Arguello works to bridge gay, Latino worlds
by Katie Dettman
Erick Arguello moved to San Francisco from Nicaragua in 1963, at the age of 4. At the time, the country was in the midst of unstable relations between the Somoza dynasty and the Sandinista guerillas. Arguello's parents wanted a better life for their children, and moved their family to the Mission District in San Francisco, where Arguello has lived ever since.
Although Arguello, 48, has not returned to Nicaragua since he left, he does still have family there. He has gay cousins who moved to the United States because of Nicaragua's intolerance of LGBTs. The gay community in Nicaragua, Arguello said, exists underground.
In 1989, Arguello lost his partner of three years to AIDS. He was just 33 when he died. Later that year, Arguello learned he was also HIV-positive.
"Losing my partner to AIDS and feeling helpless watching him die is something that I will never forget and it changed my life forever," said Arguello.
As a Latino, Arguello had trouble finding health services that addressed his cultural needs and catered to gay Latino men. Twelve years ago, he became a client of Asociacion Gay Unida Impactando Latinos/Latinas A Superarse (AGUILAS), which translates to Association of United Gays Impacting Latinos/Latinas toward Self-Empowerment. He now serves as its volunteer coordinator.
"AGUILAS is one of the few [health providers] that looks at the complete person individually," said Arguello. He plans to continue advocating for the gay Latino community in San Francisco, "to make sure services of this manner are available and continue. Federal cuts have made it more difficult to maintain these services ... I think in government, we need to think more outside the box so that services can be accessible to the community on many levels. Many everyday people that work all day have very little access to services. The working class is the backbone of the country and needs to be heard. People living with HIV/AIDS struggle just to stay healthy."
The membership of the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee selected Arguello as an individual grand marshal for this year's Pride celebration.
"I feel very honored to be chosen," he said. "It's a historical year with gay marriage [becoming legalized in California] and the celebration of Harvey Milk getting his statue at City Hall."
Arguello has worked to build a stronger LGBT and Latino community for many years with organizations like AGUILAS and others. He is a founder of the Lower 24th Street Merchant and Neighborhood Association, which provides a voice for Latino small business owners. He is also a member of the advisory committee on safety to District Attorney Kamala Harris, a past member of the community policing advisory committee for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, as well as a past member of the Instituto Familiar de La Raza speaker's bureau program, where he shared his life experience with HIV/AIDS with other Latinos.
"As a gay Latino man, the gay community and Latino community have been two separate worlds," said Arguello. "Demographically, the communities live as neighbors but don't quite mix. What I am able to do as a gay man in the Latino community is bring visibility and understanding that we are like anyone else with the same needs and concerns as others, and the same as a Latino in the gay community, in hope to bridge differences and bring understanding."
Arguello has invited a coalition called Latinos de Ambiente de La Bahia (Bay Area Gay Latinos) to the Pride Parade. "This group consist of 25 gay, Latino organizations throughout the Bay Area that work around HIV/AIDS," he said. "We are a minority within a minority and creating visibility creates unity and tolerance and will help us bring attention to the work these groups do and the need that is there."
Arguello credits his early diagnosis and faith for his 19 years of survival with HIV. "My HIV positive diagnosis and health issues that have arisen over the years, I believe, have made me a better man. No matter what life throws at us we need to learn from it, put it in perspective, grow stronger, and keep moving forward. Life does not wait."