At Tucson's Heart

Meet six members of the LGBT community who make Southern Arizona a better place to live for all

Before the sounds of cumbia filled the dance floor with couples and children, Raúl Ochoa led the crowd at the Corazón de Tucson fundraiser in a chant of, "Si, se puede."

Ochoa, a 29-year-old organizer for the immigrant-rights organization, had just presented certificates to 10 community members who participated in his leadership class. Their faces beamed as they held their certificates.

Ochoa, regaled with more applause and cheers, looked content. A friend reached out and squeezed my hand, looking at Ochoa. "This is the heart," she said, referring to both Ochoa and his organization.

In Tucson, there are special moments like these, when we witness people we admire at their best. In a way, these people offer the answer to a question we ask ourselves on occasion: "What is so special about Tucson? Despite itself, why do we love it so much?"

Tucson has corazón. Tucson has heart.

In honor of Pride, we decided to dive deep into this heart and talk to members of the LGBT community, like Ochoa, who make Tucson the place we love.

Raúl Ochoa:

"Why I do what I do today"

When Ochoa isn't working as a community organizer for Corazón, he works at the Southside Presbyterian Church's Southside Worker Center, helping mostly migrant men find work and resources. He also works with LGBT youth at the Eon Youth Lounge at Wingspan.

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Ochoa says he arrived in the United States, undocumented, at the age of 5. He lived in the San Francisco Bay area, unable to visit family back in Mexico for 9 years, because he and his mother remained undocumented.

"Eventually, my dad petitioned for us to become citizens. I had two sisters born in the U.S., but during that time, California was going through a lot of its own anti-migrant experiments, before Arizona," Ochoa says. "The law said that if you worked as a teacher or staff member, and suspected a child was undocumented, you were to call immigration."

Ochoa remembers his mother telling him to stay away from uniformed police. He didn't understand why—he didn't think he was doing anything wrong.

"I was just going to school," he says. "She always had a worried look on her face. She was very stressed. I always remember that time."

While he was in high school, his Tia Lupe was taken into custody and faced a deportation order. During one visit, his family stood on one side of a glass partition while his aunt sat, handcuffed, on the other side. At the detention center, Ochoa held and comforted his 3-year-old niece, while the family cried and watched her other child try to touch his mother through the glass.

"It didn't make sense: Why my tia was detained? Why she was incarcerated? From that point forward, it came to me that I wanted to do something to make sure this doesn't happen to other families," he says.

Ochoa went on to college at San Francisco State University, where he got a degree in Raza studies. He got involved in community organizing, but he remained in the closet—never telling friends, fellow organizers or family members that he is gay.

After working for a high school social-justice program, Ochoa decided he wanted a fresh start and decided to move closer to the border.

"I also wanted to get away from everyone I knew so I could begin to live a fuller life, so I could be more myself," Ochoa says. "Working with refugees and asylum-seekers, I started feeling a big burden. I was living in the closet for most of my life, and I was feeling like I couldn't live like that anymore. I started feeling heavy, and I wanted to be true to who I am. I figured if I removed myself from close friends and family, I could just be. So of all places regarding race and sexuality, I decided to move, and came to Arizona."

Ochoa laughs and shakes his head in disbelief. "I came here as a political and sexual-orientation refugee six years ago."

However, only recently did he completely come out to the community he works so hard to organize; it happened during a workshop with families on homophobia and machismo. "The space was loving and accepting and nurturing."

Ochoa says he finally came out because he was tired, "tired of being queer here, and not here ... always having to pick what I am in this meeting, or in that space and that group. I want to be all of me in all of those spaces as much as I can be."

Ochoa says he stayed in the closet because there was always a risk of being rejected. A conversation with a migrant family he's particularly close to made him realize it was time to put those fears behind him.

"The father told me that it's not that Mexican communities are more homophobic; we just don't talk about it as much, because it is a taboo issue," he says. "'Just be who you are,' he said.'"

Abby Hungwe:

"Tucson is a resettlement city"

Abby Hungwe understands that Tucson's refugee community has to fit in before its members will truly feel at home.

Tall and lean, the 26-year-old woman's long, neat dreadlocks cascade down her head, and the KXCI T-shirt she wears leaves little question that Hungwe is at home. She explains that she had to work hard to reach this point.

More than five years ago, Hungwe decided to leave her home in Zimbabwe and arrived in Tucson as a refugee. At Owl and Panther, a Hopi Foundation project that helps newly arrived refugee families make Tucson home, she began to piece together the feeling of community.

