Zenaida Lopez is the Director of El Rescate, a transitional living program in Humboldt Park and an initiative of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. For the last 10 years Lopez has helped hundreds of LGBTQ youth get back on their feet.
“Most of the residents that come to us are homeless youth who are ready to say ‘I have to challenge myself to change the trajectory of my life. I have to be able to find a place where I can learn to become self-efficient and reach independence,’ and this what El Rescate is about,” Lopez said.
El Rescate, meaning “rescue,” is a shelter providing residents like Izareza Rodriguez a safe place to live.
Rodriguez came out when she was 12 years old and says, it has been hard to gain her mother’s acceptance.
“I realized I was bisexual and when I told my mom she said it was inappropriate. She said that it wasn’t right,” Rodriguez said. “I never understood when [she’d] tell me it was OK if my cousins were gay, but that I couldn’t be and that really messed with me.”
As a new resident at El Rescate, Rodriguez will have opportunities to continue to grow and receive job and educational support.
“To me it’s very beautiful that I can take the resident in here and provide them with their basic needs just to make sure that they get ahead and can succeed,” Lopez said. “And they have a place where they’re not afraid to say, ‘I’m gay,’ not afraid to say ‘I’m a lesbian, transgender’ and that it’s completely geared for them.”
Lopez says her passion for helping queer youth comes from her own experience of not being able to live openly.
“I lived to lie. I didn’t live an authentic life growing up and it was a very difficult journey for me and talking about it resonates with me in terms of those emotions I have till this day,” Lopez said. “I still feel uncomfortable speaking about it because I hid it for so long and I was afraid of what my mom would say. And the saddest part for me is my mom died 24 years ago and I never told her. I was afraid that it [would] hurt her.”
LGBTQ youth may be disowned by their parents or kicked out of their homes. It’s a scenario Lopez says she sees too often. According to a survey conducted by The Trevor Project more than 40% of LGBTQ youth across the country reported they were kicked out or abandoned due to their sexual identity. It’s something Rodriguez can attest to.
“She kicked me out and that was just the final straw. And I told myself that I needed to find a place and my best friend has been a resident here before and he brought me, and I just fell in love with it and saw all these beautiful things around.”
The center runs as a community living space where residents from ages 18 to 24 years old have jobs, cook, and prepare themselves to eventually find a place of their own.
“I have kids that came through our program that graduated college,” Lopez said. “I had a young man that spent two years in the program, which is the maximum, and he worked and was able to save $10,000 and we helped him get his own apartment.”
What started with six residents 10 years ago has now housed hundreds of LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive youth.
“It’s my second home and the beauty of this is that I can still connect with them,” Lopez said. “I can still teach them, because it’s about love, it’s about understanding and that’s what I have. Hopefully one day this will continue and the legacy we created will continue.”
As Rodriguez begins her healing journey at El Rescate she’s already thinking about plans for the future and says she’s focused on opening her own theater company one day.
“It’s just really hard to know that I’m on the right path and I’m doing what I’m supposed to do,” Rodriguez said. “And my family does not understand that or accept that.”