Author's note: This is the first article in a series that I like to call "Conversations with Change Makers", in which I will be highlighting those who are currently making a social impact in our world today, whether they be well known or are slowly helping make the world a better place. Enjoy!
If you are either at an LGBT pride or Puerto Rican pride event, and you see a huge smile shining out from the crowd, no doubt you've just seen the island's most famous Human Rights Activist- Mr. Pedro Julio Serrano.
Activist Pedro Julio Serrano was born on October 2, 1974, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but was raised in the area of Isla Verde in San Juan. There he studied in Colegio La Piedad during his elementary and high school years and later went on to study Communications at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras.Though he became more well known for his stance on LGBT issues when he ran for the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, his passion for social justice has always been present.
"When I was 13 years old I organized a march against drugs. And then when I was 16, I organized a march in favor of peace, because there was the first Gulf War happening in 1991." Serrano told me, looking back on his beginnings. "I've always been involved in social justice causes."
6 years later, Pedro Julio's social justice passion would come out once again when then-governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Rosselló, signed House Bill 1013.
"In October of 1997, the House of Representatives was holding public hearings on an appeal that wanted to prohibit what already was prohibited, which was marriage for same-sex couples, and it was the H.B. 1013. And I said 'I need to go and testify at that public hearing.', and I exercised my public duty as a citizen and I testified."
His presence at the hearing, in fact, had such a huge impact on his life that he made a decision that would forever mark Puerto Rican history and the beginning of his career as an LGBT activist.
"When I went there, I understood the importance of being out and proud as an openly gay individual, and I decided that I would try to run for a seat for a political career, and that's how I started."
Pedro Julio Serrano then became the first candidate in Puerto Rican political history to publicly announce his homosexuality and the first candidate to announce his HIV-positive status. This upcoming 2017, Serrano will mark his 20th anniversary as an LGBT activist.
Even though he has not run for office since 1998, Pedro Julio has called gubernatorial candidates out as a result of the lack of LGBT proposals in recent elections, ranging from ex-Governor Luis Fortuño, current Governor Alejandro García Padilla, and many of this years' candidates, especially the New Progressive —one of the major political parties on the island that advocates for statehood and is affiliated with the GOP —candidate, son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló- the infamous Dr. Ricardo Rosselló, a candidate so radical here on the island that some have compared him to be a Puerto Rican 'Trump'. Though after our interview, Dr. Rosselló added the LGBT community to his original plan to allow the government to defend the rights of religious organizations, Rosselló Nevares has been known for being very anti-LGBT. I asked Serrano that if Rosselló were to be elected, how the LGBT community would be affected.
"I think it's very different to campaign than to govern. I truly believe that if he is elected, which I hope he's not. Not just because of his stances on LGBT issues but on other issues as well of the Fiscal Control Board and others, that he will have to change; public pressure will be strong; if he tries to take away the rights of LGBT people, he will surely have a fight,that we will fight with everything that we have so we make sure that those rights are not taken away.And it will hurt Puerto Rico, if he does something of that nature, like in North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, which have implemented laws against LGBT people, so if he tries to go that route, it will hurt the economy of Puerto Rico, it will hurt our standing in the world, and it will hurt himself and his administration because he will have a very strong fight in his hands." Pedro Julio Serrano predicts.
In 2003, Serrano founded the non-profit organization Puerto Rico Para Tod@s (PRPT), which fights for equal rights and the inclusion of the LGBT community and for social justice for all on the island.
"The struggle for social justice is never one that is done unilaterally,we have to confront oppression from every angle because the root of oppression is the same for sexism, racism, homophobia, classicism, for any type of intolerance, it's the same root. When I created this organization, I wanted to create an organization that fought for everyone, not just for some,and not just for the LGBT community, but for everyone. [Puerto Rico Para Tod@s] has been involved in all the major social justices causes in Puerto Rico like feminism, standing against racism, against xenophobia, standing for the people from the poor communities. We've been there with students, teachers, public employees fighting for their retirement funds, we've been there, fighting for all, and it's why we created Puerto Rico Para Tod@s."
I asked Mr. Serrano if he felt that the organization has been successful with its mission, and on the island overall, to which he agreed wholeheartedly that they've had incredible achievements as an organization.
"We were instrumental in the approval of LGBT laws in Puerto Rico, we have been very successful in creating public education campaigns. I even helped with the coming out of Ricky Martin and Orlando Cruz, the first ever openly gay boxer."
