Being able to walk outside and feel fully welcomed and free, that’s the kind of pride Alessandro Negrete envisions for everyone in Boyle Heights. Growing up a queer immigrant, Negrete learned to embrace difference and thrive in a neighborhood where others like him are often “otherized”.
In his professional life, Negrete has served in community organizing and professional consulting roles that he has approached with a community-centered approach. He has led statewide initiatives, co-created curriculum, and supported intersectional movements and other initiatives. Over the last four years, he has worked with two organizations to develop frameworks rooted in community solutions for the organizations’ internal and external work. With East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, he supported the organization in building a power-building infrastructure that catered to their organizing style, which reflected their community-up model. More recently, he supported the Fund for an Inclusive California with their work on the next phase of the fund.
Outside of his career, he enjoys walking in the neighborhood he’s called home for over two decades and chatting with familiar faces. Our reporter Alex Medina had the chance to speak with Negrete as part of the Beat’s Pride Q&A series to learn about what makes Boyle Heights feel like home for the “other.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BHB: Can you tell me about what community means to you and which communities you resonate the most with?
Alessandro Negrete: What community means to me is the ability to walk outside of your house and just be welcomed and feel free. I know that’s not the reality for most folks, especially when both the queer and undocumented communities are under attack. Having grown up here, I disliked the public profile of Boyle Heights, how people perceived us, that we’re violent, or completely gentrified internally as people. There’s a beautiful community here, despite what some people might think.
I love walking down the street and being able to stop by a restaurant, saying hi to the owners that I’ve known for years and enjoying food that still has that nostalgic kick for me. I like making myself known because I want people to feel comfortable around me and see me as a resource. I love giving back, especially because of the struggles this community has faced. I love being of service whenever I can be, because one kind act can domino into so many.
So yeah, the communities I feel most connected with are the queer and undocumented communities, because I find myself at the intersection of the two. We are beautiful, we are resilient, and we share so much of ourselves to the world publicly. So many aspects of us are unseen, but we are cultural creators around a whole lot of social issues in the world. Those two communities are those I feel most connected to. And of course, Boyle Heights is my home.
BHB: How would you describe the community you grew up in? Would you say it’s changed over the years?
AN: My family settled in Boyle Heights in the early 80s, so I don’t remember much from before I came here. Growing up here though I’ve seen this community change so much. I started noticing as early as ‘96, which is when I got into High School and a lot of buildings in the neighborhood started getting taken down. When I graduated I started working at a coffee shop, and this was way before there was a train station on 1st Street. There used to be a grocery store right there where a lot of people went. It was right on 1st and Boyle, it was called “Mi Ranchito”, but it’s not there anymore. It’s a food dessert here, the only close places are Northgate or Food 4 Less.
Food inequity has been an issue in Boyle Heights forever, but it’s become even worse in recent years. There’s lots of disinvestment, even negative investment that we’ve been getting. There’s just always so much going on, like just a few years ago we had our Council Member indicted by the FBI. There’s just a lot happening in Boyle Heights. It hasn’t all been bad of course, we have amazing folks here persevering and building community.
There’s a lot of younger business owners that are working hard to build trust in the community without being a part of those larger problems. They’re trying to provide solutions, create jobs and host events where they hire local vendors. There’s ways to build community and businesses without gentrification. It’s hard but it’s possible. Boyle Heights is worth intentional investment.
BHB: Reflecting on your past, how would you say growing up in Boyle Heights affected your journey to discovering your identity?
AN: Back then we didn’t have the same level of visibility that we have now, and that’s just a testament of time. I’m very proud to say that I came into my identities while I was here, but I know not everyone can because there’s still a stigma facing our people. Especially recently, attacks have been on the rise. That’s why organizations like the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA) and strong, outspoken leaders like Queen Victoria have been working to bring conversations revolving around the issues facing us to the forefront.
When I was younger, looking back, I don’t think I would’ve felt ready to come out, I don’t think my family would’ve been ready to have that conversation either. I’m glad to see that the culture around that has changed, and that these conversations are becoming a lot more manageable and commonplace. I’m happy to have been a “Super Eastsider”, going from Roosevelt to ELAC because now I’m seeing my old classmates do amazing things for the Eastside, something I’ve been trying to do too.
I’m proud to say that even though my past wasn’t always the easiest, I’m still here, still queer. We didn’t have a GSA at Roosevelt, and there weren’t that many resources to learn what it meant to be queer. I grew up a punk kid listening to Bikini Kill, and I didn’t resonate with the shows on TV. I didn’t identify with Will or Jack. I wasn’t hypersexual back then, so I was just like, I really vibe with this music, maybe I’m a queer woman. There was a lot of questioning I had to do because there wasn’t really anybody to talk to. It wasn’t until I saw an MTV Show called the Real World, there was a guy named Danny Roberts who was dating someone in the military. That was the first time I saw myself in someone, and then I started to realize that we all come into our identities in different ways. There’s different facets to everyone, we’re not just singular beings. I had to look elsewhere to find myself while still being here, and I just hope that’s been changing for the new generation of queers here.
BHB: Being an active community member means working with people who maybe aren’t supportive about your identities. How do you deal with that?
AN: Growing up, I was a very quiet kid. It wasn’t really until I got politicized that I really came into my louder, more secure voice. There was a time here in Boyle Heights when I was in a professional setting and I had a supervisor who presented themselves as “woke” but still carried a lot of internalized hate. I always try to approach things from a perspective that everybody’s still learning. I don’t assume I know everything or that I will ever know everything. People can claim to be whatever they are, but it really is the person’s actions that tell you who they really are, and their reaction to being called in will show you if they’re willing to change and learn.
