Growing up in Boyle Heights in the late 80s and early 90s, Daisy Chávez-Mendez found herself coming of age in a less accepting community. Now in her early 40s, she’s spent the past two decades using her experience to work with others creating a more welcoming environment for all in the barrio.
An advocate for social justice, Chávez-Mendez has served in many roles over the years, including as a former board member and president of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council as well as a Democratic delegate for California State District 53. Currently, she’s a community strategist for the Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic and an accredited representative for the Department of Justice in which she provides immigration legal services.
Through all this, Chávez-Mendez says her intersectional identity has always pushed her to show understanding for others. Our reporter Alex Medina had the chance to speak with Chávez-Mendez as part of the Beat’s Pride Q&A series to learn about this journey towards building compassion for all throughout Boyle Heights.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
BHB: What does community mean to you? And which communities do you resonate with the most?
Daisy Chávez-Mendez: Community to me means home, a place where you feel comfortable, safe, welcomed, and excited to be considered a member of. It’s where I work, where I live, where I enjoy being – all of that means community. Being able to build a space like that is what being in community means.
I resonate especially with the community of Boyle Heights because everything here feels so personal, it feels like it belongs to us and we’re all a part of its amazing history. It’s also important to build on that history. We are changing the atmosphere, keeping our gems, but also making sure that things that need to change are changing, especially for the younger generations.
BHB: Diving further into that, how would you describe Boyle Heights as a community? How has it changed over the years?
DCM: I went to Roosevelt, and I remember there weren’t really any accessible queer clubs or any GSAs [acronym for clubs oriented towards the LGBTQIA+ community and allies] in the neighborhood. Now, being able to see my peers who went into education being able to openly be a part of these organizations at local high schools, is something really incredible to see. Those sorts of resources would’ve been incredibly helpful for my generation, so the neighborhood is definitely becoming more open to that.
Just being able to openly be proud and exist as you are, that hasn’t always and still isn’t entirely the case here in Boyle Heights.
I’m in the generation between those two that gets to experience the turn-around and greatness while still pushing for more to be passed on.
BHB: Can you tell me about your journey into the field you work in today? And how, if at all, your identities influence your passion?
DCM: I’ve been working in the field of immigration rights here in Los Angeles for almost my entire adult life. It started when I was at Roosevelt and my mom signed me up to volunteer at a naturalization workshop, and I fell in love with the whole process. From there, I kept searching for opportunities to help people get through the system.
Now, more than 20 years later, I’m still working with local immigrants here in Los Angeles. We work with a lot of new arrivals who are seeking refuge from persecution back home, and I’ve noticed that there are a lot of folks who are queer or trans who are experiencing terrible violence and brutal attacks just because of who they are.
Being able to talk to people going through that experience is something very personal to me, because many of us know what it’s like to feel afraid to come across as your authentic self. There’s already attacks that folks face just for being immigrants, and every other intersection adds to that.
For me, that’s what I love the most about my job, being able to provide to my clients while also learning about them and working with folks from all over Latin America and even other continents. Those intersections of being the daughter of an immigrant being raised here in LA, all of that goes into how I treat my clients, how I work with students too.
BHB: How would you say your identity within the LGBTQIA+ community has shaped your journey through life as someone born and raised in Boyle Heights?
DCM: Growing up here, it really wasn’t an accepted thing to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. It took me becoming an adult to finally realize that those who really cared about me did not care that I was queer. It’s my experience growing up in that type of environment that has pushed me to do the work that I do with my unique understanding and compassion that comes from having deep ties to the culture of Boyle Heights.
Today, I can say that I feel the most confident in myself and accepted as a person, now, in my early 40s. I feel very true and authentic, and I often get parents who come to me to help their own kids who are coming to terms with who they are. Queerness is a spectrum, and we all represent little drops in it with our own uniqueness. It was definitely a journey finding myself in Boyle Heights, but it is the reason why I’m able to give back and help others do the same.
BHB: Is there a specific moment in your life in which you felt the most validated and confident in who you are as a person?
