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    History of AGUILAS

    By Eduardo Morales, PhD–

    AGUILAS is an acronym that stands for Asemblea Gay Unida Impactando Latinos A Superarse (Gay Assembly United Impacting Latinxs to Surpass or rise above). Founded in 1991 by members of the Latinx LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco, AGUILAS has a mission that states: “AGUILAS is dedicated to creating a supportive, culturally sensitive environment for gay/bisexual Latinos. We strive to foster knowledge and pride of the diversity of our language, culture, history, and spirituality. AGUILAS is committed to developing programs that promote health, well-being, and community building that foster positive self-identities, healthy relationships, and leadership skills.”

    Its organic evolvement is rooted in a history of past events that led to its founding and the formalizing of an organization with corporate bylaws that eventually obtained 501 C-3 nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service in August of 1999.

    Many have pointed to the 1969 Stonewall uprising in NYC on the night of June 28 as the turning point in the LGBT movement. These riots were started by African American and Latinx LGBT drag queens in reaction to the constant harassment and raids by NYC police of LGBTQ+ persons who frequented the Stonewall Bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan. Interestingly, this uprising coincided with the funeral of Judy Garland.

    This uprising movement generated a formal change and removal of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1974 by the American Psychiatric Association and in 1975 by the American Psychological Association. As a result, several organizations were formed throughout the U.S. with the focus of providing support and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. For the Latinx LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco, various informal social groups emerged—most notably GALA and El Grupo Sociocultural that offered events for socializing with safety and pride. CURAS was formed in the late 1980s to provide HIV/AIDS services to Latinx gays and bisexuals in San Francisco.

    During the 1987 National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C., a gathering of Latinx LGBTQ individuals was called through an ad placed in the march materials entitled: el Primer Encuentro de Gais y Lesbianas Latinas. A meeting was held in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the attendees decided to have a gathering in UCLA to establish a national organization as a nonprofit corporation with bylaws that was then named LLEGO National (Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organizers-National).

    This generated interest among Latinx LGBTQ+ persons in San Francisco to formally create a new organization in order to address the needs of the community locally. During 1991, numerous meetings were held in the basement of the St. Francis Lutheran Church on Church Street in San Francisco. Then, AGUILAS was created with its own bylaws and with the intent to serve and advocate for the community, and AGUILAS as mentioned would eventually become a 501 C-3 nonprofit organization.

    During 1994, CURAS found itself in difficulty and AGUILAS was provided a small grant by the San Francisco Department of Public Health AIDS Office to conduct a randomized trial to examine two different HIV strategies for HIV prevention designed and implemented by five Latinx gay psychologists. A standard psychoeducational instructional strategy was compared with a novel one based on Paulo Freire’s theory of empowerment involving discussion and engagement of attendees. The qualitative data collected showed each participant’s preference for the more engaging empowerment strategy over the traditional psychoeducational approach.

    This resulted in the start of the ongoing HIV prevention services AGUILAS is now known to provide. In early 2002, AGUILAS received direct funding for five years from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to expand its services and to include yearly overnight retreats by providing a more intensive intervention experience in a safe and protected environment. During the spring seasons when summer camps were available for rental, AGUILAS expanded its reach to Latinx LGBTQ+ persons throughout Northern California.

    Throughout the years the staff at AGUILAS have published articles about its approach in peer-reviewed journal articles and have presented its strategies nationally and internationally at numerous professional conferences. Later, local leaders and governmental agencies advocated for consolidation of smaller organizations. However, such integration presented challenges through competing organizational priorities. Many Latinx LGBTQ+ workers in these consolidated agencies expressed their frustration, noting the lack of attention and focus for Latinx LGBTQ+ concerns. Consequently, the Board of AGUILAS decided to maintain its independence and move forward seeking additional sources of funding, developing fundraising activities, and partnering with other agencies for the delivery of services to the Latinx LGBTQ+ community.

    For example, AGUILAS led the way to the formation of Purple Star, a marijuana dispensary in the Mission District of San Francisco whose profits are shared with nonprofits that include AGUILAS, Shanti, the SF LGBT Center, and the San Francisco Breast Cancer Emergency Fund.

