Family Portraits: Louis Ortiz

OK, I admit that I have made people cry (à la Barbara Walters) during the course of these interviews, but this week was a first: The interviewee made me cry like a baby.

Louis Ortiz is that guy — the guy everyone comes to for advice, for help or just a shoulder to cry on. He currently works with LGBTQ youth at YHEP.

PGN: What’s your official title? LO: Youth development manager for the Youth Health Empowerment Project, which is a program of Philadelphia FIGHT. I’ve been there for close to four years, but I’ve been doing this kind of work for about 17 years.

PGN: What makes you good at it? LO: Like a lot of our youth who come here, I was raised in North Philadelphia under difficult circumstances. I grew up with a mother addicted to crack and a father who died of AIDS he contracted through heroin use. I was the one who raised my siblings. I was a high-school dropout with a seventh-grade education. [Laughs.] A rebel without a cause!

PGN: How many siblings do you have? LO: I was the oldest of seven boys. We have an older sister, but she was raised with our maternal grandmother. She was more like a cousin to us. My mother had my sister when she was 16, and she wasn’t equipped to raise a child. She had me at 17.

PGN: Seven boys in the house? LO: Yes, and we all had to fight. My mother had this gang mentality that none of us should ever come home with our butts kicked by someone. We had to be the tough ones.

PGN: What’s a good memory from childhood? LO: Wow, there were so few … OK. I would babysit my brothers and, I remember one night, I was about 13, we were home alone and I decided to have a movie night. We all picked out a movie together and we baked a cake together. It was great: There was no arguing, because we all decided together what we were going to watch. It was one of the few times that everything was peaceful in the house. [Laughs.] No struggle over power when Mommy wasn’t home!

PGN: What was one of the worst memories? LO: I was about 7 and I had a friend visiting when my mother OD’d on Valium. We were playing on the stairs and my mother came out of her room and said, “Help me, Pee Wee,” which was my nickname, and fainted. I don’t know how I knew at 7, but I told my friend to get a bucket of cold water to revive her. She woke up and was OK, but my friend was freaked out. I remember the shame of it and remember saying to him, “You can’t tell anyone about this, OK?”

PGN: Did your mother ever get her act together? LO: Yeah, she struggled with crack addiction until about 1997. After my father died, I think she was just tired of the lifestyle and began to get clean. An interesting thing, I certainly wasn’t the only one on the block whose mother was a crack addict. It was epidemic. But what separated my mother was that she wasn’t a sex worker. So even through the trauma of it all, we were thankful for the little things like the fact that she didn’t do sex work to feed her habit. Our stuff wasn’t stolen from out of the house. We didn’t have a lot of food, but we had food. We didn’t have to eat sugar sandwiches like our next-door neighbor.

PGN: Did the problem trickle down to any of your siblings? LO: Not really, but indirectly. My brother Nicholas was killed in 2001 (he was called Nicholas because he was born on Christmas Day). I was the oldest and considered more the soft one. I was the artist, the dancer and the creative caretaker. He was born after me and he was the hard one, the tough guy. I was more protected and he was given more of a free reign. I was given a curfew, while he was allowed to stand guard and look out for the cops for the drug dealers in the neighborhood. He got caught up in that mentality. He thought he was invincible, made from steel. He didn’t use but, from a very young age, he began selling drugs. In the end, it caught up to him and he was killed. But none of us boys ever used. My sister struggled with crack addiction for many years. PGN: Interesting, since she was the one taken out of the household. LO: Actually, I think that added to the problem. She was the only one of eight kids that my mother didn’t raise and I think she thought my mother didn’t want her.

PGN: Your mother must have passed on something good, since none of you in the house succumbed to drugs. LO: She was always family-oriented. I loved that. Living in a tough neighborhood, it’s easy to feel alone and, especially being gay, it would have been easy for me to have felt isolated or unwanted. Ironically, because of her drug culture, there were always characters in the house. A lot of drag queens and gay thugs and all sorts of people came through. The types of people that most considered freaks were all welcomed at our house. So, we were exposed to different ways of being. It influenced my brothers as well, because while they are typical heterosexual, hyper-masculine Latino men, they know more about gay culture, terminology and lifestyle than a lot of gay people I meet. They have their homophobia in check better than some of the people I’ve worked with! I appreciated that my mother taught us to be accepting of different people.

PGN: What was your favorite toy as a kid? LO: [Sighs.] Well, we didn’t get a lot of stuff — you had to work with what you could. So our favorite toys were the ones we got in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. When my mother got her check, she’d treat us to a Happy Meal, so I remember collecting the Muppet Babies and The Berenstain Bears series. Unfortunately, because she only got her check every other week, we could never collect the whole series — just every other one. But I treasured them; I’d play soap operas with them and have these big dramas. Miss Piggy would be pregnant at 17! Woo, it was fun.

