Puerto Vallarta opens LGBTQ center with newly-hired director

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 5, 2024
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Dr. Ashley Hernandez, left, joined Jet De La Isla, Pedro Lopez, and nurse Fatima Farias Martinez at the new Vallarta Gay+ Community Center. Photo: Ed Walsh
Dr. Ashley Hernandez, left, joined Jet De La Isla, Pedro Lopez, and nurse Fatima Farias Martinez at the new Vallarta Gay+ Community Center. Photo: Ed Walsh

Puerto Vallarta's LGBTQ space, the Vallarta Gay+ Community Center, recently opened in a permanent space near the city's famed Malecon walkway and is being overseen by a newly-hired executive director. Less than six months ago, the Mexican resort town's former LGBTQ center, SETAC, closed amid fiscal problems and complaints by employees and others of mismanagement.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter in May, the center's new director, Pedro Lopez, said he first worked with VG+CC, as the center is known, in March as a volunteer while it was still operating under a temporary location at Thrive IV and MedSpa. The center's board was looking for an executive director. They were impressed by his experience and hired him to lead the organization.

Lopez was born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where Puerto Vallarta is situated. His family moved to the United States when he was a small child. He has over 30 years of experience working with the community in the mental health field, with the last 20 years in senior leadership and executive management positions. His experience includes work with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health on the mental evaluation team where he worked with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He moved to Puerto Vallarta with his husband after retiring when he was 50 in 2020.

Don Pickens, VG+CC president and owner of the upscale boutique hotel Casa Cupula, had high praise for Lopez, telling the B.A.R., "We are very fortunate to have met Pedro and that he is able to contribute his many talents and experiences to guide the community center.

"More importantly, I am sure his impact on the LGBTQ community in the Vallarta region will be substantial," Pickens added. "He is an incredible asset to us all."

Lopez told the B.A.R. that VG+CC recently passed the 300 mark in number of clients served. That means it's providing services to over a third of the 900 clients SETAC had served, with many of those 300 returning at least a couple of times to avail themselves of initial and follow-up appointments at the center. VG+CC provides HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing as well as the administration of PEP, PrEP, and doxyPEP drugs to prevent disease.

PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, involves taking a monthlong course of antiretrovirals after sex or other types of exposure. PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, refers to the use of antiviral drugs to prevent people exposed to HIV from becoming infected.

DoxyPEP uses the antibiotic doxycycline as post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent STIs.

"It was a little bit of a challenge, and that we had to outreach the community from zero," Lopez said, noting that the new center was fortunate to be able to hire a doctor and a nurse who had worked at SETAC. So far, he and the other two employees are the only paid staff. The center relies heavily on volunteers.

When SETAC closed in December 2023, gay business owners quickly stepped up to help to provide services under the name Vallarta Gay+ Community Center, with the aforementioned Pickens named as president.

Other business owners, including Paul Crist, the owner of the recently shuttered Hotel Mercurio; Jet De La Isla, owner of Jet's Gay Youth Hostel and Jet's Private Boat Tours; Mike Owens, owner of Studs bar; Javier Jimenez, Vallarta Pride president and owner of Mr Flamingo, Industry, Wet, and La Margarita; Realtor Fer Bolanos Cruz; and Thrive IV and MedSpa owner Mikel Joseph Alvarez were active in helping the new center get off the ground.

VG+CC operates under the nonprofit charitable organization Vallarta Cares. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS of New York had been the largest funder of SETAC for over 10 years, totaling almost $200,000. That organization's executive director, Tom Viola, has pledged a matching gift of $20,000 to VG+CC on top of an initial $10,000 startup donation, according to Pickens.

Other major supporters include Steve Buczek of Beef Dip, the Grupo Garbo Company, as well as restaurant Daiquiri Dicks and Vidal Meza Pena, the owner of Almar Resort and the Mantamar Beach club.

"Throughout Mexico, there isn't very many centers like what we're trying to create," Lopez said. "So, I think it's a big job. We're committed to making sure that people who need the services continue to have services available, that are accessible and that are free."

The center is working with the Casa Jojo Foundation, whose website is set up to take online donations. Pickens noted that as a full 501(c)3 based in Texas, the Casa Jojo Foundation can qualify for corporate matching gift programs.

VG+CC can also be reached by email at [email protected] or What's App: 322-128-6793. The website is currently under construction.

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