Above: Alejandra Zamora describes her life as a LGBTQ activist and member of the Purepecha community in the eastern Coachella Valley. (Image: Paulina Rojas)
By Paulina Rojas
COACHELLA, Calif. – “There wasn’t a time when I realized, ‘Hey I’m gay,’” says Alejandra Zamora, a community activist and member of the indigenous Purepecha community. “I always knew that I was very different.”
From the time she was a teenager, Zamora, now 24, refused to fit the mold of traditional gendered expectations that her community had set for her. Her environment, she notes, “made me see how different I was and that kind of forced me to come out.”
I met Zamora at a local French restaurant in La Quinta. Over a plate of French toast she tells me about her career plans. She is currently studying political science at College of the Desert, and plans on becoming a lawyer. Her purple hair framing her warm eyes. She also shared with me that she enjoys writing poetry and going for hikes.
Then she told me her story, about growing up queer and Purepecha, and the challenges of being gay in the eastern Coachella Valley.
The Purepecha are an indigenous group from the Mexican state of Michoacan. Ardent Roman Catholics, they are known for their artwork, including ceramics and woodwork. There are about 2000 Purepecha living in the Coachella Valley, mostly in Duros and Chicanitas, two trailer camps on the Torres Martinez reservation. Many work in the surrounding fields and speak little to no Spanish or English.
Zamora grew up in Thermal with a single mother who raised her and her brothers while working as many as three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over her children’s heads.
“Often times we were left on our own ‘cause my mother had to work so much,” Zamora says.
Coming out under these conditions was not easy, she admits, even though she had the support of her brothers and cousins. “I was trying to avoid being hurt. I was already being told, ‘If you wear shorts and you’re showing your legs, you’re a slut … If you have guy friends you’re a slut.’”
Zamora’s voice is unwavering as she relates her experience, including the time she witnessed a group of students at her high school trying to purge a classmate of “evil spirits” because they believed he was gay.
Such memories are what fuel her current activism. “It made me realize there’s a lot that can be done,” she said.
Aside from her focus on LGBTQ issues in the eastern Coachella Valley, Zamora also advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants and is an outspoken champion of environmental causes.
She says education and creating safe spaces are the two biggest priorities when it comes to addressing the needs of the LGBTQ community in Coachella.
“From my experience growing up, I wish we had community centers” she says. “That’s something we lack in the east valley.”
Having an LGBTQ center would mean the availability of much needed services, including but not limited to education on LGBTQ issues and counseling, she says. It would also help establish safety zones for LGBTQ members in the east valley.
In addition, she believes that elected officials and local decision makers need to get involved in conversations about the LGBTQ community in the east valley.
“What are our (political) leaders doing for members of the LGBTQ community?” she asks.
Although she has developed a thick skin over the years, Zamora says she still feels the sting of discrimination, like when she and her fiancée were looking for a venue to host their wedding reception. Zamora says it took a lot of time and effort even to secure an appointment to view possible locations.
She also described the disapproving stares while doing things that many heterosexual couples might take for granted, such as going for dinner or kissing each other goodbye.
Still, her message to those just starting to come to terms with their sexual identity is to stay strong and to keep fighting.
“Be confident about who you are, no matter how many hurtful things you go through,” she said. “If you remain in the shadows nothing will change.”
About the author:
Paulina Rojas joined Coachella Uninc. as a beat reporter in February 2016 after working as a city reporter in the eastern Coachella Valley for more than a year. Although born and raised in New York City, Paulina feels right at home in the eastern Coachella Valley. She loves the warmth of the people and buying fresh bread from her favorite bakery in downtown Coachella. Paulina is a graduate of the University of Houston, and her work has appeared in The Las Vegas Review – Journal, The Houston Chronicle, HelloGiggles and Vivala. View her author page here.