So going back into it, I had a supervisor whose actions had an undertone of homophobia and racism. They would also take my ideas, but not give me credit. They wouldn’t even really pay attention to me during our check ins. It was so hard to deal with, and so frustrating because I was the only person there at that organization living in Boyle Heights, even though the work there specifically impacted my community. I knew I wanted to do right by my hood.
So I called him in, instead of calling him out, because you get more bees with honey than vinegar. I tried to talk with them, but they refused to acknowledge that they were doing anything wrong. I was just like, I’m not here maliciously, I’m here to walk you through my personal experience, because what you’re saying and what you’re doing isn’t matching up, but he was defensive from the start to the finish of that whole conversation.
I’ve learned to pick my battles now because of that encounter, because if someone refuses to accept any wrongdoing ever, then they’re not willing to engage in meaningful dialogue. If someone comes up to me to talk, I’m going to sit down and listen, I’m going to have a conversation. Let’s talk about it, because talking can lead to resolution, and not talking is almost always going to cause more conflict.
BHB: Is there someone or a moment in your life that really helped you feel validated and safe as a queer person?
AN: Pride to me means taking ownership and being able to scream out who you are without any sort of fear. Honestly, I’m not the loudest queer person now because I’ve spent more of my time being openly queer than I have been publicly undocumented. That’s why I’ve made it a point to work on finding pride in being undocumented. It’s so liberating being able to tell people I’m undocumented, and I feel that my queer identity has actually helped to empower that intersection in my life even more. Borders are a social construct just as much as gender is, so that queer experience allowed me to lean into understanding what it means to be labeled undocumented.
Looking back, the most memorable time I’ve celebrated Pride was when it came to Boyle Heights for the first time. I remember I heard that it was starting, so I jumped in and said I’d find ways to help however I could. The whole event was amazing, I remember I had brunch at my house that day and me and my friends decided to walk over to the festival. We didn’t realize how far it really was, but it ended up being an amazing experience walking around in a group of around two dozen homsexual men, women and trans folks up to where the parade was happening. We all had our flags, and we just walked all down 1st Street. That’s one of my proudest moments walking in my hood, because just 20 years ago people were scared to even just hold hands out in public. Now we’ve got a whole festival dedicated to us and our pride.
Everybody’s experience with being out is different though, and I realized that in my first relationship. I actually dated someone from Boyle Heights and I remember they were always scared to do anything publicly. To me, holding his hand while walking down the street was just something that felt natural, like I’m gonna grab my man’s hand because he’s my man. I could feel it in him though that he was scared, and it wasn’t until he walked me through what his experience growing up in Boyle Heights was like for him. Mine was completely different because I was out as soon as I knew, but I think that’s because of how integrated I was in the community. My mom had a store on 1st Street, so people knew who she and my family were, and she was always active at different organizations in Boyle Heights before she moved out. People would always tell me, “oh you’re so and so’s kid” and I’d say “yep, that’s my mom”. It may seem like not a big difference, but having a parent who was active in the community made me feel more comfortable in putting myself fully out there. I also feel like where in Boyle Heights you grow up makes a big difference.
Personally as an individual, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had someone make fun of me or try to pick on me because of me being queer. That’s something I’ve always made a point to not take for granted, which is why any opportunity I get to speak on LGBTQIA+ issues in Boyle Heights, I make myself heard, especially for those who are the ones who face the most bullying. I want the person wearing a dress and heels, glitter and wigs to be able to walk down the street without getting hate. Queer and trans people are here, and we deserve to be treated with respect. I put myself out there because I know I’m able to and others might not be.
BHB: Are there any misconceptions you’ve heard that you’d like to clear up about the community?
AN: One misconception about Boyle Heights that some people have is that we’re all angry, that there’s a whole lot of machista men who are unwelcoming, transphobic and homophobic. I’m not saying they’re not out there, but people need to realize that they’re everywhere in the world. I’m not gonna sit here and say that you’re always going to feel a hundred percent safe here, but people should know they can visit and explore. We’ve got a whole lot of amazing restaurants, so much culture in every avenue, and even our own playhouse that puts on great shows. There’s two bars that I go to, Distrito Catorce and Xelas both on 1st Street, where there’s always a lot of super welcoming communities.
Boyle Heights is just Boyle Heights, and if you know you know. That whole strip of businesses on 1st Street near Mariachi Plaza have done an amazing job of building themselves up as real, authentic community spaces that feel like home. You go into those spaces, and you just know you belong. I’ve seen people grow into themselves just as they saw me grow up too.
That’s just one of many special things that makes Boyle Heights what it is, and something you only get if you put yourself out there and do away with misconceptions.
BHB: What advice would you give to other members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are still looking for the courage to be themselves openly?
AN: I’d say to take your time, because there’s no timeline when it comes to coming out. I know that the world makes it exciting to be out, but just as it is with being undocumented, survival comes above all else. If you don’t feel safe at home, then it’s not the time. Have a network outside of your house before you think about doing it, and even then, figure out what resources you have available to yourself, because if coming out goes wrong, and can turn into a scary experience. That’s why unfortunately there’s a lot of queer kids out on the streets today.
Test the waters, and tell someone you trust, and start to have that dialogue when you feel ready. Having a dialogue before you tell your parents can help you better weave your story in a way they’ll be able to understand. I remember for me, I didn’t know how to say I was queer in Spanish. I just told my dad, “Me gustan los hombres”, which just sounds funny in Spanish and might lead to misunderstandings. In my head I said it right, but he thought I was into older men, and I said no just guys, any kind of guy. That’s another thing about intersectionality, that we sometimes lose things in translation when we try expressing our identities for others. So, make sure you understand the words you’re using, especially if you have monolingual, Spanish-speaking parents.