Longtime Chicago LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS activist Roman Buenrostro died March 25 due to complications from cancer. He was 54.
Buenrostro was born Jan. 18, 1967 in Chicago. When his father retired, the family moved to Southern California, where the younger Buenrostro graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara. After his college graduation, Buenrostro moved back to Chicago and immediately got involved in social-justice causes.
Buenrostro's activism began as a STOP AIDS Chicago volunteer in 1989, educating the community about HIV/AIDS prevention. He also co-founded Association of Latino/as Motivating Action (ALMA) that same year. One of Buenrostro's focuses at ALMA was campaigns that focused on communities most impacted by HIV.
This activism grew to include volunteering at Horizons Community Services (now Center on Halsted) as one of the organization's HelpLine counselors. This led to his role as the HelpLine supervisor. He did that volunteer work for 10 years. Buenrostro was also a member of the Chicago Area HIV Integrated Services Council and in 2015 was elected as an out HIV-positive community co-chair.
While Buenrostro was doing his volunteer activism he also worked at Erie Family Health on North Avenue, where he ran a Spanish-speaking HIV gay, bisexual and questioning men's support group among other jobs.
Buenrostro went to work at AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) in 1998 and worked in various capacities over the years. He played an integral role in shaping the coordinated HIV case management system for the Chicago metropolitan area. His most recent job at AFC was Director of Special Projects and it was in that role that he created and implemented the HIV Resource Hub to assist people in need of rent, utility and other financial assistance. Last year, Buenrostro's efforts led to 412 people getting that vital help; the needs were mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sixteen years ago, Buenrostro met Daniel Skelton out at a bar in Lakeview. They were together every day since that first meeting. They were married Dec. 23, 2016 at Chicago's City Hall, with some close family members and friends as witnesses.
In 2016, Buenrostro was inducted into Chicago's LGBT Hall of Fame. Other accolades included the Health Resources and Service Administration's Part-A-Hank Carde Award in 2000 and a commendation from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019.
Buenrostro is survived by Skelton; his mother Evangelina; brothers Joe, Hector, Tony, Javier, Alex and Freddy; sisters Jenny, Rosa and Connie; many nieces and nephews and countless chosen family members and friends. He was preceded in death by his father Roman Sr. and sister Lupita.
"Roman was an activist who was never afraid to say what was on his mind, he was a friend to many, and he was a chosen family member to so many of us," said ALMA board President Julio Rodriguez in an email to ALMA members and supporters. "We owe tremendous amount of gratitude to Roman. Our community would not be where we are today if it was not for Roman's tireless work. Roman and I started organizing in the late '80s as the HIV epidemic began to hit our communities hard. Because there was little attention to the Latino community, he and a group of other gay Latino men, founded ALMA.
"I can go on about all the great things that Roman accomplished during his life. But to me, he was more than just a colleague in the field. He was my brother, and he was my family. I am going to remember his sense of humor, his laugh and his tight hugs. I will always remember him, and I am so blessed to have so many memories with Roman. I will always cherish them. Today we mourn Roman's death, and we pledge to continue to honor his legacy and commitment to community."
"Roman's bright light transcended across community," said ALMA board member Dulce Quintero. "He dedicated his life to destigmatizing people living with HIV/AIDS and encouraged everyone to embrace their cultural identity and voice. Roman is a community icon. His impact will live on, in all of us forever."
"My heart is breaking," said longtime friend and chosen family member David Ernesto Munar, "I met Roman in 1991 through ALMA. We became instant friends and he has been familia ever since. Roman is joy, nuestra raza, carcajadas, show tunes, acceptance, shady, pop culture, gay culture, tender, love. He was instrumental in growing our LGBTQ Latinx visibility in Chicago and building community. Roman was deeply committed to social justice. People recognized his warm spirit and sense of humor wherever he went. The outpouring of support by many in the wake of his death shows how much he positively impacted their lives.
"Román was unapologetically himself and held all the parts of his identities in high esteem including being an out gay Latinx fem multilingual HIV-positive man who loved to sing and make people laugh. He embraced the complexities of his identities and was an example for all of us by living his full truth. My deepest condolences to the love of his life Daniel, his siblings and family in Chicago and California, his AFC colleagues where we worked together for 17 plus years, his ALMA family and all who loved and laughed with him and mourn him today."
"It is with great sorrow that I recognize that Román is no longer with us and that none of us will ever feel the love that radiated from his smile," said longtime friend and fellow activist Mona Noriega. "Organizers who came of age in the '80s have lost a part of themselves, lost someone who shared memories of laughter and sorrow and what it meant to take the risk to step outside of limiting and deadly definitions of what it meant to be Latino and what it meant to be queer. The community lost a man who stepped up to the fight when fighters were most needed, and he did so with grace and love. Rest in power, rest in peace Roman."
In an email statement announcing Buenrostro's death, AFC said in part, "Roman's sense of humor and radiating love of people, and encyclopedic knowledge of culture provided a rich counterbalance to the critical and difficult work he led."
"Roman's beautiful smile lit up the room and opened our hearts," said AFC's President and CEO John Peller in a post on AFC's website. "Roman's leadership at AFC and in the Chicago HIV community has transformed the lives of thousands of people living with and vulnerable to HIV. And from sing-along movie musicals to homemade songs and skits at AFC parties, Roman kept us all laughing at AFC. I am so grateful for everything I learned from Roman."
"There is so much to stay and yet I cannot think of the right thing," said longtime friend Jamie Hock in a Facebook post. "Roman spent his whole life fighting, advocating, and caring for the LGBTQ community. I will miss our glances at each other during work meetings, belting out show tunes with you and scaring ourselves watching the latest horror movie. You are one of my best friends and I am so lucky to have met you. Because we loved musicals so much I will leave you with this quote from Wicked. 'Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.' Love you Roman."
Memorial service details to be announced. The family asks that sympathy cards be sent c/o AFC, 200 W. Monroe St., #1150, Chicago, Illinois 60606.