Oscar De La O is president and CEO of BIENESTAR, a nonprofit community-based organization for Latino/as in Southern California. He is a longtime grassroots activist who has spent the last 30 years fighting HIV and building stronger communities.
How did you start out, and did you think you’d still be doing the work you are doing now?
I have been an advocate for Latinos affected by HIV for over 27 years. I have always valued and appreciated being involved in our communities, and my love and dedication came from my mother, who instilled in me the need to serve others in order to have a fulfilling and rewarding life. Every day the work I do continues to fulfill me personally, and I see how the organization continues to enhance the wellness of the people we serve. At the same time, seeing all the work that still needs to be addressed—homophobia, social and economic injustices—reinforces my commitment to continue to be actively involved. Doing it through BIENESTAR is a gift.
What will the Affordable Care Act mean for BIENESTAR?
It’s a victory for millions of Americans by ensuring that no Americans will be denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition. However, this reform will not include some of the most vulnerable populations, such as the undocumented population and recently documented immigrants. BIENESTAR will continue to advocate for the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act so that vulnerable populations can continue to receive HIV services.
With such a large number of HIV-positive Latinos in Los Angeles, how can we engage them to become more involved in their community as leaders?
We need to invest in creating new leaders. Not just a weekend workshop, but sustainable, long-term mentoring programs that develop Latino leadership. BIENESTAR has a leadership development program—PROYECTO ORGULLO, Agents of Change. However, we are challenged by lack of resources. In addition, we need to continue with anti-homophobia and anti-stigma campaigns to normalize being HIV-positive and allow more HIV-positive Latinos to come out and become agents of change.
What do you think is the best way to foster leadership in young LGBT people so they will take a more active role in organizing?
Create safe spaces for young LGBT members of our community that allow them to imagine the possibilities of creating change and give them the tools and resources to make it happen. I firmly believe that the ability to volunteer is a luxury, but for so many of our young Latino LGBTs, it is a hardship when they have to work in order to support themselves and/or their families. We need to create paid internships that are targeted to members of our community who have the raw talent and passion to be leaders.
How can LGBT Latinos successfully integrate the multiple parts of their identity so they can fully realize all parts of themselves?
As Latinos, we have a dual identity—Latino and LGBT. It is important that we always present ourselves with a single identity that includes both our ethnic and sexual identities. We have a responsibility to bring to each table our issues as Latino LGBT members of society. As an organization, and as a community in general, we must continue to encourage self-acceptance, taking pride in who we are and celebrating our ethnic and sexual identities.
How can we build stronger coalitions between communities of color and the LGBT community?
When we present ourselves with our full identity, as both Latino and LGBT, we build the necessary bridges to address issues faced by both communities in a comprehensive manner. Civil rights organizations—from both movements—have an opportunity to create change when the interaction is based on open dialogues, mutual respect, support of each other’s goals and a genuine appreciation for the work of each entity, and not one based on convenience or just being politically correct.
What do you see as the future of BIENESTAR?
BIENESTAR will continue to be the ‘go-to’ nonprofit organization for health/social services and advocacy addressing the issues affecting the Latino LGBT community in Southern California. BIENESTAR will continue to empower its program participants and constituents to participate through community mobilization, civic engagement and to become agents of change, thereby building awareness of critical issues that impact the health and well-being of our communities.