DCM: It didn’t happen until I was already a professional and one of my friends asked me to help mentor young queer girls here in Boyle Heights for a nonprofit known as Las Fotos Project. I remember back then the friend asked me to come as my authentic self because he saw a need for these girls to see someone like them. It was the first time I wondered why that part of me mattered in the professional world. Why do they need to know that I’m queer? Why can’t I just talk to them?
I then began to realize in not sharing that part of me, that I wasn’t being fully transparent, and that I might be missing out on opportunities to help young girls who might be struggling to understand who they are, struggling to come out or feel confident in their own identity. I made the decision to introduce myself fully, including my querness for the first time publicly. That was honestly one of the most amazing feelings, and a lot of the girls were emotionally moved because some of them identified as queer.
That’s when I really started to push myself to become a resource that I didn’t have growing up, so that I could be a part of changing the narrative for people like me.
BHB: What does pride mean to you?
DCM: Pride for me is a celebration of all the intersections of a person’s identity coming together. Pride in who you are, despite what others might think, and pride in knowing you’re just like anyone else is something so crucial for people to understand.
It’s incredibly disheartening to see all the hate happening across the nation over people just being themselves and pushing to be recognized as people. In states like Florida, Texas and even in some cities across our own state, there’s been a lot of attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, especially towards trans individuals.
Another aspect of Pride is coming together to stand up when any member of our community is facing injustice. Coming together to fight, to call out when something is wrong, is so crucial in today’s world. Because I work in immigration, I already see and work with folks who experience attacks because of other aspects of their identity.
Growing up and even in my early adulthood, I never really went to Pride events in the city, but last year I decided to check out the one in Hollywood and I saw a whole different level of joy. The pandemic really took a toll on our ability to celebrate as a community, so being able to come together safely is something that’s just beautiful.
I marched alongside a soccer group called Pride Republic, and the whole event really felt like a party where you felt welcomed. I thought to myself, “wow, so this is what it feels like to not have to hide who you are and just have fun with people like you?” I definitely need more of that, so I’m looking forward to going to Pride again this year.
BHB: Going a bit deeper into issues the community is facing, what do you feel needs to be addressed locally this year when it comes to Pride?
DCM: Locally, in the past few years we’ve seen a sort of renaissance of folks from the LGBTQIA+ community coming together, taking space and making events for the public to celebrate our existence. Unfortunately though, there’s still not enough collaboration with allies of the community. There are also times when there isn’t confidence from others that we are capable and have the capacity to organize these kinds of events, so sometimes others end up speaking for us.
There’s going to be a lot of Pride events throughout Boyle Heights and throughout the whole city this month, but it’s important that people are conscious and ensure that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are leading those efforts.
We have a lot of incredibly capable people in our community, all we just need is the opportunity to use a space or get a permit to host such an event. We’re incredibly talented. A lot of us from my generation and even before us have found success in our careers. There’s a lot that we can do, and this month I hope people recognize that and allow us to be visible, use our own voices instead of speaking for us.
BHB: Is there anything you’d like to add about yourself or the community in general?
DCM: I’m a political nerd, so it’s hard for me to not speak out against all that’s been happening across the nation this year against the LGBTQIA+ community. I urge people to get informed and speak out if you can, because if we don’t, things are just going to get worse. It doesn’t take a lot to show those you care for, that you accept who they are, but even the smallest gesture can mean the whole world for those in need.
To younger folks, I want you to know that you should be compassionate with yourself. That’s a message I would send to my younger self, too, if I could. It’s hard to ignore all of the attacks in the media and it can bring on a lot of fear in people, but just know that you aren’t alone. I remember when I was a teenager that I thought everything was the end of the world, but I’m here now. Our community is still here, too.
Everything will turn out fine in the end, I’m sure of it, but that will only happen if we make sure that we’re all accepted, that there’s queer people in every field, every walk of life. We do everything and we are everywhere. We always have been, even when we couldn’t be open about it. Reach out if you need help, and help others too if you can. Compassion goes a long way in today’s world.