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Julio Rodriguez tells a tale of homelessness, being gay, his mother’s mental illness and love

Julio Rodriguez
Mony Ruiz-Velasco
Julio Rodriguez

When Juliio Rodriquez was 15 he was separated from his family for 18 months and, for a time, slept in the back of the ice cream shop where he worked. Today, Rodriquez, 64, is board president of the Chicago housing organization for youth, La Casa Norte, and is founder and president of the Association of Latinos Motivating for Action, one of the oldest organizations in the country for the queer Latinate community. He recently spoke with reporter Maureen McKinney about his struggles as a homeless youth. He is also the deputy director of workforce programs for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation.

Can you tell me how old you are? I was born in 1959 in August, on August 2, and so I will be turning 65 this year.

You're just a little older than I am. And I noticed that you work for the state.

I work for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. And I'm a deputy director over the state's workforce programs.

Where did you grow up?

I actually grew up in Lakeview before it was Boystown, when it was a predominantly Puerto Rican community. My background is my family is from Puerto Rico. I am a first generation because I was born here in Chicago. And both my parents came here from Puerto Rico. So my dad always makes a joke that you went from being all Puerto Rican to gay just like I did. And I always have to remind him. ‘No, Dad, I'm still Puerto Rican. And I'm gay.’

Yeah, so you have a good relationship with your parents then?

I did. My mom is gone now. But yes. I've been very fortunate that both my parents have been very supporting. Even at times when it was not easy. So, I also founded an organization called ALMA, the Association of Latinos Motivating Action. ALMA, we started in 1989. And we are now about to hit 35 years. And we are the oldest in Illinois and in the Midwest, LGBTQ Latinate-serving organization. And we are one of the oldest in the country, as well. Oh, I was one of the founders, and I'm the current board president. And just a year ago, we hired our first executive director, full-time executive director.

I think we've got the background down. Can you tell me about your experience, or experiences, with homelessness?

So in elementary school, probably around sixth grade, my mother started to experience a lot of mental health issues, and had some very serious episodes that could be violent in nature. And so that required us to actually have to move several times. I actually attended five elementary schools in Lakeview as a result of my mom's mental illness.

And her illness had gotten so bad that she was. actually because of the type of mental health issues, she had she just experienced a lot of delusions, and some of those delusions centered around my father, and so my father had to leave us by the time I entered freshman year, and I went to Senn High School here on the northside in Edgewater.

But as a result of my mom's mental health issues, I had started working at a very young age, at 14. And part of that was just not to be in the home and to have to keep experiencing a lot of her episodes. But one evening, in the summer of ‘76, her illness had culminated into a very explosive event. I was not there at the time; it was my younger sister and her. And I was working that evening, and when I got home, our apartment door was wide open. Tte neighbor had come to me and said that my mother and my sister had to flee because my mother had attacked the landlord. And as a result of that, they had to flee too, because they were at risk of being assaulted by several people in the building.

Now, mind you, this was 1976. So there were no cell phones. And because of my mom’s mental illness, we actually did not have a phone in our home, or in our apartment. And so the only avenue for us to communicate with the outside world was really to use pay phones.

That night, I had gotten home around midnight, there was nobody at home. My neighbors had told me that the best thing I should do was to leave, because I could be at risk of being assaulted because of my mom's actions.

And so the next thing I know, I was on Kedzie and Lawrence at around one in the morning, trying to figure out what I was going to do at the age of 15. At that time, I would have been about 15 and a half. I worked at Baskin Robbins and I knew there was a cot in the back. And fortunately, because I had done well in my job, I had become one of the managers of the store, and I had the keys. So for the next six months, I slept at the Baskin Robbins, a few blocks away from my high school. And for about a year and a half I basically was homeless. I was fortunate by the time my senior year had come, I had figured out how to get an apartment, and I then supported myself on my own.

But for that year and a half, I I had no idea where my family was, or how I would get back in touch with them. The ’70s, I don't think people realize you know places like Lakeview, Edgewater, Albany Park, were very violent areas, a lot of sex crimes, a lot of drug addiction and drugs. drug markets.

In fact, I remember one evening, being at Belmont and Broadway and a number of trans women came up to me and they said, ‘you know, you can't stay out here.’ And I was like, Wow, no, I just kind of hanging out. They go, “Nope, it's late. And everybody knows that you're out here. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And they said, ‘The minute you came off that bus and you didn't have an adult with you, everybody who's anybody in doing business on the street is paying attention to you.’ That was probably, thinking now when I look back at it as an adult, was probably some of the best advice I got.

If I had not gotten back on that bus and headed back north I don't know what would have happened because at that point in time many young people were being abducted and put into the life of prostitution, especially in that time in Lakeview, where prostitution was very high around the downtown Broadway area.

Actually, all along that Broadway strip really prostitution was pretty much running rampant and lots of particularly gay young men were being, you know, brought into the life of prostitution, especially those who were clearly not able to afford stable housing. In fact, I remember walking around and just seeing a lot of cars just following me.