"I think the hardest for me to get used to is social structures. Everyone here is independent, for lack of a better word. The friendships I had in Zimbabwe were as good as being brother and sister. That doesn't happen here, and it's hard to get used to," she says.

After her first year with Owl and Panther, Hungwe began to volunteer, and in February, she was offered a part-time position with the organization as a program assistant.

"I guess I can relate," she says. "This is a program that makes it easier to settle into a new community. I think it works because it's consistent. During the school year, families meet every Tuesday, and sometimes on Saturdays, too, for field trips. It is a consistent and safe environment. It doesn't matter if you don't speak the same language. You don't feel like you're different, because no one treats you like you're different."

Hungwe has studied at Pima Community College, where she's earned two associate's degrees. She says she wants to eventually "venture into project management, specifically for construction management."

Is resettlement as a refugee more difficult for those who are LGBT? Hungwe says it can be, especially if a person is leaving their former country specifically because their gender identity or sexual orientation has put them in danger.

"Even if you are in a different environment, and you know you're in a safe environment, it can still be hard to settle in and feel completely safe," she says.

All refugees must go through some healing, Hungwe says.

"It is a big loss, especially when you leave family or most of your family. It's great if you can bring two or three family members with you, but for people who come on their own, or people who have had to be separated, like some of the families from Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, it's really hard."

The refugee experience, while fundamentally American in many ways, is an experience that remains a mystery to most Americans. Hungwe says she's certain that most locals don't even realize that Tucson is a resettlement city, where refugee populations from different countries are sent to begin their new lives.

Hungwe says refugee kids often have the hardest time dealing with the cultural differences, thanks to non-refugee classmates. "Being different doesn't give people the right to look at you negatively. I can't really say I blame the kids; probably, it is mostly the parents. They don't teach their children about the fact that even though we are different, we share so many similarities. So many things unify us."

Hungwe says she's created a support network for herself that eases some of the pain of being away from her family. On occasion, she says, there have been unexpected surprises that have reminded her of home, like when traveling to the Hopi Foundation headquarters on the reservation up north.

"I discovered that it's a community that's pretty close to my own community, and going there feels like being home. The first time, it was an interesting feeling," she says.

However, it wasn't the bare vegetation that reminded her of lush Zimbabwe. "It's the energy of that community. It just gives you a sense that you're home, and they are all very welcoming. Their culture is maternal, while my culture is paternal, but we both have clan systems, and the same close relationships."

Sarah Gonzales:

"I wish there was more being done for the healing of our community"

Racism is one of those topics that can be difficult to bring up, because most people think of the KKK showing up in a front yard with a burning cross, rather than the systemic racism in society—which is often far more subtle than we realize.

That's where Sarah Gonzales comes in. She holds anti-racism workshops for organizations and businesses to help people better understand racism and its damaging effects. When Gonzales isn't doing those workshops, she works with area youth through Wingspan's Eon Youth Lounge, the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam and the UA-affiliated Crossroads Collaborative.

"I think it all started back home in Oklahoma," Gonzales says. "My dad would always make us talk about what was going on in school that day or in the community, or on the nightly news. He'd comment on issues, especially on race and racism, politics and all that stuff. They were weird like that, even during the summer. We'd get excited, being out of school, but then they'd make us do a report on the Gaza Strip."

That's part of the reason why she decided to work in social justice. In the first-grade, she remembers that all of her classmates were good kids. "But by the time I graduated, many of them had been incarcerated. I knew they were not bad people, but it made me wonder how that could have been different, in different circumstances."

Gonzales came to Tucson to work on her master's degree in education at the University of Arizona, left to work for a year at Duke University, and returned to work for the Tucson YWCA on anti-racism and youth programming. After she showed up to a Tucson Unified School District board meeting to support the beleaguered Mexican-American studies department, Gonzales was laid off.

Gonzales says it was rough, but that old cliché—when one door closes, another door opens—rang true: Shortly after her layoff, she got a call from a YWCA contact asking if she could put on an anti-racism workshop at their business. Those requests never stopped, and Gonzales was forced to make it formal by starting her own business, TruthSarita Consulting.

"It's ended up being the best thing I've ever done in my life," she says. "I officially started in January. When I first got those calls, I'd tell them, 'You know, I don't work there anymore,' but they said they didn't care. They wanted it done, and they liked how I work."

Working with youth, however, feeds her soul. Gonzales works with Eon, doing workshops on youth rights, sexuality and identity. She helps work with kids on Queer Monologues, an event of writing, poetry, performance and dance.

