You may know that Gloria Casarez was appointed by the mayor to be the director of LGBT Affairs, that she is the former executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative, that she sits on the board of the Bread & Roses Community Fund and was a founding member of the Philadelphia Dyke March.
But did you know about her infatuation with a certain buxom cartoon/TV character?
PGN: I understand you’re a Philadelphia native. GC: Yes, I was born in South Philly, but grew up mostly in North Philly until I went to high school. After college I lived in West Philadelphia for 17 years, and now I’m back in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from where I was born, so I guess I’ve come full circle.
PGN: Family? GC: My parents split when I was pretty young and I don’t have much contact with my father’s side of the family. They all live in Texas, but my mother is an artist and a very creative person. I remember growing up she was very involved in everything I did. She was one of those parents who was always pounding on the principal’s door. My mother’s side of the family is originally from West Texas and traces its roots to back when Texas was Mexico. I guess they were the first wave, if you can call it that, of Mexicans to come to this area, and they did what any newly arriving people did back then: They tried to find community, and when it wasn’t there, they made it and helped other people coming after them. My family has been in Philadelphia since the 19-teens and they were never the kind to sit back and be bystanders: They were always involved in things.
PGN: Any siblings? GC: No.
PGN: [Laughs.] Oh, one of those. GC: Everyone always says that! Everyone always thinks that we were either lonely or selfish or both. My partner and I are both only children, so we understand each other and the need for quiet time.
PGN: Well it’s not just being an only child. I have a friend who I tease and call a SPOC — single parent, only child — which is a different dynamic than just being an only child. GC: I’m definitely a SPOC, but I had a lot of cousins and aunts around too. And my mother was very careful about making sure I had a lot of positive male role models around, so that I wouldn’t grow up to be a man-hating lesbian. My grandfather was one of my best friends, and my uncle was very important in my life as well.
PGN: Tell me a great memory about your grandfather. GC: This is my favorite. He always wanted me to be happy. When I was very little we were close but then I went through that normal teenage state where hanging out with your grandparent wasn’t cool, but as I grew older we became friends again. When I was in college, he’d take the bus every Sunday all the way out to West Chester University, where I went to school, to visit me. He was originally from Uruguay and had traveled all over the world as a merchant seaman and he was always up on current politics, so we had wonderful conversations together. At my graduation I was really nervous. He’s the kind of guy who liked to defuse stressful moments with his sense of humor. He was in his late 60s and, at my graduation, he wore a T-shirt that said, “40 and Feeling Sporty.” It made me laugh because a) he probably had the T-shirt since he was 40 and b) he knew it would be hilarious to me since I knew his real age. Any stress that I was feeling dissipated after seeing him in that shirt.
PGN: And you went to high school in New Jersey? GC: Yeah, at the time I was living in Kensington and things were getting dangerous there. Looking back, I realize that it was because most of the factories had closed or moved out of state. It was a real manufacturing part of town and a lot of people lost their jobs. One of the side effects of that was the neighborhood going down and the crime rate going up. The schools were bad as well and I remember my mother saying to the principal, as I was getting ready to go into middle school, “I can’t send her to that school, I haven’t trained her to use a switchblade yet.” I was little for my age so they were afraid for me. There was also the fact that Kensington was a tough, mostly white neighborhood and I was this little brown child. Fortunately, I had an aunt who lived in New Jersey and let me stay with her so I could go to a better school in South Jersey. It’s interesting: Growing up, I didn’t know I lived in a tough neighborhood, but I was taught city smarts. My cousin taught me how to walk with authority and be aware of my surroundings, which is a good thing for any girl to learn, but in the suburbs, when you’re constantly looking around it looks like you are up to something! It was a good experience, though; I don’t know that I would have gotten into college if I’d stayed in Kensington for school under the circumstances.
PGN: And what did you study once you got to college? GC: At West Chester I studied political science and criminal justice. At the time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But I got really active in student government and activism on campus. I started learning about cities and how they worked and didn’t work and wanted to connect back to Philadelphia and do some community organizing.
PGN: [Laughs.] You know that’s a bad job title these days ... GC: I know: “Community organizer” never had such a bad rap! That’s just crazy. Of course, the other side is that in some circles it’s now super-cool. I think I was the first person in my family to go away to school and they thought that I was going to become a big-time lawyer and make lots of money, so when I became an anti-poverty activist, they were like, “Wait, that’s not about money.” And I responded, “It is about money, just not about me getting any of it!” They just wanted the best for me.
PGN: What was your first job? GC: I had all sorts of summer jobs during school. I worked for Domino’s when it was not politically correct — but they were willing to hire me for two-month spells. When I got out of school, I worked on anti-poverty/welfare-rights campaigns and, at the time, President Clinton was working on the new national service model. I was one of the people who started what became a national youth organization called “Empty the Shelters.”
PGN: What made you interested in helping others? GC: I was different — I grew up in a mostly white area and I was little and brown. Our family is really, really Mexican. We very much adhered to Mexican culture and traditions, and I think that made me stand out.
PGN: When did you first know you were gay? GC: I was 17 and I had never really dated before. I remember friends in high school having their hearts broken by guys and thinking how silly they were, that I would never be caught crying at my locker over someone. And then I had my heart broken by a girl and there I was in school thinking, “Oh my God, I just want to stand at my locker and cry!” but by that time I was in college and we didn’t have lockers!