PGN: So what was Christmas like? LO: It was like any other day to us. It was a day that other people got gifts and we got to watch them open them. We learned not to care. It was like a Tuesday or a Thursday to us.

PGN: Has that changed? LO: Yes, because I’m now the father of a 7-year-old. Having a child makes you confront a whole mess of things inside yourself that you’d like to avoid but now have to deal with for the sake of the child. He’s given me the motivation to change my feelings about Christmas. Now, I do the decorations and make a big hurrah out of Christmas and holidays, but it’s not instinctual for me. I have to work at it. I don’t want him to inherit my attitude because it has been a problem for me in the past, in relationships and with friends. People couldn’t understand why I didn’t celebrate things the way they thought I should have. Because of my son, I’m now the king of holiday decorating.

PGN: When did you drop out of school? LO: I dropped out at the end of school in the seventh grade. I went to one day of school that whole year and the Philadelphia schools being what they are, I still graduated to eighth grade! I tried to go back to school but my mother didn’t want me to go. She was afraid her gay, Puerto Rican son was going to get killed at the predominantly black school. So high school was something that I watched from the sidelines. She was so protective of me, I never really got to go outside much.

PGN: So how did you spend your time? LO: Watching Joan Rivers’ talk show. I’d also dance around the house and make up routines to music on MTV. Mainly, I babysat the other kids when my mother went to work.

PGN: So how did you go from dropout to having a master’s degree? LO: I tried to go back to school in the middle of ninth grade. I was told there was no room but if I waited a few months, there were sure to be kids dropping out and I could have one of their desks! But that day turned into a week, turned into a year and I got back into the routine of hanging out in front of the TV. I never went back. Then, in 1995, I was hanging out at Woody’s and I met someone who worked at GALAEI [Gay and Lesbian Latino Aids Education Initiative]. I started volunteering as a peer educator and, after a while, David Acosta gave me a job there. I think people could relate to me because of the things I’d been through. I eventually got my GED and, flash-forward some 15-odd years later, I now have my master’s degree in human services from Lincoln University.

PGN: Tell me about YHEP. LO: We’re part of Philadelphia FIGHT [Field Initiating Group for HIV Trials], which is a comprehensive AIDS service organization. We were started in 1994 as a citywide pilot project to reduce the spread of HIV and STDs among adolescents and young adults in the Philadelphia area. The Empowerment Center, where I work, is a safe space where youth can get prevention services and support; we do empowerment workshops and facilitate a number of peer-led workshops. The center is amazing. All our services are free. The youth who come here can take showers, take dance and spoken-word classes, get food, tokens, clothes or just relax. We work with some of the city’s hardest-to-reach youth.

PGN: What’s the most challenging thing LGBT youth face these days? LO: I think that as young people there’s more freedom to be who you are, there are more GSAs in schools and it’s much more in the mainstream, but … the crack addiction hit the community of color really hard when it first came on the scene. A lot of those addicts had kids who were then raised by grandparents who many times still have old-world mentality and/or very religious beliefs when it comes to homosexuality. These kids were raised with a lot of shame around their sexuality and, while it’s been like that throughout history, in this case you have kids who were abandoned by their parents and they feel shame that their parents didn’t want them and then they fear that Grandma won’t want them because there is something wrong or flawed about them, so it’s compounded. There’s a constant anxiety that they will embarrass the family in their church or community and be rejected again, so there is a multi-level sense of abandonment. Then they get absorbed into a system that assumes that it’s truly OK to be themselves. So while we have groups like YHEP and The Attic and COLOURS, I think we sometimes assume that they see us as sanctuary for them as homosexuals when they may not see it the same way. I also see a lot of homeless youth, which I didn’t see as much before. When we were young, everyone was involved; we saw ourselves as revolutionary and we were really on point as far as doing things for ourselves was concerned. I think we’ve lost some of that. I think perhaps some of our elders passed away from the epidemic before they could pass the baton to the next generation, or something happened where we have a young LGBT community who doesn’t know its history or its way.

PGN: It’s such a shame: They really don’t know where we came from or the power of what we can do. LO: Yeah, I was teaching a class on AIDS and I assumed that they would know the basic history — that it was first considered a “gay” disease, etc. I started talking and they had glazed expressions on their faces. They had no idea how it had affected the GBT community in the beginning. I had to stop and change the whole presentation on the spot to bring them up to speed.

