Exhibit Sheds Light on LGBTQ History In the Borderland

Originally published May 29, 2015

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Inside the Centennial Museum on The University of Texas at El Paso campus, seemingly random objects – a coin, a necklace, a book, a bag – stand for powerful stories of love, loss, power, discrimination and enlightenment.

The collection is part of the “Engendering Community” project, a free exhibit at the museum. The public opening takes place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 2.

Project Director Brenda Risch, Ph.D., and Assistant Curator Aaron Waggoner show items from their upcoming "Engendering Community" exhibit, which opens at the UTEP Centennial Museum June 2 in celebration of LGBTQ history in the region. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service
Project Director Brenda Risch, Ph.D., and Assistant Curator Aaron Waggoner show items from their upcoming “Engendering Community” exhibit, which opens at the UTEP Centennial Museum June 2 in celebration of LGBTQ history in the region. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“Engendering Community” focuses on the challenges and resilience of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community in the El Paso and Juárez region. Based on more than 100 individual experiences collected over five years by a UTEP Women’s and Gender Studies oral history project of the same name, the exhibit explores what it means to be “in unity” while simultaneously acknowledging the complexities of the various LGBTQ communities on both sides of the border.

The items and the stories belonging to their owners – many of whom are UTEP alumni – are presented under banners including family, activism and religion. A multicolored ring represents marriage. An autographed photo of tennis legend Billie Jean King represents acceptance. First editions of books by local authors, including Lambda Literary Award winner and UTEP Professor Benjamin Alíre Sáenz, represent truth and tolerance.

Current UTEP art students also are creating original pieces that will lend even greater expression of what it means to be part of a very specific and often overlooked group of people.

Jesus Smith, who received his bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in sociology from UTEP before heading to Texas A&M University where he is now pursuing a doctorate, contributed his own story to the project.

“I hope people take away from the interview how much the queer community in El Paso helped shape the man I am today,” Smith said. “My successes are due in large part to the queer leaders who mentored me and the community that supported me, my fraternity members and the Queer Student Alliance.”

The project’s organizers – including students and faculty from disciplines spanning history, English literature, museum studies and education – are unanimous in their belief that this project is both critical and timely.

“It’s the history of a people who have often been invisible or marginalized to negative stereotypical representations,” said Brenda Risch, Ph.D., exhibit curator and project director. “LGBTQ folks have made significant contributions to the Borderland as doctors, attorneys, police officers, professors, pastors, musicians, artists and business owners.”

The exhibit was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The University’s Women’s and Gender Studies program has a strong history of community outreach, having granted dozens of students paid internships at nonprofits and organizations throughout the local region. Performances of “The Vagina Monologues” and an annual Women’s History Month conference have educated hundreds of attendees about issues faced by women and minorities, including those who identify as LGBTQ.

Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, who received her B.A. in communication, gave her oral history in 2010 during her final year at UTEP. Since then, she has married her then-girlfriend and they now live in Washington, D.C., where Calvillo-Rivera works as campaign outreach manager for an organization representing young adults in policy reform.

Calvillo-Rivera added she always felt safe on such an inclusive campus.

“I’m so proud to see thriving organizations like the Queer Student Alliance, which I was president of, Queer Prom for college and high school students, and the Rainbow Miner Initiative, which gives scholarships for community members to attend UTEP,” she said.

The exhibit will remain on display through Saturday, Sept. 19, before moving across the border for an installation at Juárez’s El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Other events under the exhibit’s umbrella include a poetry reading and slam on June 27, where local poets and free-form word artists are invited to share poems related to gender and sexuality in the borderlands; and a “Teaching Tolerance Through the Lessons of the Holocaust” lecture July 30, presented in conjunction with the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center and featuring the Holocaust Museum’s Executive Director Lori Shepherd and Education Director Jamie Williams.

UTEP doctoral student Aaron Waggoner is a collaborating researcher and assistant curator who became involved in the project as a master’s student back in 2010. His emphasis has been to incorporate voices from El Paso’s sister city, conducting many interviews in Spanish, to ensure that “Engendering Community” fully represents the binational nature of this locale and its people.

“Sometimes people, especially folks who have been marginalized in one way or another, don’t recognize the value in their own stories,” Waggoner said. “When someone realizes that she is part of history, that her experiences are meaningful, that makes the work worthwhile.”

He is hoping that “queer fronterizos” see the exhibit as a celebration of their community and their lives. For those who may be approaching these subjects for the first time, Waggoner hopes the project shows them that LGBTQ people are people with families, challenges and triumphs just like them.

The oral history participants were asked to submit items representing their sexual and gender identities. They were asked about their educational and professional background, coming out experiences, families, partners, participation in the LGBTQ and wider communities, religion and perceptions of El Paso and Juárez.

Anyone wanting to contribute their own story after the exhibit is up will be able to do so by contacting the “Engendering Community” organizers here or by signing the guest book at the museum. Every one of the interviews contributed to “Engendering Community” will be catalogued by UTEP’s Institute of Oral History for future reference and reflection. It’s all part of a ripple effect that the project’s organizers hope will continue to touch individuals, the University and the border for years to come.

“Queer people are a vital part of this border community,” Risch said. “We pay taxes, work and contribute just like other folks. I hope this project reminds people of this and contributes to the broader conversations around gay rights.”

Calvillo-Rivera added, “As a proud alumna and El Pasoan, it’s so nice to be included in this space of recognition.”

Make Plans

What: Opening reception for the exhibit “Engendering Community” 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Remarks at 7 p.m.

When: Exhibit Dates: The exhibit will be on display through Saturday, Sept. 19.

Where: Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at UTEP, corner of University Avenue and Wiggins Road.

Museum Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The museum is closed all University holidays and home football game days.

Information: 915-747-5565 or museum.utep.edu.