Artist Nicolas Gonzalez-Medina spoke out from the stage on Saturday, in front of about 200 people: He’s an undocumented immigrant, living in the United States without government permission.
And he doesn’t care who knows it.
The roar of applause that greeted his proclamation couldn’t drown out the danger of arrest and deportation, especially in Philadelphia, a city that’s home to one of the nation’s most aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices, and where undocumented migrants commonly live in the shadows.
“For me it’s a responsibility, to share my experience, my art and my voice, and give people a little courage,” Gonzalez-Medina said in an interview.
More undocumented people must step forward and speak out. Because it’s crucial, he said, that decisions that impact the lives of immigrants are not made solely by the older white men who dominate the federal government.
Gonzalez-Medina, 32, came to the United States from Mexico at age 6, grew up in Chicago, and now lives in Oakland, Calif.
On Saturday he joined the scores of transgender, bisexual, and gay Latinos who traveled here from across the country for the first national conference of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. The five-year-old, Los Angeles-based group works to highlight the struggles of transgender and queer people, to help those confined at immigrant detention centers, and to try to stop the construction of more of those facilities.
Participants from as far as Seattle and Las Vegas are here to talk, unify, and strategize, gathering at a moment when the treatment of LGBT people has become an emerging issue in the national debate over immigration.
Immigrant advocates say people with untraditional sexual and gender orientations are frequently mistreated in federal detention centers. While LGBT people made up only 0.1 percent of all those detained by ICE in 2017, they accounted for 12 percent of sexual-assault victims in those centers, according to a congressional letter to the Department of Homeland Security.
ICE says it’s committed to providing safe, secure, and humane treatment to everyone in its custody.
“When we face the immigration system, our queerness comes with us,” said Monserrat Padilla, 27, a Seattle deportation-defense coordinator for the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. “This is our opportunity to speak up.”
On Saturday, people filled the halls and conference rooms of Taller Puertorriqueño in the city’s Fairhill neighborhood, connecting with old friends and making new ones. The center proclaims itself El Corazón Cultural del Barrio, that is, the cultural heart of Latino Philadelphia.
Philadelphia – on Saturday dubbed the City of Brotherly Love and Queerly Affection – was a logical conference site, a place where gay rights and immigrant rights are claimed and defended. It’s a sanctuary city, where officials decline to assist in federal immigration enforcement and have warred with the Trump administration on multiple fronts.
“There hasn’t actually been an opportunity for all these leaders, activists to come to one space and talk about the work that’s happening and the work that needs to happen going forward,” said Francisco Cortes, interim executive director of Galaei, the queer Latino social-justice organization in North Philadelphia. “This is where we say, ‘Keep doing the work we’re doing,’ but there has to be a national strategy, too.”
The three-day conference, delivered in Spanish, English, and a touch of Spanglish, resumes Sunday at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Center City.
Speaker Seneca Joyner, 37, an anarchist from Massachusetts, said it’s important for people to take heart, to have confidence that change can happen. Big governments don’t always win, despite their huge advantages and resources.
Look at the war in Vietnam, she said. Look at the American Revolution. The same holds true today.
“It’s a failure of imagination to believe that this government, or any government, is omnipotent,” she said. “The people are more powerful.”
Outside, at the back of the center, Gonzalez-Medina and other artists were at work.
For political movements, he said, art is essential. It’s a way to quickly, effectively, attractively communicate a message. It’s durable and transferable.