PGN: What’s a moment that really touched you? LO: Oh, that’s hard; there have been so many. Well, one moment that really made me proud happened during a group session. The workshop was about healthy relationships. I’d been working with kids who’d been incarcerated and were trying to transition back to the workplace or to school. A number of the kids were hanging in my office during the lunch break and talking about the first time that they had sex. There was one girl who was new and seemed very shy. When they asked her, she said that she was a virgin. Well, they couldn’t believe she was already 17 and hadn’t had sex. They started teasing her saying, “Come on, you know that’s not true, you can tell us the truth … ” It was good-natured, but they were really ribbing her as she insisted that she was a virgin. Suddenly, she just started crying and said, “It’s true, I’m not a virgin. I was raped when I was a kid.” I was sitting there watching this unfold and trying to figure out when to step in when one of the other youths said, “Close the door.” The room fell silent and I could see them creating a safe space for her. One of the girls moved next to her and said, “Is it OK for me to put my hand on your leg?” I was watching them in awe. Sometimes, when you try to teach things, you feel that it’s falling on deaf ears, but here they all were applying the lessons they’d learned. [Tears up.] I was so humbled, I just stayed at my desk while they took over. The love and support was like, wow. Seeing these young people being the caring, compassionate people I knew they could be was just inspiring.

[We pause the interview so we can both get tissues … ]

PGN: So what challenges do you face working in the field? LO: It’s tough working with people that you can see yourself in. I see people who may have dropped out of school and they say it’s because they didn’t like the other kids, and I know it’s code for “I got tired of being called faggot at home and at school, so I chose one.” I also see different people who remind me of different family members or people who I know, so it’s a challenge not to insert myself too much or get too invested. I don’t want to set it up so that I’m disappointed in them. I want to be hopeful, but I have to remind myself to meet them where they are, not where I want or think they should be. It’s hard when I see one of them just give up. But this is what I do; even before I had a name for it professionally, I was always the one people came to for help and advice. So while I do create boundaries, I have family members who will call me and ask, “What’s the number for Planned Parenthood?’ as if I am a walking resource book, but I’ve come to embrace that I’m just “that” person.

PGN: Any hobbies? LO: I have a music blog and a personal blog that I write. And my job is my hobby. I really love what I do, so if I’m not doing it at work, I’m working on something at home. I do a lot of creative things, like our dance group and poetry group, so I’m always thinking. I’ll be watching a show on the Oxygen channel and think, “If we could find a way to make that cooler, it could be a workshop … ”

PGN: So if you do this as work and a hobby, how do you clear your head? LO: I watch a lot of “Golden Girls.”

PGN: Any tattoos? LO: I have four stars on my left arm. I haven’t figured out what they mean yet. [Laughs.] I had them put on and then figured I’d come up with some great story to go with them that would make me look deep, but I haven’t come up with anything yet. I have “Rest in Peace Nicky” for my brother on my right arm. I also have my name on my right bicep. Just in case I ever forget my name, it’s there!

PGN: Single or partnered? LO: I’ve been with a partner on and off for about 13 years.

PGN: What’s something great about him? LO: He respects what I do. If I want to come out of pocket from our personal account to throw a party for someone’s birthday here, he understands what it means to me. When I take time away from us because of my work, he’s OK with it. I’ve seen people who have partners who get jealous of the dedication we show to our work here and it’s not pretty.

PGN: So how did your son come about? LO: When I was young, it was normal for people to raise each other’s kids. You stepped in when needed. In our case, our son is the son of my partner’s cousin’s girlfriend. She was having some difficulties so we took him in for the weekend when he was 3 months old. Now he’s 7 years old, so it’s been a hell of a long weekend! It’s funny; in his family, it’s all the men who have stepped in to bring the kids back. And it also dispels the myth about people of color being homophobic. At his first birthday party, my partner and I were the ones taking the picture with him blowing out the candles, but the father was there with his friends and the mother was there as well. I think people expect that they wouldn’t be in the picture at all or that the father wouldn’t bring his hard-core-thug friends around out of fear that they would give him a hard time for having two gay men raising his child, but there is none of that. Everyone from the grands to the cousins are great. We had the party at a skating rink in the heart of North Philly and everyone couldn’t have been nicer to us. Nobody questioned the two happy gay daddies.

PGN: What was an early sign you were gay? LO: While all my other guy friends wanted to watch “Wonder Woman” because she looked great, I wanted to be her. And I remember in kindergarten, our teacher put us in pairs and told us to hold hands. I was partnered with this beautiful black boy and I remember all the other boys were holding hands with their palms clasped, but I made him hold my hand with our fingers interlaced.

PGN: Something you enjoy doing that other people think is a chore? LO: I love, love, love managing the music on my computer. I’m meticulous about how everything is arranged. I have to make sure everything is spelled correctly and I make sure I have CD covers downloaded to go with the artists. It’s very comforting for me.

PGN: What’s a song you’re embarrassed to admit you like? LO: Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.”

PGN: I noticed the enthusiasm from the young people during the training you were doing when I came in. How do you keep that raw energy in check? LO: We use a model from our healthy-relationships trainings called TRICC, which stands for trust, respect, intimacy, communication and cooperation. They agree to the rules and we have them posted. This way when I have someone acting up, I can say, “Are you cooperating? Check the board, because what you’re doing is not creating a healthy relationship with the group.” That way, it’s not me personally reprimanding them; it’s them living up to the stated agreement. But I don’t mind when they get loud or passionate about a subject; if they’re excited about something, I’ve done my job.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].