"For me, I wanted to work within the community to not only fight against the stereotypes of what people tell us who we are, but to say, 'This is who we are. This is who I am,'" Gonzales says. "For youth, it's empowering."

During one of her workshops, a girl walked in for the first time not knowing what to expect. She soon walked out to call her mom to say, "I am gay," and then walked right back in. Gonzales says she felt great to see a youth come into the room and know right away that this was where she needed to be.

When asked about her own story and how she identifies, Gonzales says she considers it to be private.

"I say I'm queer, but how do you navigate what that means to other people and what it means to you? To me, it's intensely personal," Gonzales says. "I am way more open with my youth. I want them to see someone successful. But I do believe that queerness is a perspective, a continuum, an ideology, even."

What's next for Gonzales? She looks back at what's taken place with Mexican-American studies in TUSD and recognizes that the community supporting the program has experienced a lot of trauma.

"Work-wise, community-wise, it does take a toll. I wish there was more being done for that. I wish there was more being done for the healing of our community."

Dante Celeiro:

"My gut is telling me to keep plugging away"

The last time the Tucson Weekly formally talked with Dante Celeiro at Fluxx Productions, he was in the early stages of creating a queer performance space that would serve as a home base for Boys R Us—the drag-king performance troupe he directs—and provide a home for other queer artists.

So far, Celeiro is on track, and although financial challenges remain, the space has become a hub for other queer programming, as well as non-LGBT arts and community groups who like what Celeiro and his colleagues have created.

"October makes it two years," he says. "Things have come full-circle for me, and yet I have to figure out strategically how to get all the community—queer, straight or whatever—to understand what this space is about and what it is we are trying to do. My gut is telling me to keep plugging away."

Celeiro moved to Tucson 12 years ago from his hometown of New York City and continued working in social services for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation before deciding to focus on Boys R Us and then Fluxx. The gallery and performance space is now a partner with the Tucson LGBT film festival Out in the Desert, which is going into its second year. He's also parlayed his cooking skills into catering gigs for organizations who want good food at their Fluxx event, such as a recent GLBT Chamber of Commerce awards evening.

Celeiro says he's also gained a reputation for ... well, having a strong personality.

"The thing is, I don't beat around the bush about the fact that I can be difficult to work with. I do have a strong personality. When I am working on a production or with some group, it's important to me to make sure I give you the best," he says.

That reputation helped Fluxx gain new clients and projects—for example, a recent drag-king performance fundraiser for the Tucson Monsoon women's football team.

"They've been practicing," Celeiro says in the days before the show. "Every week, they are here, and none of them have performed before. I like that some of them are really pushing themselves and their own boundaries. It didn't matter to me how everybody identified. I don't know if they are gay, bi or whatever. I have to have a lot of respect for them when they put on those uniforms to play football, and then come here to work with me on their show."

For this year's Tucson Pride, at Armory Park, Fluxx helped lead the way, organizing performers, vendors and setup. "In some ways, I am working harder now than ever before," he says. "Now if we could just raise money."

Celeiro and others involved with Fluxx all volunteer. He's hoping more production opportunities come up, or enough donations come in, so he can provide those first paychecks. "I want to stick with this. I think it's important to have a queer performance space in Tucson."

He also thinks about the future and someday having a performance-art campus.

"I want to keep that momentum going as much as we can, and hopefully, people who are thinking about where they want to donate their dollar will consider this space and help us make it into an even better space."

What has been missing is another large-scale Boys R Us review. Celeiro says he's hoping to bring the troupe back soon. Working with the Monsoon team has made him miss putting together the performances. He also misses performing himself.

"I leave the facial hair on," he says, running a hand across his beard. "I have two different characters that I play, and I really throw everyone totally off. Big Poppa is really goofy and not what they were expecting. With Big Momma, I don't shave, but I still put on enough makeup to get (audiences) to think of gender."

Celeiro, a transgendered man, says he enjoys how drag performances play around with gender roles and provoke some people to "re-examine gender and their own perceptions."

"I knew as young as 4 that I was in the wrong body, but I wasn't able to talk about it. But it was very clear to me. I thought, 'Maybe I'm a lesbian,' but no. These decisions aren't easy."

Anton Smith:

"I am interested in challenging how people look at me and look at hip-hop"

Philadelphia-born Anton Smith moved to Tucson to study dance at the UA in 2002, and about two years later, he started The Human Project, a hip-hop dance company that Smith says is a labor of love—and, he hopes, a force for change.

