Pedro Julio Serrano is President of Puerto Rico Para tod@s, the recently formed activist group in Puerto Rico. In a short two years, the group has raised many an eyebrow and caused The Advocate magazine to name Serrano as one of the Top 10 people who have impacted the GLBT community the most. I caught up with him in a recent trip to San Juan.
We had agreed to meet at Bebo's Restaurant (Condado) for lunch. He had told me I would recognize him because he would be wearing a blue baseball cap. I had only seen his picture once when he was featured in The Advocate article. I arrived five minutes before our scheduled meeting time of noon. I saw a blue cap, ran up to him, and introduced myself. He was not PJ. I went back outside and called him on his cell phone. He was entering the back door of the restaurant, we said hello.
PJ was wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt. He had an evening shadow on his face —and as I remember from his picture, he was a very handsome 20 something kid. Obviously, I was unprepared for our exchange. I wish I were this put together at his tender age.
Carlos: Tell me a bit about you.
PJ: I am 29. I was born in Ponce, PR, but at age two we moved to Isla Verde (San Juan) with my mother and her new husband, who I consider my father. I grew up with them and my three brothers.
CTM: Any of them gay?
PJ: None of my siblings, but as in many other gay families, I have several cousins who are either gay, bisexual, or lesbians.
CTM: I know, my half sister, my father's two siblings, several of their cousins—it does run in mine too! When did you realize you were gay?
PJ: I've known I was gay for as long as I have been able to reason. I accepted myself (was comfortable with it) when I was 17. I met with my family and just told them. It was rough at the beginning, but they finally came around and are now supportive. They know and accept my current partner, Leo, as part of the family. I truly believe that acceptance is part of a process and education we need to do in each family. In the end, we are all human beings and deserve acceptance, love, and support from our family nucleus; especially when you are under the impression that it should be given unconditionally.
CTM: What is your education?
PJ: I went to Colegio de La Piedad High School in Isla Verde (San Juan), a Catholic institution, and then to the University of Puerto Rico, the Rio Piedras Campus, where I obtained a B.A. in communications with a minor in journalism. I never received any formal postgraduate education, but I love to read and stay up-to-date on everything, so you could say I am always educating myself.
CTM: Was there a defining event in your life that made your activism surface?
PJ: I always wanted to be a politician. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be Governor of Puerto Rico. When I came out to myself, I was very afraid I would never be able to achieve my dream. Twelve years ago, I was terrified of letting people know about my private life. However, as I gained confidence and acceptance, I just did not envision myself as a gay politician, but rather a politician who happened to be gay. I ran a campaign, put out a platform and just went about my business of running for office. I registered with the New Progressive Party (NPP—pro-statehood for the Island) and ran for office. I ran into a severe case of homophobia. People who were backing me, as soon as they realized that I was gay, decided that they would not even acknowledge that they knew me. My life was threatened, people would write faggot (maricón) on my front door. I got nasty phone calls. My car was vandalized. I was held at gunpoint near my home and my life was threatened while 'die faggot' rung through what I thought was going to be the last minutes of my life. I had to break my ties with the NPP. This experience made me realize that Puerto Ricans needed to be educated.
The funny thing is that around this time I also realized that Puerto Ricans need to think with their own heads—break away from the colonial rule of the USA. They will probably never solve their problems any other way.
CTM: Did you report this to the police?
PJ: I called the police and they did nothing. Finally, I went to the FBI and because of hate-crime legislation passed by the Congress in the USA, they at least had to investigate it. Nothing ever came of it, but at least I became a statistic. This got me involved with work on the hate-crime legislation in Puerto Rico, which was adopted by Gov. Rosello six years ago. Seeing the results of my effort after such a traumatic experience, made me realize that I could make a difference.
CTM: You told me on the phone that you had to move to the USA.
