Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brett Stockdill is a queer, HIV positive activist, teacher and scholar in Chicago. He is an Associate Professor in Sociology, Women's Studies, and Latino & Latin American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. His four-part series, "Living in the Borderlands," will be running every morning this week.
To me Jesus Christ was a true revolutionary person... He always wanted unity. He never talked about borders. He would travel everywhere, not carrying a passport [Mario laughs]. Jesus didn't care about lifestyles. He loved the prostitute María Magdalena... that's why I love him. I think this whole border thing - he wouldn't be with it. No. And HIV and all that... he healed a lot of people, back then many lepers were cast away... and he went in there... because he knew they were people. That's why I love his story. --Mario Sierra*
Locating Mario in the Borderlands
"He would travel everywhere, not carrying a passport."
Like the Jesus Christ he describes, Mario Sierra has struggled against borders that divide groups of people - the borders of nation states, race, sexuality and disease. As a gay Latino immigrant living with HIV, Mario's experiences and perspectives offer a window into the lives of groups of people that are often ignored, misunderstood, or maligned.
Mario's story demonstrates that current controversies around immigrant and LGBTQ rights, as well as the under-reported but continued spread of HIV/AIDS, are not separate issues, but are interconnected. Mario provides a vibrant and compelling alternative to the widespread ethnocentrism and bigotry plaguing the United States.
I interviewed Mario for four hours in 2003 in Los Angeles and followed up with briefer phone and e-mail interviews in 2007 and 2010. Wearing stylish jeans, a long sleeved Armani Exchange shirt, and a silver bracelet, Mario Sierra recounted with tears and laughter his life in Venezuela and the United States.
During his travels, Mario has blazed paths that contest the exclusion, dehumanization and violence that mark life in multiple borderlands. Despite heartache, tragedy and isolation, he has always moved through life with audacity, resourcefulness, and compassion. Mario has cultivated the values and practices that he initially had envisioned would characterize US society, engaging in acts of caring, solidarity and protest both individual and collective.
Akin to his image of the life of Jesus, Mario's own odyssey is at once unique and similar to those of millions of other people deemed alien, sinful, or criminal, millions who also carve out lives in the various, and not always geographic, borderlands around the United States. Mario Sierra's experiences trace the contours of fear, stigma and myth that encourage the scapegoating of LGBTQ people, Latin@ immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS for a host of social problems. His journey mirrors the oft overlooked economic, political and cultural contributions of marginalized groups and simultaneously illuminates a different vision for the United States and the world, a vision marked by healing, unity and social justice.
Loving Across Borders
"It was the world against me and my boyfriend"
Mario was born in Ciudad Vargas, a mid-sized city in Venezuela, in late 1965. His father, Ruben, was a tailor who was born in Colombia. His mother, Ester, born in Venezuela, was a housewife who sold books for the Seventh Day Adventist Church after separating from her husband when Mario was seven.
Family was a contradictory space for Mario - as it is for many LGBTQ children. Ester and Mario's older sisters expressed warmth and love, but his family did not understand or accept his difference. Growing up in the 1970s, Mario felt he was, "trying to...be liked by my own family for some reason, because I felt like I was, in a certain way, out of place - that I didn't fit in or I needed to look for that love..."
Family members responded to his feminine mannerisms and behaviors, including his affection for other boys, with frustration and anger. Rather than repress his feelings and desires, Mario chose to rebel against the norms and to celebrate his distinctiveness.
As an eight year old, he playfully and fearlessly pretended to be a girl - "Doris" - in public and received kisses from at least one unknowing boy in the process. He identified with Wonder Woman, Catwoman and other strong, smart, sexy female characters in TV programs and films. At 12, after another boy spurned Mario's romantic overtures, gossip surfaced about Mario's sexuality and Ester moved the family to another neighborhood.
Within this context, Mario recounted: "So... [my mother] was mad at me one day... I was playing near the car and she just yelled at me. She goes: '¿Tú eres - Tú eres un maricón?' [Are you - Are you a faggot?] I just stood there, and I didn't know what to say. In the meantime, I was having sex with my female cousin - go figure."
Ester and Gerardo, Mario's older brother, responded to Mario's transgression by exiling him to a boarding school two hours away where Gerardo was a teacher: "...they wanted to isolate me more because maybe I wouldn't get in trouble like that."
The relocation plan, however, backfired. Laughing, Mario explained that it was at this boarding school where, at the age of 15, he met and fell in love with Nicolas, an older youth. "I felt very loved by [Nicolas], and it was amazing... He was really careful with me because he knew I was not experienced in penetration or anything like that, so he was teaching me, basically, everything."