"The company itself started by accident. I was a dance major at the time. I had the idea that once I graduated, I'd leave Tucson to audition for some musical in L.A. or New York," he says.

But the Jewish Community Center was doing a big New York-themed event, trying to re-create 1980s-era downtown Manhattan. A call went to the UA looking for break-dancers.

"I found some people, and the performance was so well-received. We felt like we were on to something, even though at the time, having a hip-hop dance company was a new thing," he says.

All members of Smith's company are teachers. Some teach at local high schools or at private dance studios; auditions are held once a year.

The term "hip-hop" no longer means just break-dancing for Smith and his group. Smith likes the idea that he and his dancers can expand on what "hip-hop" means in different styles and music.

The Human Project plans to perform at Pride.

"It's not the traditional way of entertaining the community, but I think the community will find our brand is true to who I am. Not everyone in the company is LGBT, but they identify as allies. They enjoy working with me regardless of who I choose to love," Smith says.

That inclusion was always important to Smith, not just because he's gay, but also because he wanted a company where everyone felt welcome; that's why he named it The Human Project. In the beginning, he wasn't always completely out in his work, but because times have changed, he's now more vocal, and his identity is more important to him.

"When it first started ... things truly were different in the community. People weren't as vocal or open as they are now, and the possibility of same-sex marriage didn't exist. It was pretty old-school in dance, even in gender roles. But now I can challenge that, and I want to," he says. "Now I'm interested in challenging how people see us and the way they see hip-hop, and how the queer community interacts with other people in the world."

Jamie J. Soto:

"I still feel a little scared, and that's OK with me"

It's La Cocina's monthly queer dance party, Coming Out, where musician/dancer/DJ Jamie J. Soto made his debut, performing at the popular event. Today, Soto gets invites to Club Congress, Plush and LGBT fundraisers for him to showcase his brand of pop and dance—which includes some splits.

"I'm going to Preen this week so Erin (Bradley) can help me with some stretch pants I can wear so I don't split my pants like I did the other night," he says, laughing. "That's not good."

Soto says that although he loves music and writing songs, performing is a huge challenge—he suffers from performance anxiety right before he goes on stage. "It's fun once you get past the fear. It's like being in love. Once you get over your fear, it's amazing."

Soto says Club Congress has been great about bringing LGBT acts to the club, like Big Freedia. He's been invited to open for some of those acts, and recently performed at Latino Pride night at Plush. Maybe, he says, he could eventually be a role model for queer kids who love music as much as he does.

Soto is a native Tucsonan who spent a lot of time taking in shows at Skrappy's when he was at Tucson High School.

"I was always a very feminine little boy, and it was challenging growing up. Maybe for the first 23 years, I was really repressed. My only outlet was singing and performing in my room," he says.

Who did he sing to? His first love was mom-and-daughter duo the Judds. In 1992, his grandmother bought him tickets for Wynonna Judd's solo-tour stop at the Tucson Convention Center.

"That was my way of expressing myself and escaping this confusing childhood. ... I was ashamed of who I was, but music was always there for me," he says.

His obsession with Wynonna later transferred to Selena and Tejano and cumbia music—and then he heard Gwen Stefani of No Doubt.

"Somehow, it wasn't until I started dating that I realized my version of normal wasn't that different from other boys my age," he says. "I always looked up to women performers. In my head, gay-male performers didn't exist, and I didn't know they were out there. In all honesty, it wasn't until Brokeback Mountain—and I know that sounds so silly, but it was a pivotal moment—that I said, 'This is what it means to be gay, and its fine, and it exists in this medium ... in performing.'"

Soto teaches youth gymnastics when he isn't rehearsing and writing songs. Not many people in that world know he is gay. However, his photo was in the local daily for Latin Pride, and a co-worker mentioned seeing him in the paper.

"I don't always know how I am going to be perceived. It's a wild show, and I have a gay persona. When I am at work, that doesn't exist, so by being able to do these shows and get some local exposure, it is kind of the final phase of my coming-out process. It's happening right now—and I'm just realizing that right now. I still feel a little scared, and that's OK with me."

It's important that Soto be who he is, because he wants to keep dreaming, he says.

"I am comfortable with who I am, and it's liberating when you have no more secrets. I feel like I am having this awakening that I can be queer and an artist. I want to make an album, and I've been working with so many people in this community who love and accept me for who I am," he says.

"I'm a dreamer. I am going to push this as hard as I can. Right now, I have the fire."