PJ: After that incident I was so scared that I felt I needed to leave the Island because there was no way for my personal safety to be guaranteed. I decided to move to Washington, D.C. I had a journalism job offer there. After about three months there, I decided that I could not find my voice—unfortunately, I had to move there (instead of other cities with more of a Latino population) because it was the best job offer. I was going at it alone and I wanted the best possible economic stability. I came back to PR and after about a year of silence (I was still afraid) I found my voice here.
CTM: Interesting how you made a 180-degree turn on the statehood status question.
PJ: It started with my rejection from the pro-statehood party and then my feelings of prejudice in the USA.
CTM: I have been lucky in that respect, but I have blue eyes ...
PJ: It makes a big difference if your skin is brown. As much as you hear them preaching about equality and justice for everyone, it is only skin deep. It also has to do with, as you know, most of our political affiliations are taught in our homes. In my case, I come from a pro-statehood family. I had never had a reason to question it. I suddenly realized that the biggest problem for Puerto Ricans is our lack of self-esteem. We do not think we can solve our problems unless the USA is there to help. We have no faith in a free and independent Puerto Rico. We have yet to achieve our possibilities.
CTM: It feels a bit like my coming out experience—as a gay person I always felt inadequate, ashamed, and inferior. I always had to prove myself—question my every move. Once I was able to deal with my homosexuality, I was able to become a productive human being. I found my voice in the GLBT movement. I suppose you can relate that to the ambiguity that Puerto Ricans live under with the current status, it is hard for them to find their voice with Big Brother watching their every move.
PJ: That is pretty much what happened. Currently I am comfortable with both my sexuality and my nationality. I am much more self confident in both. As soon as I liberated myself from the emotional baggage, I found the vast number of capabilities within me. In fact, my experiences in my short stay in the States reaffirmed my new enlightenment. It was very uncomfortable to be at the receiving end of prejudice. Even though my hair is straight, I am not white.
CTM: I fully agree with you. The USA is still racist—they have been from day one, and I believe they will be forever in spite of the civil-rights movement's progress in this regard. I truly believe that Puerto Rico will never be part of the USA because I cannot see our Congress admitting to the Union what they would consider a 'Black state.'
PJ: Or for that matter a 'Latino state.' They think just as bad about us.
CTM: Well, there is Florida, New York, Texas, California, Arizona ... [We laugh.] There has been a lot of talk about gay marriage recently. I always like to ask about the 'backlash' to the movement from this. Do you think that before we start talking about marriage we should try to make sure we can guarantee their basic civil rights— housing, employment, discrimination?
PJ: I totally agree with that! We need to take care of those first. I do believe that we should take advantage of the current controversy (marriage) to educate and enlighten Puerto Rico about our movement. We are not trying to legislate on marriage, yet at Puerto Rico Para Tod@s we are working on legislation to amend the Puerto Rican Constitution to include sexual and gender orientation as part of basic human rights.
CTM: Please forgive my ignorance on the Commonwealth's law—what exactly will be required to amend the Puerto Rican Constitution?
PJ: It requires that the law passes both the House and the Senate by two-thirds majority, the governor has to sign it, and then approved by simple majority in a special referendum by all Puerto Ricans. We feel it will take a few years, but we also think that it will start a dialogue with the country on the need for such an amendment—the struggle, fears, and plight that a good number of our citizens go through on a daily basis. Marriage will run parallel to this, but we are not interested in introducing any legislation on that matter for quite some time. As you well know, Puerto Ricans are not ready for it. A few years back, we would not even be talking about sex. I suppose it is all a matter of educating and some time. We have been holding town meetings in almost every town in PR.
CTM: Many of the complaints from other states in the USA, like Missouri and Illinois, is that the marriage talk is setting civil-rights legislation back. Politicians are more afraid to support basic human-rights legislation because of the 'm' word and specifically in Illinois, the religious right just killed Senate SB 101.