PGN: Now for some random questions. What Olympic sport would you want to compete in? GC: Ooooh, I’m afraid of most sports. I’m not athletic at all and, in fact, my partner has been teasing me because the City of Brotherly Love Softball League is having their opening-day ceremony on April 18, and they’ve asked me to throw out the opening pitch. When I told my partner I had to throw a ball, she laughed for about five minutes. I have to say, I do love watching the rivalries in figure skating, especially between Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek. I’m addicted to “Be Good Johnny Weir” on Sundance. He’s so precious.
PGN: What’s your favorite vending-machine snack? GC: I’m not a big sweets person, but when I have a snack attack, I want M&Ms. Though I’m disappointed that they took the light-brown ones away.
PGN: What profession that you’ve never pursued do you think you’d be good at? GC: I would like to make things. I’ve always taken photographs and I’ve done some letterpress printing. I sometimes joke that my dream job would be to open up an iron-on T-shirt shop.
PGN: A carton or a comic strip you enjoyed? GC: It’s all about Wonder Woman! It always has and always will be. When I was at GALAEI, I had a huge poster of Wonder Woman on my wall. It was of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, so I justified it by explaining that she was Mexican.
PGN: Other than your partner, if you had to do a duet with anyone, who would you choose? GC: Dolly Parton. I love her. She has a way of singing — when she hits some notes — that could break your heart. [Laughs.] That might could break your heart.
PGN: Did you ever see “For the Love of Dolly”? It’s a beautiful documentary about people who are obsessed with Dolly including one girl who lost her mother and speaks about Dolly, being a surrogate mother who taught her about life through her songs. GC: Well, it’s true! When Dolly sings, you know that she loves you.
PGN: What’s your sign? GC: I’m a Sagittarius. We’re supposed to be outgoing and fearless, but tact is not a strong point. We sometimes put our foot in our mouths. I don’t really follow astrology, but [my partner] Tricia and I recently went to Italy and went to the science museum in Florence. I saw Galileo’s original mappings of the stars and his instruments and it was all about the zodiac calendar, so I learned to appreciate the science behind it.
PGN: Something you do that embarrasses people? GC: I tend to repeat stories. I like to say, I relive precious memories ... over and over. I’ve made Tricia hear about going to Jazz Fest to see Celia Cruz about 45 times. She was amazing: She was in her 80s and she was totally doing it. It was a million degrees out and she was doing moves I can’t do now.
PGN: What’s a situation that really moved you in your work? GC: There are so many people that have inspired me. When I was younger and doing grassroots work, I was moved over and over again by women who were poor but always put their families first and tried to make things better. People who in the media were characterized as downtrodden but who rose to the occasion to fight for their families. We did housing takeovers, which can be dangerous, but they were fearless. Watching that mama-bear instinct was inspiring. Working with David Acosta when I first came to GALAEI was also a learning experience. He was the first man I ever met who described himself as a feminist. He was a mentor, both as an activist and as a creative person.
PGN: What’s a housing takeover? GC: It’s where you take over an abandoned house and move people in to give them a place to live. I should say I don’t do that anymore — that was from my younger days — but at the time we felt that there were 40,000 boarded-up homes and 40,000 homeless people, and it was a shame to let them go to waste.
PGN: That must have been exhilarating. GC: It was. People were on waiting lists for affordable or Section 8 housing for over 10 years, and this was something that could be accomplished immediately. But it was illegal so it could be tricky.
PGN: OK, this is my personal request to you, as a community leader and an activist. Can you please put an end to “Hey hey, ho ho ... ” etc. GC: [Laughs.] Yes, we do need better chants! Let’s get someone on that. Especially since my office is now in City Hall. My window faces the courtyard, so I hear them all with full acoustics.
PGN: What are some of the most interesting protests you’ve participated in? GC: One time we set up a tent city in front of Independence Hall. It was pretty awesome and a really striking visual to see all the tents everywhere. That is, until the sprinklers went on at 5 in the morning and we looked like drowned rats! Also, I didn’t organize them, but I remember a few ACT UP events where they used very symbolic imagery to get the point across — coffins filled with kitty litter to simulate the ashes of people who’d died of AIDS. People who were scared of ACT UP would be horrified as if they were real ashes, and I’d be like, “Relax, it’s just Tidycat.” There were a few political funerals at the White House where they did spread real ashes and that was very moving, as well as effective.
PGN: I meant to ask, how long have you and Tricia been together? GC: Nine years now!
PGN: I know you’ve had some health issues: How are you feeling? GC: I just completed five months of chemo and right now I’m just dealing with maintenance, learning to live with something that isn’t in a crisis mode.
PGN: What did you not know about cancer? GC: I was diagnosed with breast cancer about this time last year, so it’s been a crash course for me. I’ve been around the health-care industry, but mostly around the AIDS issue. I had no known family history, so there was no one to navigate it with me who had experience with it: It was new to the whole family. I did a blog while I was going through chemo and I was constantly struck by the parallels to HIV and what it means to manage a chronic disease while not looking “sick.” It was weird: Before I knew I had breast cancer, I looked fine but my body was sick. Then, when I was going through chemo, I was losing my hair and looked anemic with no eyebrows, but in fact it was the time when I was receiving the life-saving poison that helped me get better. I looked at holiday pictures just before I was diagnosed and thought, that was the time when I had cancer and didn’t know it: That’s when I was really sick, when I looked the healthiest.
PGN: I’m glad you’re doing better. What’s fun for the summer? GC: I bought a scooter and I love buzzing around the city. I can’t wait to get it out!