Emilio Velasquez was a dedicated pioneer of LGBT rights in Tijuana, Mexico and was instrumental in bringing Spanish-language HIV/AIDS education materials to Tijuana and the neighboring city of San Diego. Velasquez was trained as a lawyer but decided that he would rather volunteer within Tijuana’s LGBT community and run his café — Emilio’s Coffeehouse — which would become a central hub for Tijuana’s gay community during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Emilio’s Coffeehouse was inspired by Velasquez’s visits to San Diego’s Gay Center for Social Services (aka The Center) in the early 1970s; the downstairs café was supported primarily by straight patrons, whereas the upstairs offices became a community services center for LGBT people and people with AIDS in Tijuana. Emilio founded the human rights organization Frente Internacional para las Garantias Humanas en Tijuana (International Front for Guaranteed Human Rights in Tijuana) aka FIGHT in 1980 and operated it out of the upstairs offices of the coffeehouse building. Emilio’s Coffeehouse and FIGHT began offering community services in 1980, beginning with weekly rap sessions and self-esteem building groups followed shortly by an out-patient STD free clinic that temporarily operated out of Emilio’s friend’s apartment. In order to fundraise for their up-and-coming Community Services Center, Emilio’s Coffeehouse began hosting the first drag shows in Tijuana, which would provide a new type of job opportunity in Tijuana’s gay bars.
1980 was also the beginning of the coffeehouse’s trouble with police raids; though being gay was not illegal in Mexico, the Tijuana police force raided Emilio’s — along with other LGBT bars and businesses — and arrested the patrons. After the first raid, Emilio bailed out all patrons who had been arrested and swiftly began an anti-police abuse campaign. Emilio and volunteers distributed flyers that warned local authorities that the community would stage a massive protest in front of the local jail should there be any more raids of this type. Fortunately, this action effectively ended police raids on Tijuana’s LGBT spaces for the next 11 years.
In order to build a stronger sense of community, Emilio and his associates founded the Tijuana chapters of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), Dignity, the Imperial Court, and Alcoholics Anonymous as well as additional youth, lesbian, and sport groups. During an August 1982 rap group, Emilio and others at the session began talking about forming an HIV/AIDS prevention and education program. This program aimed to locate and distribute Spanish-language AIDS prevention materials — the vast majority of said materials were printed in English — and make them accessible to the non-English speaking gay population in Tijuana. They reached out to their contacts and successfully acquired some of the first HIV/AIDS prevention literature printed in Spanish and began distributing them to the gay and medical communities, as well as local health authorities — who, up until this point, had been uninterested in becoming involved with the AIDS epidemic. This contact with the local health authority led to Tijuana’s health officials paying “direct visits” to people with AIDS in 1984. In 1985, Emilio’s launched the Gay and Lesbian Community Information Center hotline service, which offered information about their HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services. The same year, Emilio’s founded Tijuana’s first AIDS-focused organization called the AIDS Assistance and Education Fund, which was later renamed Tijuana AIDS Organization in 1986. 1986 was also the year that the first shipments of AIDS medications were received by Emilio’s Community Service Center and distributed to those affected in Tijuana. Emilio’s additionally functioned as Tijuana’s first successful testing center for HIV as a result of their involvement with Mexico’s first national “HIV seroprevalence study” of gay and bisexual men, which resulted in the establishment of Mexico’s Federal National AIDS Council (CONSIDA). However, many of Emilio’s straight clientele were scared off by the HIV testing center existing in the same building as the coffeehouse.
Around this time, Emilio’s expanded their community services programs to other locations to make them more accessible throughout the city. Under the direction of Dr. Carlos Diaz, they established an AIDS hospice located in the La Morita area, a no-cost outpatient AIDS clinic in downtown Tijuana, an AIDS information center in Tijuana City Hall, created “hundreds of workshops,” and did many radio and television presentations in order to further educate the public. In 1988, Emilio Velasquez founded Organizacion SIDA Tijuana (OST), as well as a support group for people with AIDS and their families — the first of its kind — at the coffeehouse headquarters. OST soon became a major authority on HIV/AIDS in the Mexican media. In 1990, Velasquez founded Frontera Gay, Tijuana’s gay newspaper, and ran it out of their headquarters for the next 11 years. Led by Max Mejia for 10 of those years, the creation of Frontera Gay enabled the creation of the Cultural Network which “organized Gay Pride cultural events throughout Tijuana’s different cultural venues for several years.”
The rise of the political party PAN in 1991 affected Emilio’s, as the party was attempting to once again shut down gay businesses by resuming the illegal raids. In response, Tijuana’s gay community came together in order to once again put a stop to police abuses of this kind. As a result of this victory, many of Tijuana’s cis female sex workers sought help at Emilio’s to end similar police abuses against them as sex work — like homosexuality — was not illegal in Mexico. One hundred and seven local sex workers met with Max Mejia, women’s rights activists, and human rights activists in the downstairs coffeehouse for two years until they had successfully put an end to those types of police abuses.
On Feb. 11, 1993, members of OST met with members of Ernesto Ruffo Appel’s government in order to agree on a government policy that supported the fight against AIDS in Tijuana, marking a new chapter in government involvement in the fight against AIDS in Mexico. Sadly, in 1999, staff at Emilio’s began hearing of extreme abuses of transgender and gay members of the community — once again — at the hands of the Tijuana police. According to members of rap groups held at Emilio’s, the Tijuana police were abusing transgender women and gay men openly in the streets and even inside of the victims’ own apartments. Emilio’s conducted interviews with victims and published the results in two consecutive issues of the Frontera Gay newspaper. Emilio’s subsequently formed a support group for transgender people and cross-dressing men at their headquarters.
For the next four years, Emilio’s Coffeehouse struggled to keep their doors open in the face of eviction, with Velasquez himself penning an article on the topic for Update San Diego. Sadly, Emilio’s Coffeehouse was forced to close their doors in 2004.
Emilio Velasquez passed away of cancer-related complications in September 2006, leaving behind a prolific legacy and a groundbreaking career of AIDS activism in Tijuana and San Diego.