sweet 16s and things like that. I have my own skis and love to ski in the Poconos in the winter. I love playing football on the beach in the summer. We have a group of us who play at Asbury Park. I have a radio talk show and enjoy hosting events. [Laughs.] I guess that runs in the family because I have an uncle who had a radio show back in the, ’60s that was very popular in Puerto Rico. What else? I love beer and beer-tasting events! I dance salsa, oh my God, I love salsa and all the Latino dances.
PGN: How did the blog and radio show come about?
TC: I was just at home surfing the net and didn’t really find anything addressing the lesbian community that I liked. So I started “A Les Forum.” I wanted a place where women could come and read articles and leave messages about experiences they’ve had or places they’ve been. There are so many things out there that we didn’t have growing up. So when I go on a trip and stay at a hotel that’s gay-friendly, I’ll write about it. When friends of mine got married and had a beautiful ceremony, I wrote about the fact that it was so neat to be able to go to something like that. I would not have imagined it when I was growing up.
PGN: You have a lot in there, from coming-out stories to book reviews to events that might not get much mention on mainstream media. I noticed a “Ladies Mix” at Pro Bar on the 29th that features Latin music that looks like fun. Is the forum geared for Latino women?
TC: No, it’s for lesbian women from all ethnic backgrounds and cultures — from professional women to blue-collar workers, teachers to truck drivers. Now my radio program, “The Terri Cotto Show,” is geared toward lesbian Latina women — mainly because there’s nothing out there specifically for us in the Philadelphia area, nothing. We don’t even have a bar where can enjoy our culture and our music! We do have Raices Latino Pride Philadelphia, but it’s only about a year old. I should mention that Raices is having a big family day festival at Liberty Lands Park on Third Street in Northern Liberties [Aug. 4]. It’s in conjunction with the Phreak N Queer Festival 2012 and we’re going to have lots of music, live entertainment, food and other types of vendors; face painting for the kids and a domino tournament for the adults. In our culture playing dominos is huge. I love doing the radio show, I love to talk and what better than to talk about things important to our community and to play the music we love.
PGN: What do you say to people who ask why do we need to separate ourselves even more when we’re already a minority just being gay?
TC: Being Puerto Rican and living in the States, I am part of both cultures and have heritage from both. Take Christmas for example: I have the Christian traditional celebrations that I enjoy, but I also have Latin customs that are exclusive to the Latin community. One of my favorites is Parranda. It’s kind of like Christmas caroling, but we take our instruments, guitars, maracas, bongos and the guiro, which is an instrument like a handheld washboard — I’ve seen you playing it at Sisters so you know what it is. Anyway, we go out about 2 a.m. to someone’s house with a trulla, which is a kind of caravan. Sometimes we warn the occupants that we’ll be showing up, sometimes not! And we sing Puerto Rican Christmas songs in front of the house. The people open their doors and let us in and give us food and drinks and we sing for an hour. Then we move on to the next house and it goes on until the sun comes up! It’s sooooo much fun. Especially on the island where you don’t have to have a coat on since it’s so warm. [Laughs.] We do it here, but it’s not quite the same all bundled up. Plus the guitars go out of tune in the cold! But we try. So back to your question, if we don’t recognize our culture, we’re denying who we are. I think having Latino organizations and events in the community doesn’t divide us, it celebrates us. And we don’t do that enough.
PGN: Sometimes, I think ethnic groups feel pressure to assimilate.
TC: True, Suzi. You know, growing up in Panama I went to an American school with other Army kids. Everybody’s names were Smith or Johnson or Williams. My full name is Lourdes Teresa Cotto Rivera and the kids would laugh at me. I remember begging my mother to change my name to Terri Wilson so I could fit in.
PGN: Changing topics, when did you come out?
TC: Well, I’ve been gay for as long as I can remember. I always had crushes on my teachers and my girl classmates. I just wanted to hold their hands. Like a lot of us, I knew I was different. Around high school, a friend of mine told me that he was gay when he was heading off to college. I finally confessed that I was too, and he took me out to some clubs and introduced me to people. I met a girl that I started dating and one day after school, my mother told me that she thought something was going on between us. She said they were going to take care of me and take me somewhere to get me some help. I said, “What are you talking about? You’re right, I am gay, but this is just the way I am, I don’t need help.” We both cried about it and she slowly accepted it and, in fact, it made us even closer. The whole family was fine about it. My sisters were like, “Oh my God, we knew before you did!” Anyone I’ve dated has been welcomed into the family. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.
PGN: Favorite class in high school?
TC: Gym, of course! [Laughs.] That was my time to shine.
PGN: Craziest DJ moment?
TC: I DJed at a nightclub and the women were taking their shirts off and flashing me their tetas ... boobs.
PGN: Favorite cartoon?
TC: I loved Topo Gigio. He was a puppet but they also had a Topo Gigio cartoon. My mother even bought me a Topo Gigio doll. I wonder where he is? I’m going to call my mom right now and see if she still has him!
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