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Queering Toronto’s Latin programming

Movie nights, bathhouse discounts, drag workshops are all in a day's work

Staff at the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples. Credit: Jorge Antonio Vallejos

The Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples’ queer chapter at 40 Wellesley St E has a new team and fresh plans for its clients.

When it opened in November 2006, the main purpose of the satellite office was to facilitate HIV/AIDS prevention in Toronto’s Spanish-speaking community.

Gerrardo Betancourt, the centre’s community educator, was there from the beginning. A native of Mexico, Betancourt understands what it means to be newly arrived in Toronto’s queer community. 

“The only places for new queers are bars and bathhouses. We feel there are no real options for the Spanish-speaking community. We wanted to create a space that was an option,” says Betancourt.

With the centre widely seen as a place to pick up condoms and get advice on HIV/AIDS — something of a Latino Hassle Free Clinic — Betancourt and his new staff have planned ways to change the space into more of a community setting than a clinic.

The four-person team, three men and one woman (plus 10 volunteers), are all Spanish speaking from different parts of Latin America. They have set up initiatives to attract folks from Toronto’s queer Latin community and make the space feel like a second home, while maintaining their original goal of HIV/AIDS prevention.

“Prevention is more than just giving out condoms. Prevention is providing a space and support and opportunities to interact with others. Prevention is providing options,” says Rene Lopez, the centre’s community-based researcher and strategic development officer.

The initiatives include a number of new arts programs: a drag workshop; a film night; a community radio program; and art and cooking classes.

Pinta Colores (Painted Colours) teaches community members how to dress up and perform in drag, before heading out to George’s Play on Church St. 

The once-a-month film night received a $1,500 grant from Community One and will run year-round. 

Talentos Latinos (Latin Talents), every Tuesday night from 6–8 pm, gives community members a chance to share their skills in a group setting.

A pilot project between the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples and the University of Toronto, Talentos Latinos’ teachers “are the participants themselves,” says Laura Fajardo.  “The participants feel happy because they didn’t have such a space to be free with friends and community.”   

Daniel Garcia-Herreros, a graduate of the centre’s Mano en Mano (Hand in Hand) newcomers’ workshop, and the centre’s new HIV men’s outreach co-ordinator, has helped set up monthly Latin nights at local bathhouses St Marc Spa and Spa Excess.

“All these things start off small and start to grow with the help and passion of all the people involved,” says Betancourt.