PJ: In Puerto Rico we have been fortunate that the marriage publicity has helped us spread our message. We are not interested in pushing for marriage in the near future, but we are grateful that we are getting the publicity. We are very involved now with the constitutional amendment so we have no time for anything else. I want to be married: my partner and I will be traveling to Massachusetts to get married in May. We will deal with this issue later.
CTM: Who is 'we'?
PJ' When I say 'we,' I mean several organizations. First, there is Puerto Rico Para tod@s, but in Puerto Rico there are also a good number of activists that work outside of our organization. Even though we may think of different ways to achieve our goals, we need to communicate with each other and develop a common strategy.
CTM: How does the HIV/AIDS problem fit in all of this?
PJ: In PR the HIV/AIDS struggle has different voices. As you know, the main group that is affected in the Island is the drug-addicted population and they have a completely different set of problems and spokespeople. We do educate and work within the GLBT community to prevent the spread of the disease. We are also very involved in the struggles of HIV-positive individuals. Most of the work with these people is to provide them with basic services and needs. Unfortunately, even within the GLBT community there is prejudice. HIV-positive individuals are at the very bottom of the social class. Our community needs educating also.
CTM: How bad is the prejudice against HIV-infected people?
PJ: Horrible! In the gay social strata butch gays on top, effeminate gays next, lesbians next, drag queens below them, transsexuals next, and HIV-infected at the very bottom. Even within our community, it is quite noticeable.
CTM: You mentioned the 'T' in GLBT; how bad is it for them?
PJ: It is a problem in our community. Some in our community have very little association with them and look down on them. Not me, I have been well educated in the movement. I work on a daily basis with the lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activists.
CTM: Where do you see the movement here in PR in one, five and 10 years?
PJ: It depends on our politics. If Rosello wins in November our movement will be set back a few years—sort of what president Bush has done in the USA. If Anibal Acevedo (Popular Democratic Party, PDP-pro status quo) wins, we may have more of a chance—but not much more. Roberto Pratts who is Acevedo's running mate as Resident Commissioner to Washington, D.C., is willing to help us in our struggle. He is part of our generation (not as old) and is more comfortable with change. We are also trying to work on alliances with other communities in the Island. I am meeting with other groups to form alliances and to see how we can help each other ... . It will be the only way to bring change. We saw that in the struggle to get the Navy out of Vieques Island. As we came together, we were able to make important strides.
CTM: What is the budget for your group?
PJ: We are currently at $10,000/year. We are a 501 (c) 3 corporation (since most of our work is education) and we are currently applying for federal grants to increase our outreach. We are also trying to start a PAC.
CTM: What does your organization do?
PJ: First, we have a communications campaign to raise awareness of the GLBT community. We are working in all the media: TV, radio, and the printed press. We have joined forces with GLAAD to make changes on the country's attitude. We want to eliminate all the tasteless jokes about fags, the effeminate stereotypes and cross dressing, the word 'pato' (fag) and all degenerative words from the media. We want to present our country with a better image of the GLBT community. Second, we deal with education. We need to take our message to all aspects of the Puerto Rican community. We need to meet with as many people as we can so that they see a normal face on GLBTs. See us for who we are and what we really are—no different from anyone else. Finally, we are involved in the legislative front—we want to implement laws that will protect every GLBT citizen. Thus our need to start a PAC.
CTM: How are you and your partner handling the notoriety?
PJ: Leo and I are fine with it. We have been dating for six months. We both have been in relationships before and we entered into this one well aware of what a relationship conveys. He works as a travel agent and is totally committed to my work.
One of the nice things about the article in The Advocate was the overwhelming response from Puerto Ricans living in the states because they had no idea that anyone was working for the rights of the GLBT community. Most Puerto Ricans who left for the USA, did so to prevent the backlash to their personal lives, for some privacy in their professions, or simply for a better GLBT community. When they found out about us, they could not believe it was happening here in PR. I got over 250 e-mails the day after The Advocate issue came out. [Including one from the author of this article.]
This interview was conducted in Spanish.