"We have been instrumental in the struggle, and we have created the Jornada Educativa Contra la Homofobia, which is a conference that focuses on educating against homophobia that happens every 2 years, so we've been successful on what we stand.And that's only talking about the LGBT stuff, we've also been very involved in many, many struggles that have had a lot of success as well." Serrano told me with pride.
I discussed with Serrano his most famous achievement- the boycott and eventual cancellation of the infamous gossip WAPA-TV show SuperXclusivo, whose program and hosts (the life-sized puppet La Comay -voiced and puppeteered by Kobbo Santarrosa- and Héctor Travieso) had become a staple in Puerto Rican culture for 13 years. It even gained so much popularity that The Daily Show interviewed the show's hosts! However, this show was incredibly xenophobic, homophobic and racist during its long run.
"Our organization led the boycott against SuperXclusivo- La Comay's show- and we took it off the air [...] It was something that was very hard fought. People just remember the boycott, which started in December and by January [SuperXclusivo] was off the air, but it was something that really started back in 2006, so it took us many years to get them off the airways. Before the boycott happened, we successfully managed for the first and only time that [Santarrosa] apologized for something he had said wrong, until the end, which was when he called me 'pato' (Puerto Rican slur for gay) and he used my HIV condition to try to demean me, and he was also attacking Ricky Martin and saying that his kids would turn out gay because he was gay too. So that was a whole time that he apologized before, at the end of his career when he apologized because of the comments he said against Jose Enrique Gomez Saladin, which a case that brought him down."
"In 2006 I said something that was sort of prophetic, I said," Pedro Julio Serrano recalls with a laugh. "The biggest "castigo", uh, the biggest punishment that Santarrosa would have would be to have an openly gay man take him out of the airwaves, and many years later, it happened that an openly gay man led the fight to get him off the airwaves, so that was his biggest punishment. So you can imagine that I feel very very proud of that accomplishment."
Along with this achievement, I discussed how school systems in Puerto Rico- both public and private- are giving LGBT students the guidance they need, as I've noticed, as a metro-area private student that the LGBT students are almost ignored. Obviously this isn't an easy process, as a majority of private schools on the island are religiously affiliated. However, Serrano believes that, along with students, principals must be the agents of change.
As a bisexual student at an non-religiously affiliated all-girl's school, I've attempted to create a club for LGBT and straight student inclusion, which sadly has not been allowed. "I hope that that change will happen, and there's a lot of work to be done." Pedro Julio Serrano stated. As he mentioned those "agents of change", I decided to tell Mr. Serrano about the efforts I had done within my school.
"Change will come, you know, it will take some time,But some things, like your effort, that you tried to put in your school shows that the change comes from within, so when more voices like yours stand up for other people and stand in solidarity with the strength of others, then change can happen. So I hope that that seed that you planted will eventually grow something good for LGBT students in your school." He told me, as I wiped the few tears on my face.
Pedro Julio with Carmen Yulin Cruz (mayor of San Juan) at San Juan's Mass Gay Wedding after the Supreme Court ruling of Oberfell v. Hodges
People, however,are not perfect, and Pedro Julio Serrano certainly has come under fire for many of his actions. This past August, the Hon. Carmen Yulín Cruz (shown in the picture above with Pedro Julio Serrano), mayor of San Juan, hired Serrano as her Senior Advisor for six months with a monthly salary of $6,000. Many of San Juan's residents, and members of other municipalities of the island, have voiced their outrage towards Yulin's outrageous salary when Puerto Rico is currently facing an economic crisis thanks to our government's gigantic debt. I decided to suck up my nerves and ask him whether he thought the people of Puerto Rico were angry with his salary as a result of our debt crisis, and if the amount he was being paid was too ridiculous.
"Yes. I worked in New York City for 10 years and I'm a internationally-recognized human rights activist, and I say this very humbly, and I have acquired the experience and the skills necessary to transform San Juan into a city that includes everyone. So, I took a paycut and right now I don't have the benefits that I had while being an employee in New York City, and I made a lot of sacrifices to coming back to Puerto Rico to work for my people. And I'm not complaining, I say this because I love so much San Juan and I love so much Puerto Rico that I was willing to make those sacrifices to come work for the benefit of my people. San Juan is not in debt and it is a city that can have those salaries, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that I make people proud when my work is done in the city of San Juan."
Besides being possibly the kindest human being I've ever talked to,I realized that with every project, protest, and social justice act he does, his passion shines brightly through. It's clear that Pedro Julio Serrano's flame for equality and justice will never be extinguished.