Eddie Martinez won’t soon forget the day the mother of a gay teenager walked into the doors of Mi Centro in Boyle Heights looking for somebody to speak with.
Her eyes filled with emotion, she pointed to a newspaper story about Mi Centro, the Los Angeles LGBT Center facility operated in conjunction with the Latino Equality Alliance that opened two years ago this month.
“That is written by my son. I love him and I want to volunteer,” the mother told Martinez in Spanish as she held up a copy Boyle Heights Beat that featured an article in which her son wrote about Mi Centro’s presence in the area.
The mom, now an active volunteer with PFLAG, was emotional on that day because the article was her son’s way of telling her that he has a safe space in their neighborhood to go when he needs support.
“That is the spirit of Mi Centro,” says Martinez, executive director of the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA). “We empower the youth but we also empower the parents and they can become spokespeople for love and acceptance at home, in schools and in the neighborhood.”
Mi Centro is the Center’s first facility on the eastside of Los Angeles. It offers bilingual services operated by the Center and LEA including counseling, HIV/STI testing, legal services, discussion groups, and youth and senior activities and services.
Making A Connection
Mi Centro’s location at 553 S. Clarence St. is just a 15-minute walk from the Mariachi Plaza and Pico/Aliso Gold Line stations and one block from metro bus lines at 4th and Boyle streets. It is housed within City Labs Boyle Heights, a locally owned, purpose-driven collaborative space for innovators, entrepreneurs and creatives.
But being located a bit off of the beaten path is a challenge, so staff and volunteers have been spreading the word about Mi Centro by being visible at community events.
During the CicLAvia Heart of LA bike ride on October 8, staff members organized an open house to coincide with the ride. Approximately 50 riders stopped by for water and snacks and learned about Mi Centro.
A few months earlier, many connections were made during the DTLA Proud festival at Pershing Square where Mi Centro had an information booth all weekend long.
“We had transgender seniors come up to the booth and say, ‘Where are you guys? We want this,’” recalls Abraham Preciado, a Senior Services case manager with the Center.
Expanding Senior Services
As Mi Centro begins its third year, it is launching expanded programs for seniors including a twice monthly coffee club beginning in November and drop-in case management for two hours every Thursday between 10 am and noon.
There may be as many as 1,400 LGBT seniors in the Boyle Heights area alone who
feel especially isolated because of Latino cultural taboos, according to Preciado.
“In the Latino community, it takes us a lot to say something about our sexual orientation or gender identity,” Preciado says. “Everyone is telling us that there’s a need and I think it’s really important that we’re here.”
Preciado and Veronica Macias, activities coordinator for Senior Services at the Center, have visited senior community centers, retirement homes, libraries and other places where seniors gather to create community awareness.
“Although there are other organizations serving seniors, our job is to provide a safe space for those who are LGBT,” Preciado says. “Some seniors they are serving might not be out. When we go out into these agencies, we try and emphasize that our services are a supplement to what they are doing.”
The Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, Alan Acosta, describes Mi Centro as ‘a pretty rare opportunity for an organization like ours to expand our services. There’s just a whole world out there that we haven’t been able to reach, primarily for physical reasons.”
But that is changing.
“In the last six months, it has exceeded my expectations both in terms of what we are able to provide and in terms of the growing response from the community,” Acosta says. “It’s a nice feeling that we belong there and are building a constituency.”