This is What Training Our Future Leaders Looks Like
Every year, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health holds a training session we call a LOLA (Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy). As an organization, our mission is to ensure the fundamental human right to reproductive health and justice for Latinas, their families and their communities. An essential part of fulfilling our goal of Salud, Dignidad y Justicia, is our relationship to the communities we serve. In order to achieve the policy changes that improve the reproductive health status of Latinas, NLIRH builds power through a community mobilization program that empowers a knowledgeable constituency who can mobilize and influence a progressive policy agenda. The LOLA training is therefore an integral part of achieving that core vision of reproductive justice and movement-building. Our LOLA training is centered around the cultivation of well-informed leaders and activists; it provides Latinx activists with information on reproductive health and history, as well as practical leadership tools, such as skills in organizing and grassroots advocacy. Knowledge is power!
This past week, our Texas Latina Advocacy Network (TX LAN) held its annual LOLA training. We sat down with one of our fierce Poderosxs, Juan Villela, and had a very fruitful conversation before and after he completed the training, about what brought him to the LOLA, what he learned and the issues he cares most about.
Hi, Juan! Thanks so much for being willing to talk to us about your experiences at the LOLA. Let’s get started! Tell us how old you are and where you are from?
I am 23 years old and I am from Brownsville, Texas
How did you become involved with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Poderosxs?
I started my activism around HIV/STI awareness. I remember that around 3 years ago, NLIRH had a rally outside of a restaurant here in the Valley for undocumented folk, and some of the Poderosxs invited me to attend. They were really energetic and motivating, so I went and it was the first rally I ever attended. And now three years later, I am still here and I still love it!
I understand that this is your third training! Congrats! Can you tell me a little bit about why you are here today, in this training?
I came to the training because I want to show my support for individuals who are seeking access to reproductive healthcare and justice here in the Valley. I try my best to attend all of the events and trainings that the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health conducts so that when I am out in the community I can deliver a great message and know how to help those individuals who need help as well as share the information that we are provided here.
When you came to the first training, what did you expect you would be learning and what did you learn?
I wanted to learn how to be a better leader, how to organize, and also wanted to learn more about the meaning of reproductive justice in our community ,and it went really really great. We learned how to actually accomplish our goals, how to organize around direct action, go on small campaigns in the valley, how to meet and talk to lobbyists and legislators about the issues our community faces here locally, in the Valley. The skills we learn here are important and help us advocate for ourselves as a community.
As a third time participant, what more were you looking to gain from the training?
I feel like in every training I learn a little more. Every time I have been to a training I learn more about organizing and lobbying and about the most current issues facing our community and how we can effect change.
My first LOLA was more old style in that there was more gender normativity, it did not really include gender fluidity. I like that this time there is a lot more of a focus on the LGBTQ community, and I know it is hard to deal with every single issue at once, but I feel that NLIRH is doing a great job. In this training we are using the x to modify how gendered the Spanish language can be, and I really appreciate that. It is obvious that NLIRH is thinking about these things, and that is important.
So you think that this issue of language is important to talk about in the valley?
Yes, I think it is. Because in Spanish, words are either male or female, and this change in the word’s spelling gets a conversation started about the different gender identities that exist in our community and the different experiences that people may have, the different forms of oppression they experience. It opens up people’s minds to understand other people and to understand why it is important to be more inclusive. This is the sort of change that can get us talking in our own community about gender — the trans community, gender violence, and how reproductive justice is also an issue for the LGBTQ community.
Which one of NLIRH’s issue areas do you identify with most?
As a gay Mexican-American man who wants a family, I am most interested in bringing down the barriers to LGBTQ friendly clinics. This is a big issue. Because I do not feel safe or like I will be understood, I have not been to see a doctor since I was 18 years old. My mom is constantly telling me to just go to Mexico, but for me it is the same thing — I still feel fear and there’s a lot of violence taking place there. I am especially fearful because I think as a gay man I might be more vulnerable to that violence.
My mom goes to Mexico to get all of her medications and to see the doctor.
Immigration is a big issue here. Being close to the border our community feels like it is constantly being policed; I feel uncomfortable with how ICE is present in schools, they do not go into the classrooms, but they patrol on the outside.
I’ve never been to the Rio Grande Valley, is the border that close?!
Yeah, I can see it from where I am sitting! And as a Mexican American, it feels like I am constantly being surveilled because there are a lot of border patrol agents around.
In your opinion, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges our country is facing today?
Women and the trans community, particularly women of color and trans women of color, are being targeted and their rights are under assault. And of course, our undocumented community is under attack as well, especially here in Texas, where SB 4 has just passed, which means that no city in Texas can consider itself a “sanctuary city,” and our community will be even more vulnerable. Here in the Valley, we have checkpoints in many places, so technically the undocumented community feels stuck, and that really affects their access to reproductive healthcare. If the Valley does not provide those services, it means women just have to go without the care they need, they just have to deal with not having any care. It is really unjust on the part of Texas legislators. SB 4 is another example of how undocumented women are especially vulnerable and are being denied reproductive justice.
What do you think should be our response to these attacks? How do you propose we make changes?
We need to mobilize as a community, to get more involved, to show up. After the election I noticed a lot of people were more vocal but we need to get out there in the frontlines and make our voices heard, not just on social media. We need to continue to educate ourselves and others about what is happening and organize ourselves based on that knowledge. That is what I like about the LOLA — we build up that knowledge and are prepared with the tools we need to go out there and advocate for our community.
What does activism mean to you?
I think activism is about putting your personal feelings aside and thinking and fighting for others, especially other people who are being oppressed, whose rights are being taken away, or who do not have services the way we might have. For me, activism is taking action based on thinking of others, not just yourself.
In what ways does being a leader appeal to you?
I started out doing HIV/AIDS work and it was just the best thing to see that people felt comfortable telling me about their status and being able to help people take the first step towards conquering their fears. I felt like I was a being a role model and I feel grateful for that.
As a queer man, what does Reproductive Justice mean to you?
For me, the first thing that comes to mind are people of color. We are denied the resources and services that our white counterparts have access to.
I want a family, and as a queer man I want to have the same rights and opportunities that heterosexual couples do. So I am fighting for that and for others too.
How do you think what you learned here will help you in your personal life?
These trainings have definitely influenced my personal life. All of the trainings we do, from the trainings on lobbying to the role playing, have helped me learn to be more confident in my voice and have helped me commit more fully to this work, because now I have the tools to do it!
I also feel like the things we learn here have made me more conscious of my privilege — I realize that I benefit from male privilege, I speak english, I have had access to an education and because of that, I know I have had more opportunities. And realizing this helps me see how I can use my privileges to help undocumented people.
Also, the LOLA training makes me proud of being Mexican and of listening to Mexican music. I just love the Poderosxs and being around them; I love the volunteering opportunities and the positive environment. I feel comfortable here because I can be myself. After a training, I feel energized and confident. That is why I keep coming back!
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health is the only national reproductive justice organization dedicated to building Latina power to advance health, dignity, and justice for 28 million Latinas, their families and communities in the United States through leadership development, community mobilization, policy advocacy, and strategic communications.