And so I just learned that it was better to just go to school and go back to the ice cream store, and just stay there, because being outside at night, the risks are just so high. And then I also got a little bit of schooling from some of the other older teenagers who said, ‘The other people you have to watch out for are the police.’ And being naive, I said, ‘Well, why is that? “Because if they pick you up, they're not going to ask you, they're going to call child welfare. And the next thing, you know, you're going to be in a foster home.’ And, you know, what little I knew about the foster care system, I knew that that would be the last place that I would want to be.

And so, I spent a great deal of my time in those years avoiding the police, avoiding certain areas of the north side, and then creating this whole fictious story, that I was living at home with my two parents, and everything was great.

To just kind of connect this to being gay – I knew I was gay, probably from as early on as 5. But I did not see being gay is something negative, I actually found being gay gave me a certain self awareness and perception of people. Because I think being gay makes you very much an observer of people and an observer of your environment.

And so, I learned very, very quickly how to not only adapt to heterosexual culture, but I learned how to use my gayness, if you will, to sort of afford myself certain ways to interact with people. Like I found very few people would ask me questions, because they suspected I might be gay. So, they really didn't want to know much about me. So it was very, very easy for me to create this secondary persona. In fact, many of my friends from high school that I still am in touch with, had no idea that I was living alone, and that I was taking care of myself my junior and senior year. And in fact, had no idea that I had no contact with my family for that period of time.

You must have been extremely resourceful.

Well, and you know, I'm a product of television. One of the things that was very interesting because neither one of my parents had much of a formal education in Puerto Rico, and obviously, when they came here, they pretty much went to work very quickly and never obtained any real formal education.

I learned most of my language skills, watching television, and in particular sitcoms that actually, when I went to enroll in elementary school, I went with my mom, and my mom could barely speak English. And I sat there talking with the counselor, and filling out the forms with her.

And I remember the counselor turning to me and saying, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘5’. And she said, ‘How are you able to articulate like, you actually know what those questions we are asking you? And I go, ‘Oh, yeah I watch so and so. And I watched when they went to school, and I know the kinds of questions that you'll ask.’ So I actually skipped kindergarten and went right into first grade. And, even though I didn't learn English in my household, and I learned it through television,

I not only learned the language, I learned situational language. So I actually learned how to cope with certain things in life. I remember watching police shows and that actually was what made me more astute when it came to the streets and to police and of the things that were out there. And so I really credit the fact that my exposure to many sorts of shows that kind of emulated life as a way for me to sort of acquire a body of knowledge that helped me be resourceful during that time that I was experiencing homelessness.

What were some of the shows?

So things like Dragnet, things like, some even, this is gonna sound silly, but shows like Bewitched, where there was an Uncle Arthur, and I knew that that character was gay, and just knowing that, oh, you know, gay makes you sort of this unique individual that is always sort of smarter than everyone in the room and wittier. And that you have a certain kind of just uniqueness to you.

So that really formulated my self esteem that being gay didn't have, you didn't have to be out with it but you could actually, you know, morph into this individual by which people sort of admired and wanted around, even though they didn't want to really know anything about them.

And then it turns to my street smarts, I remember, in particular, watching a program that actually, one of the Brady Bunch girls starred in: Jan. And she played a young girl who had run away from home, and was in the streets in New York, and was being forced to go into prostitution. And I remember how much I was, as I was walking around some of the evenings, how much that movie taught me about the dangers of urban life, that otherwise I would not have never been exposed to until I was actually there.

But it's really those kinds of shows and movies that sort of indirectly, made me aware of the risk and also taught me, you know, to say less, make sure that you assess the situation very carefully. And never presume that somebody who says they want to help you don't have other intentions, especially when you're young and people sense that you're alone, or that you're, they're not immediate adults in your life.

So you had to have been very bright?

Now, I will tell you and I, you know, I've had this conversation with many of my queer friends about how some of us, it kind of gave us a sixth sense. You know, this being gay created us, a heightened awareness of people, of how people interact. And, you know, there is, I think, a truism that when you're an outsider, you become an observer of life. And, and that really, like, creates a certain skill set that is not easily taught, but when you acquire it, it can be a door to many opportunities.

In fact, I think where I am in my life is as a result of because I was gay and because I had that sort of sixth sense and that ability to adapt in any environment that I was put in – not only potentially saved my life, but certainly enhanced it and gave me the opportunity to be who I am today.

Do you think some of your resourcefulness had to do with having been raised by someone who was mentally ill?

I do. It took many years for me to reconcile that. In the 70s and mental illness particularly – in the Latino community – was addressed in very many very damaging ways. You know, through religion. I went to a séance with my mother, in which people were trying to do an exorcism because they were convinced the thing that was wrong with her was that she had the devil. And really all that did was just traumatize her even further, and made her episodes even more intense because now they had a religious connotation to them. And so it just made her delusions even more heightened. But, you know, they were doing what they thought was the best thing to do at the time. I was very fortunate, and I can't stress this enough. I never doubted my mom's love for me.

I think the hardest thing for those of us who are experiencing it is it's reminding us that it's a disease, and that it's taken hold of them. But that doesn't make them void of love for you. I remember some of my mom's worst episodes, and she would come into my room and she would sit at the foot of my bed, rubbing my legs and saying, ‘Whatever happens, I always love you.’

