Ricardo Gallego: A Helping Hand
As director of Latino services at the San Diego LGBT Community Center, Ricardo Gallego is always looking those in need of resources and support.
Every day — from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. — Gallego tends to phone calls, offers services, and manages resources directed at Latinos. He coordinates all of this in a space which welcomes all through values such as compassion, dignity, and spirituality.
During his youth in Mexicali, Mexico, Gallego remembers discovering his orientation in an environment in which being outed as a homosexual would have left him in a vulnerable position.
“People were very closed minded and back then Mexicali was a very small city where everyone knew each other,” Gallego said to La Prensa San Diego. “In those days you couldn’t afford to have people find out you are gay.”
“So it got to the point where I felt that I was drowning in Mexicali because I couldn’t be out of the closet,” he continued.
After selling almost all of of his belongings, Gallego left for San Diego looking to pursue an education and to live freely.
After setting up north of the border, he enrolled at City College in English courses and would eventually move transfer to San Diego State University.
When Gallego started to spend more time thinking about what career move to make, an acquaintance offered him a scholarship to be a clinical chaplain through the nonprofit Episcopal Community Services. In addition to this course of study, he also began a master’s in moral theology at Tijuana’s Universidad Iberoamericana while also completing a spiritual care license at Scripps Chula Vista Hospital.
After finishing his studies and receiving his license, Gallego worked in spiritual care for three years, a field in which he provided solace to terminally ill patients and their loved ones.
During a period of time in which many people were still affected by a lack of HIV and AIDS treatment, Gallego had the opportunity to work with a young gay Latino patient who was an HIV carrier.
“Working with him affected me a lot because I was identifying with this young man both as a gay man and as a Latino,” he recalled. “He was a young Latino dying of complications, he was so alone and very ill. And it really moved me to speak to his family so that they forgive him for being gay.”
The heartbreaking end of this case emotionally affected Gallego so much that he looked for a way to help Latino HIV carriers.
“I knew I could do so much to help my community,” he stated.
Through Carolina Ramos, then Latino services and homeless youth outreach coordinator for the LGBT Community Center, Gallego found work with a support group for Latino people living with this virus.
“So I left my full-time job to work in that, even though it was four hours a week,” Gallego said.
Gallego would eventually join the LGBT Community Center in a full-time position, offering spiritual and holistic help in a group setting to Latino carriers who often times did not speak English or were undocumented.
“Those four years with the group were a reaffirmation of what I wanted to do in my life; I identified with these people because like myself they were Latino, gay, immigrants, English wasn’t their first language, and they were also struggling to come out of the closet,” Gallego said.
“I identified with them in almost everything except for having HIV,” he added.
Since then, Gallego has spent the last 13 years working with Latinos looking for resources and support at the San Diego LGBT Community Center.
As time has passed, Gallego says he has seen social progress in the way in which LGBT people are treated and in the way in which youth who identify as such feel empowered to be open. However, he still sees some social and cultural barriers to break in the Latino community.
“As Latinos, we have to stop with the generalized stigma toward homosexuality and change our perceptions of how we see the LGBT community,” he stated.
Young people are an example to follow he says, as they show acceptance toward the LGBT community and many youth who belong to these groups feel empowered to live their sexuality freely.
“The new generations have a different way of looking at homosexuality or being part of the LGBT community from my generation,” he pointed out. “Nowadays, LGBT youth feel free to say ‘you know what, I am gay, or lesbian, or non-binary.’ Them feeling comfortable to do that is a gigantic change.”
Gallego also says he has seen a great change in how HIV is treated and in reducing the stigma attached to being a carrier, although much is still left to be done.
“Eighteen years ago, people were still dying from complications from HIV/AIDS – I even had to bury some clients – but now we are trying to work with these people so that the stigmas go away,” he said.
Education and destroying the shame Latinos attach to sexually-oriented topics is how Gallego believes our community can have a serious conversation on how to prevent negative perceptions of the LGBT community and the spread of STDs.
“Cancer, diabetes, and heart conditions exist in our Latino communities and we can easily speak about those, but we don’t speak about HIV because it has a sexual connotation to it,” Gallego pointed out. “If we start speaking about sexuality and break that taboo, we will open a lot of doors.”
Helping break bad perceptions and extending a helping hand to those who need it is something Gallego takes very seriously. Leaving a more compassive world, without stigmas, is a legacy that he would like to leave for the next generations of LGBT Latinos in our community.
“I work at the San Diego LGBT Community Center because I am proud of what I do. This is what I want to do and life put me here for a reason,” he affirmed.