A Place For Our Own: An Interview with Guillermo de los Reyes

Many thanks to our volunteer Sophia Sorensen for this introduction to University of Houston professor Guillermo de los Reyes, who will present “A Place for Our Own,” a lecture that is part of our A Place at the Table series of lectures on LGBT identity, at The Jung Center on Thursday, Nov. 13. The series is co-sponsored with the Human Rights Campaign, The Montrose Center, and PFLAG-Houston.

On September 26, 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, an act that reinforced the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this occasion, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated that “there is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste.” The US was both a co-sponsor and supporter of the resolution.

How does this resolution, issued a world away in Geneva, impact Houstonians?

“LGBT rights should be talked about as human rights,” said Guillermo de los Reyes. “For many, an immigrant journey to the US has been motivated by a desire to avoid exploitation and intolerance in their country of origin; unfortunately, it is often the case that their human rights have been violated at home, and sometimes again, upon arrival here.” This experience, particularly for Mexican migrants, is one that de los Reyes is seeking to understand, document and share with a broader audience.

Guillermo, an Associate Professor of Latin American Cultures and Literatures and Associate Director of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, is engaged full time in teaching and researching a broad range of topics rooted in the cultural mores, boundaries and politics in Colonial Mexico, and connecting them to modern times. More recently, his focus has evolved to issues of self-definition, gender performance and gender expression denial.  His view is that “although in this study I am focused primarily on the experience of Mexican migrants, sexuality, gender and migration are larger societal issues with community impacts.”

His study of migrants (defined for these purposes as ‘economic refugees’) includes those who are highly motivated to leave a culture in which the hyper-masculine male image is deeply embedded; their goal being to seek an experience of greater tolerance and freedom of expression. The foundation of the research is historical case studies of “sinful” sexuality in Mexico, as defined at that time by prevailing Spanish rulers.

This is, however, not merely a revisiting of history. Guillermo is highly attuned to highlighting the relevance of this historical experience, and has sought to bridge the historical roots of intolerance to the actual lived experience of gay Mexican migrants in Houston. Word-of-mouth helped connect him with almost twenty individuals willing to share their personal, and sometimes painful stories. “Aside from their migration experience, many of those I have interviewed experience layers of invisibility,” he said. “Some feel the need to hide their sexuality from their families, employers, and broader society”.  For those who lack proof of identity or US nationality, they have an additional layer of invisibility and fear of interaction with, or discovery by, authorities.

Recently, Guillermo has added two new roles to his repertoire; that of expert witness and volunteer interpreter in cases involving Mexican refugees. The work as an interpreter has taken him to Houston detention centers, and to bearing witness to the direct and often traumatic experiences of transgendered migrants. Through their stories, he has become painfully aware that “these are people who left their countries to escape violence and persecution, and many experienced violence and abuse during their journey to the US, and while in detention.”

It is with a sense of collaborative spirit and with a goal of advancing an understanding of the Mexican migrant experience that Guillermo has chosen to share elements of his research outside of a traditional academic audience. “Because this is a human rights topic, it affects everyone, at least in terms of understanding,” he said. “I am sharing my research findings in the hope of gaining valuable feedback which will help influence my work moving forward.”

You are invited to join Professor de los Reyes on Thursday, November 13, 7 pm at the Jung Center. The Jung Center is proud that his lecture, part of the A Place at the Table series, is sponsored with the Human Rights Campaign, The Montrose Center, and PFLAG-Houston. Registration for this free lecture can be completed online at www.junghouston.org or by calling the Jung Center at 713-524-8253.