    With the recent funding by ViiV Foundation, AGUILAS will now revive La Academia de AGUILAS for Latinx LGBTQ+ leadership development previously funded in 2011 and 2012 by the Levi Straus Foundation. Plans for leadership training and a certificate program are now being created with a calendar of events to be posted on the AGUILAS website very soon. The solid foundation of AGUILAS is a tribute to AGUILAS’ Board of Directors and dedicated staff who offer all of the provided services in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

    Our website contains more specific information as well as a monthly calendar of activities that includes individual and group sessions for Latinx gay bisexual men, social events, and outreach activities to provide HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infection (SDI), and hepatitis C testing in collaboration with the UCSF Alliance Health:

    AGUILAS Finds Ways of Managing COVID-19 and Re-Entry

    By Eduardo Morales, PhD–

    The global pandemic of COVID-19 and the current Delta variant instigate challenges for businesses accustomed to conduct services in person or face-to-face. The health ordinances calling for shelter-in-place by local and state governments previously prevented businesses to conduct business as usual. This included health providers like AGUILAS.

    AGUILAS was able to reduce the digital divide common among the Latinx communities by instructing participants to engage in various internet platforms. During the past several years, program participants needed instruction, encouragement, mentoring, and coaching on how to use the internet and social media for obtaining information and resources. Little did AGUILAS realize that these efforts were critical for the unexpected and extended time of being “sheltered in place” due to COVID-19.

    Health mandates placed a heavy reliance in providing services through internet platforms on a regular basis. Encouraging COVID testing as well as being vaccinated for COVID became primary efforts of AGUILAS for the health and well-being of Latinx gay and bisexual men engaged in our activities. During this past fiscal year, AGUILAS was able to exceed its contractual expectations in the numbers of persons and the number of interventions it provided. The isolation and loneliness many individuals experienced during the shelter-in-place mandate required us to address this as part of AGUILAS’ re-entry plans.

    As the news of lifting the shelter-in-place health mandates occurred, AGUILAS made sure all of its staff were vaccinated for COVID as part of the plan for re-entry and to begin providing services in person. After a lengthy period of doing work from home, AGUILAS staff established regular in office hours, and we focused on enhancing the spirit of teamwork.

    On June 5 and June 12, AGUILAS had two one-day retreats at the SF LGBT Center for its program participants where they could attend various skill building workshops, obtain health screening tests, and begin to interact with attendees. The recommendations of social distancing and wearing of facial masks were encouraged for the two one-day retreats. Given the success of these two Saturday retreat events, AGUILAS had a social event on Thursday evening of July 28 where attendees obtained health screening tests, were introduced to our new staff, reconnected with their friends, and were informed of new program activities that were just funded.

    Meanwhile, AGUILAS continues to monitor safety conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It plans a slow re-entry in offering services using a hybrid method involving various internet platforms and offering services in person or face to face on a limited basis.

    In this past year, additional funding was obtained from the California Department of Public Health Office on AIDS to expand and enhance AGUILAS’ services. With ViiV Foundation’s funding for AGUILAS, we will revive a leadership development training and certificate program called La Academia de AGUILAS for Latinx LGBTQ community members. Check our website as plans develop:

    In mid-September, AGUILAS together with the SF LGBT Center and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District will unveil San Francisco’s Pulse Memorial to be located on the second floor of the SF LGBT Center and funded by SF City and County. For the first time, the four national ethnic psychological associations along with PROVOC and Providence as consultant agencies launched a #WellnessForAll campaign for people of color from July 13 to August 13 on Facebook and Instagram. This national resource for persons of color for their mental health and well-being may become an annual event. (See this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times for additional information on both of these efforts.)

    With careful planning and by combining various resources, our team at AGUILAS looks forward to an active and engaging re-entry.

    Eduardo Morales, PhD, is a founder of AGUILAS, where he serves as Executive Director. He is also a Distinguished Professor at Alliant International University and is the 2021 President of the National Latinx Psychological Association.

    Published on August 12, 2021