Mateo Sánchez Morales and Raini Vargas are two Bay Area trans activists who created a Covid-19 relief fund for LGBTQ immigrants. In this interview, Lia Dun talks to Mateo and Raini about how the pandemic has affected queer and trans immigrant communities, the power of mutual aid, and ways we can all show up for LGBTQ immigrants.
Can you describe your involvement with LGBTQ immigrant communities before the pandemic?
Mateo: As a transgender person and a second-generation immigrant, I feel close to both of these identities. For the past three years, I’ve worked with LGBTQ immigrants to attain legal immigration status. I’m also involved with mostly Spanish-speaking LGBTQ immigrant groups in the Bay Area that are rooted in community and mutual aid.
Raini: Both of us are openly queer and non-binary and have backgrounds in organizing and activism. I was born and raised in Anaheim, California, so many of the people I love and grew up with come from immigrant families. At my current job, I interact a lot with Mateo’s clients, and we’ve formed incredible relationships.
How has the pandemic affected LGBTQ immigrants?
Mateo: The pandemic has affected LGBTQ immigrants, not because it necessarily created new problems but because it exacerbated existing ones. A lot of people were already struggling to keep a stable job and pay rent and bills. Many people also had mental health conditions before the pandemic. After the coronavirus hit, people’s situations got worse. For people who had pending immigration cases, the courts have slowed down significantly, leaving them in uncertainty. Other folks lost their jobs. Many have found themselves in situations that are extremely unfavorable.
A lot of people have also had to start relying on technology for the first time to access services. I’ve had a lot of people come to me with questions about how to apply for unemployment. Even to me, these processes are confusing, so I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone who has never used a computer or doesn’t have an email address. And that’s not even mentioning the language barrier that exists for a lot of folks. Sometimes if people need therapy and I want to refer them somewhere, I have to make sure that there are options aside from Zoom calls because that can be very challenging for them to use. A lot of funds also require people to have Venmo, CashApp, or PayPal to receive aid, and I have had to talk a lot of people through the process of downloading the app onto their phone and creating an account because this is all new to them. Many of the people we have assisted with our relief fund do not have electronic payment services and we have actually had to send physical checks to them or give them cash. It has been frustrating to see all these limitations and honestly very eye-opening because they’re things I hadn’t thought about before.
Why did you decide to start the COVID-19 relief fund for queer and trans immigrants? What were the challenges to accessing other forms of aid?
Raini: We officially started the fund on May 9th. Many of the people we know were working under-the-table jobs at places like restaurants, bars, and hotels. These were the places that were the first to shut down. When we referred people to resources, most, if not all, of the funds that we recommended were full or waitlisted. After realizing this, we decided to create a Covid relief fund specifically for queer and trans immigrants to pay for necessities like rent, groceries, utilities, phone bills, hospital bills, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and mental health services.
There are many issues to accessing aid through institutions. Many LGBTQ people and immigrants have an understandable hesitation in approaching and relying on institutional support. There is something very powerful about direct community aid because it allows people to bypass institutional barriers and access what they need. There isn’t a Board of Directors or a group of powerful people controlling what to do with the funds. It’s just community members supporting other community members.
How has it been working on a two-person relief fund? What have been the challenges, successes, and lessons learned?
Mateo: We realized very quickly that there is a lot of work that goes into putting together something like this.
First, there’s publicizing it — Raini creates the graphics that we share on social media often. We spend a lot of time drafting our updates and messages to the public. Then there’s the logistics and keeping track of everything — how much money we receive, who needs money, how to get the money delivered.
Raini: We also have to think about how we communicate with fund recipients and with donors. People like to be communicated with in different ways. Some folks prefer to talk on the phone, while others rely mostly on text or email. Also, we’ve already seen donors reach out and ask how their money was used. While this is completely understandable, it’s been hard to share updates with our donors while also constantly communicating with our recipients to make sure their needs are being met. Coordinating this and splitting the work between just the two of us has been the most challenging aspect of this.
Mateo: Yeah, it’s a lot of work, physically and mentally, to add on top of both of our full-time workload. We’ve also had to learn how to adapt to each other’s work styles since this is our first time working on something like this together, but generally, we work well together. Both of us come from low-income backgrounds, and now that we’re in better situations, we recognize the importance of using our resources to support others as best we can, while also acknowledging our own privileges — we have a lot of shared values, which makes our visions for the work we’re doing align.
Raini: Yes! Communication is never really an issue. We essentially read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences, so when it comes to working on our fund, we are always in-sync.
What are your plans to expand the relief fund?
Mateo: As our reach has expanded, we’ve been seeing an increase in donations but also an increase in people contacting us in need of assistance. We also know that a one-time payment is not enough, and many folks who already received aid need recurring payments. Although our initial idea was to support people through this really rough time, people need aid all the time, not just during the pandemic. Raini and I have talked about making more streamlined efforts to get people aid. We’ve been considering the possibility of a website and getting more people involved in this who can help our fund grow.
Raini: We’re mostly looking for Spanish speakers who are able to share our fund and also communicate with some of our recipients. We’re also looking for folks who have more experience with fundraising and coalition building. But we’d love to work with anyone, as long as you can show you’re devoted to the movement!
What are some other ways folks can support LGBTQ immigrants and/or undocumented folks?
Raini: Outside of donating, people should continue staying informed about attacks on immigrant communities. We are currently seeing the government rip apart and destroy the asylum system, proposing a new rule that would make it impossible for anyone to be granted asylum in the United States.
We also think it’s important for folks to become aware of their individual privileges. How does your citizenship status affect the way you navigate the world? As a white-passing queer person who was also born in the United States, there are certain aspects of my identity that are more protected than others in my community. It’s our responsibility, within the LGBTQ community, to continue to support and uplift our immigrant siblings.
Mateo: This fund started because we saw a need in our community that wasn’t being met. There are people in need all around us. If you see resources being shared on social media, share them widely with the people around you so that they can reach someone in need. If you speak another language, volunteer with organizations that serve populations that don’t speak English. If you already work in direct services, like therapy, keep in mind the populations you serve and do research about how to better serve your clients. Challenge policies in your workplace, neighborhood, or city that target these populations. LGBTQ immigrants are our neighbors, and there are always ways to offer help, even if it’s smaller, individual-level things, like checking on your neighbors and building trust with your community so that when folks need help, you’re better able to support each other.
If you’re an LGBTQ immigrant in need of aid or if you’re interested in getting involved with the relief fund, you can contact Mateo (@hijxdemimadre) at firstname.lastname@example.org and Raini (@rainiv) at email@example.com To donate, you can Venmo Mateo directly (@M-Sanchez-Morales).
COMMUNITY CHECK is a series about mutual aid and taking care of each other in the time of coronavirus. If you would like to write about a mutual aid and/or community care effort happening where you are – either as a first person account or as a reported piece – please send a pitch to vanessa [at] autostraddle [dot] com with the subject line PITCH: COMMUNITY CHECK. We are particularly interested in publishing Black writers, Indigenous writers, and all writers of color; we are looking for stories from smaller cities, towns, and rural communities as well as big cities; we would really love to hear what mutual aid and community building looks like as we fight for Black lives and Black futures, work to abolish police and prisons, and fight against white supremacy.