One night, Gerardo discovered Mario and Nicolas kissing. Mario related, "[Gerardo] started kicking me. I got up and I start running, and he started running after me, yelling [at] me saying: 'No puedo creerlo - eres un maricón. ¿Qué estabas haciendo con ese hombre? El es un hombre... ¡No puedes hacer eso!' [I can't believe it - you're a faggot. What were you doing with that man? He is a man... you can't do that!] He hit me every time he said it. And I started crying."
Mario was promptly moved back to Ciudad Vargas, but the two young lovers repeatedly devised ingenious ways to be with each other. And Mario's family repeatedly found out. Finally, when Mario was 17, he and Nicolas decided to embark on a journey to the US. It was 1983.
Mario recalled, "...we finally start planning on it, that we have to make a major change and that's where the idea to come to the United States... [Nicolas] said when he visited, he noticed that the people were more open-minded, that you could be gay here... people don't care if you hug and kiss... He painted this fantastic world. And I'm like: 'Really? So we can do everything?' 'Yeah! We can buy a house, live together. They do it over there, and they don't care. They're not going to call the police and arrest us because we're together.' So I thought that was wonderful."
Mario tearfully described how he told his mother that he was moving to Ecuador to finish high school. Instead, with his clothing packed in an orange backpack that opened into a little chair, he and Nicolas flew to Miami, where they caught a Greyhound bus to Texas to live with Nicolas's relatives. They discovered on the bus that many people in the United States were not as open-minded and warmhearted as they had thought. When their fellow travelers noticed Mario and Nicolas holding hands, they began to say things, "loud things."
A sympathetic woman expressed concern for their safety, advising them: "I know you two are together. That's okay, but, here the people don't like that, so don't do that here. Do it in another place... People don't like it. They're mad."
Mario explained, "...and that's where we would have our first experience being gay. And it kinda... busted the bubble that I thought the [United] States was gonna be - the way [Nicolas] painted it."
Mario and Nicolas held hands under a jacket for the rest of the bus ride. In Texas, they reconsidered their plans to stay with Nicolas's relatives. According to Mario, Nicolas said, "...it dawned on me that we came to this country running away from my family, from your family, and I'm coming in here to my family again? We're gonna keep having problems with family. We need to be on our own."
Mario continued, "So [Nicolas] looked at me, he goes: 'Are you willing to be with me only?' And I go: 'Yes! I want to be with you.' And he said: 'Are you willing to start from nothing?' And I go: 'Yes!' He said: 'Even if we have to live on the streets for a while?' And I said: 'Sure. I will do it for you.' He threw open the United States map. And he said: 'We're here, in Texas. And we came all the way from there - Venezuela. And I think, if we're gonna go toward San Francisco, we should go that way,' so he pointed to California. And I said: 'Okay. So what do we do?'"
Sharing the same last name, Mario and Nicolas pretended to be cousins as they traveled, taking a bus to Los Angeles where they stayed with a family friend of Nicolas's for a month. Deciding that San Francisco sounded "too crowded," Nicolas suggested they head to Oregon. Eating mayonnaise and ketchup sandwiches and sleeping outside at night, the couple hitchhiked to a town in Oregon where they found a Seventh Day Adventist Church.
The church congregation, composed largely of more established Latin American immigrants, held a church meeting that Mario compared to "an auction;" Nicolas and Mario were put up front and the pastor exclaimed, "Raise your hand if you want to help these brothers." After several women offered to take one or the other, another excitedly took in both "cousins."
Mario and Nicolas worked at several jobs including picking strawberries and canning corn. Their English improved greatly. They made friends. Over the next three years, however, their relationship soured and after returning to Texas to stay with Nicolas's relatives for a brief period, Mario and Nicolas broke up when Mario was 20.
Mario confided that the central problems in their relationship stemmed from "pretending" to not be gay. "It's very common in Latin American countries to pretend - you become a master in pretending."
Mario worked briefly as an electrician's apprentice. He frequented gay clubs and had sex with other men. HIV/AIDS seemed a distant thing to Mario, not surprising given the lack of public education around HIV/AIDS in most places in the US in the mid-1980s. Mario explained that after four years in the United States he hated being an electrician and wanted to attend college so he returned to Ciudad Vargas in 1987.
Mario described his sojourn in the United States with Nicolas from the ages of 17 to 21. "I felt pretty happy. I was in love. I really, really loved this guy. I was motivated by having somebody to love and love me. So it was that - the motivation - that trip to the United States, looking for that freedom - it was wonderful... It felt like it was the world against me and my boyfriend. Yes."
Mario's story illustrates how homophobia and the pursuit of sexual freedom fuel the immigration of many sexual minorities around the globe. The desire to live with someone you love without fear of harassment and violence, or at least to look for that love, impels a number of LGBTQ people to migrate to urban centers within their own countries and sometimes to other countries.
*Names of people and places have been changed for privacy/safety reasons
Living in the Borderlands Series