When she did she have a diagnosis?

Many, many years later. Her life was fraught with a lot of just trauma. Actually, the part of the island that my mom is from is called the Valley of the Witches. And, interestingly enough, historians have found the reason they call that, the Valley of the Witches, was because there were many women who experienced mental illness. And so there was this sort of belief that the reason they had this, these things was because they were possessed by Satan, or they practice witchcraft or things.

But Puerto Rican women in general, have a very high incidence of mental illness, everything from bipolar to depression to schizophrenia. And for many years, many women went untreated. And much of it caused by trauma during birth because there was just a penance for, you know, women having children, and having as many children as could be. And oftentimes, they had, children are stillborn, or they lost a child and never had an opportunity to mourn. And so that ever-constant trauma could lead to all types of mental illness.

And so, as I learned that, as an adult, it really helped me frame a lot of things that happened in my childhood. And quite frankly, you know, I was really fortunate that my, my older sister, my younger sister, are not as fortunate. They bore a lot of the more frightening aspects of my mom's disease. And I'm not sure that they ever were able to reconcile as I was. So I'm grateful that, you know, learning about mental illness, as I got older really helped me with some of the guilt, some of the anger, some of the helplessness, that I had felt for so long.

Did she have bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or –

Because of her age and because her hurt almost seemed to subside as she got older, they probably they felt that it could have – and again, you know, given the time, there were very few Latino therapists and psychiatrists. I really do think that they speculated that she had mild forms of schizophrenia, but more likely now, it would be characterized as bipolar, because the ebbs and flows were just very dramatic. And they got worse, as they obviously were untreated. And obviously, she was being traumatized over and over again.

The beauty of that was, I think, my being gay, she came to understand as something for her to embrace because I embraced it. As she felt like, well, if, if this is who you are, and you can accept me as I am, who am I to judge you, because you love me unconditionally. And I certainly can't put a condition on my love for you. And I was very fortunate that my husband of 28 years,got to be with my mom before she passed. And she really embraced him and my father, who's still alive, you know, has embraced my relationship, my marriage to my husband, and and if you had said to me, when I was 16, that the world that I have today was even remotely possible. I would have said you had no idea what you were talking about.

What was your mother’s name?

Dominga

What is your husband’s name

 David Sinski

When did your mother die?

She would have died now almost 10 years ago. It was a while back.

 I apologize. I've really put you through the wringer.

I can tell you 20 years ago,, I would not have been able to convey any of this story. Actually, it was because it working with young people who were dealing with a lot of trauma within their own families, that I came out, if you will, as somebody as a survivor of a meant to have a family with struggling with mental illness. But it took a 15 -year-old girl to confront me to make me finally come out of the shadows. And so, and I'm grateful every day for that opportunity. Just being able to finally say the words and recognize that and no, I wasn't to blame and there was nobody to blame – that it is what it is.

Who was the 15-year old girl?

I couldn't tell you now. Now that I'm in my mid ‘60s sd that was when I was in my mid ‘20s. I can see her face. I ran a big summer camp with over 400 kids. So she was one of the participants in one of my small groups. And she was the one who said to me ‘You know you're sitting here acting as if the things that are going on in our lives that somehow somehow you're above it all, that somehow there's not a secret to your keeping.’ She said, ‘You are trying too hard to make it seem like everything is great. And that must be a lot of work for you. Because whatever pain you're going through, is much worse than when I'm going through. And I live with an alcoholic mother, and she's a raging alcoholic. But whatever you've been through, I can't imagine that, that pain must be so deep that you, you don't even know who you are gay.’

But you did.

At the time, while I knew it, I certainly wasn't prepared to embrace it, as I do today, but the power of young people and their ability to see through the pain –

What does the group you started for LGBTQ individuals, what does it do?

We advocate around issues that impact the queer, Latinate community. So that can be things around immigration, around health care, around mental illness. We also do leadership development. We are developing a Leadership Academy for folks who are in the nonprofit community and are aspiring to run their own organizations, or be leaders within the nonprofit sector.

We work with youth to provide opportunities for youth to learn about their intersectionality, and how issues like, HIV/ AIDS or COVID, can impact their lives and how to protect themselves. And then we work with them around issues related to trans individuals, and trying to create spaces for them to be their full selves.

o a lot of our work centers around sort of three pillars. The first one being around advocacy around issues that impact our community. The second one is around leadership, and finding ways to not only build up leaders, but also provide opportunities for people to be leaders. And then the third is really about the intersectionality between who we are in terms of our sexuality and our gender identity and the cultures that we come from, which are all unique and had enhance our ability to be our full selves

If you go to www.almachicago.org, you can find out more about our organization, and the various programs that we do. But I would be remiss,m because I am the board president of La Casa Norte, which is one of the largest homeless youth providers in the city of Chicago that profoundly serves the Latin gay community. We’re working on a project and a campaign to bring greater awareness to issues related to homelessness. And so I encourage everyone to both visit the website (www.lacasanorte.org) for the kinds of programs that we provide to homeless families and youth and to all around the things that we do to support the queer Latinate community.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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