Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Out of the closet twice: Cartoonist Julio Salgado on coming out as undocumented and gay

The art of illustrator Julio Salgado has become synonymous with the immigrant rights youth movement, that embraced by U.S.-raised young people who were brought here illegally or stayed on with expired visas after their parents brought them to the U.S. as children.

Art courtesy of Julio Salgado

His bright, chunky characters, sometimes depicted in graduate cap-and-gown attire, are found on posters and t-shirts advocating for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, proposed federal legislation that would grant conditional legal status to young people who arrived before age 16 of they go to college or join the military. Last year Salgado created "Liberty for All," an online political comic strip about a young college graduate named Libertad, or Liberty, who can't find work beyond menial jobs.

The comic strip paralleled Salgado's life. The Cal State Long Beach graduate, now 28, arrived with his family on temporary visas from Mexico when he was 11. They overstayed when his sister became ill and never returned. It's been some time since he joined a growing movement of young people who have "come out," borrowing a gay rights term, with their status as a political act.

Salgado now works as a freelance journalist and co-founder of, an advocacy collective that has produced a series of videos titled "Undocumented and Awkward." Over the past few months, starting with an essay last fall that appeared in The Huffington Post, Salgado has been writing about the parallels between one of the secrets he once kept - his sexual identity - and the other, his immigration status. Especially for children of immigrants who face harsh judgment at home, coming out as gay can be a particularly difficult step. So can coming out as undocumented for someone raised in the U.S., with its potential repercussions.

Here is Salgado's take on what it's like to come out twice - or not:

M-A: Over the past few years, the practice of "coming out" undocumented has become a rite of passage of sorts for undocumented young people in the U.S. But among these are youths who have come out twice, once as undocumented, and again as homosexual. You've written about this quite a bit lately. For you, what do the two have in common?

Salgado: Both issues have so much in common. For one, both the migrant and LGBTQ communities have been a special target from (people who) have made it their goal to go after us.

Undocumented and queer youth are more likely to suffer from depression...and we need to come out of the shadows. Whether than means coming out as undocumented or queer. In some cases as both.

M-A: Are there often two secrets kept, one (sexual identity) around Latino or other immigrant culture and especially elders, and another (immigration status) around peers? What is it like to keep two secrets like that? What does it take out of you?

Salgado: For sure, I truly believe that religion plays a huge part in that way of thinking. In my case, I have never told either one of my grandmothers that I am gay. Specially my father's mom, who truly believes that homosexuality can be cured by reading a pamphlet.

As I get older, I have learned to respect her beliefs. I have come to understand that she comes from a different generation. Even my father, who still struggles with the idea of me being queer, has sort of come around because I've given him that space to try and understand what is like to have a gay son. Being around my peers has been a different story. I remember when I was in high school, I was out as gay to some of my friends, mostly girls.

For the most part, it was easier to come out as undocumented because I knew that some of them were undocumented as well. I remember having conversations with some of them about what our lives would be like after high school and we just simply had no answer. Mind you, this was toward the end of the year 2000. There weren't such things as DREAM Teams.

After high school and during college, I sort of put my queer identity to the side and focused on finishing school. I also tried to keep my immigration status a secret. College counselors were often the only people I came out to as undocumented in the hopes that they could help me score a scholarship through their networks. Sometimes it worked. I felt safe with them. Even if they didn't know how to help me, it helped to just let go of this huge burden I had with me.

Every time I told someone I was undocumented, I felt liberated. I began to use that coping mechanism with my queer identity. That was another huge intersectionality. When you are both queer and undocumented, you have to be extremely careful who you come out to. You wonder, "How are they going to act? Will they like me less if they know my secret?".

M-A: How does living in the closet - in two ways - shape the lives, friendships, and other relationships of those who feel they must?

Salgado: You learn to be a good liar. I cannot tell you how many times I had to lie about why my car was still in the shop, when in reality I was taking the bus because I couldn't get a driver's license. A lot of these scenarios were the inspiration of most of the "Undocumented and Awkward" videos we have done over at Little did I know that thousands of students were also going through the same awkward moments in their lives because they were undocumented.

As a queer individual, there were times that you kept your mouth shut because you were scared for your life. Taking the bus in certain areas of North Long Beach, where I grew up, you heard words like "fag this" and "fag that" from guys who could probably beat the crap out of me if I said I was gay. When I was younger, my own father would make homophobic comments that just pushed me further into the closet because I just didn't want to confront him about it. When family members would ask me why I didn't have a girlfriend, I would resort to the lying and say I was too busy with school.

M-A: Regarding coming out, which situation was more difficult? Which, if any, was more of a relief?

Salgado: The first time I came out as undocumented to someone other than my family was my ninth grade computer teacher. She'd offered me a summer job as a translator for her adult computer classes. I remember I was so embarrassed to tell her why I couldn't take the job. I needed my parent's permission and my Social Security Number. I had the former but not the latter.

When I finally had to tell her the truth, I was almost in tears. You'd think I was going to tell her I was the worst person in the world the way I was confessing my status. She simply shook her head, almost crying herself, and told me that my secret would be safe with her.

My mother was actually the first person I came out as queer. Since the eight grade, I kept sketchpads with drawings and writings. I knew I was "different" at that age so I would write about having feelings for other boys and whatever teenage angst I was going through. When I was 18 years old, my mother found those sketchpads while cleaning our garage and she "accidently" read them all. She confronted me about it and I came clean. She hugged me and told me she loved me no matter what.

I think the queer part has always been a bigger struggle. I always knew someone who was undocumented. So it wasn't an issue of feeling alone on that struggle. I knew that I could talk to someone who was going through the same thing. But being queer was a whole different story because I wasn't very involved in the LGBTQ community. I guess I didn't want to be associated with that community because I was so inside the closet.

But even when I started coming out as gay to certain folks in the community, I didn't really reveal my immigration status. Same was true when I became more involved with the DREAM Act. It was always about negotiating identities depending on the kind of space I was in.

What is so amazing about this younger generation of queer, undocumented youth is that they are making sure that there is a safe space for both issues. It's no longer about trying to negotiate identities. It's about how we're going to educate both communities about them.

M-A: Your work is closely tied to the student immigrant rights movement. There is also much representation of immigrant queer youth in your art. Can you tell us more about your work, and what you want to get across with your work?

Salgado: Last year, when all of the sit-ins started to happen, I came across a Washington Post photograph of undocumented student Diana Yael Martinez. That photograph is now very iconic in the DREAM Act movement. Seeing Martinez getting arrested while wearing her cap and gown touched me very deeply. It truly brought me to tears. Then I got angry. Why did it have to come to this? To arrest us all when our only crime was to try and do something with our lives.

I channeled all that anger into my sketchpad and I began to draw. The illustrations touched a lot of my fellow undocumented folks, who began to use the drawings as their own weapons in rallies. If there's a queer aspect to my artwork is not accidental. I do it on purpose. I want other folks to know that when you're for social justice, it has to be across the board. Through comments I've seen posted online, I know that homophobia still exists in our culture. I want to make sure that people know that this movement is being led by a lot of queer folks and that we know what is like to come out. Whenever I am making these drawings, I make sure I use real people in them. It's my small homage to their braveness and hard work.

M-A: Lastly, the term "queer" is what's most often used by the immigrant student movement; a decade ago, it was still too close to a slur. What has been the process of reclaiming this term, and why has it happened?

Salgado: The same is being done with the word joto/a. We're reclaiming a word that has tried to put us down. Why? Why not? For me, it's about taking the negative connotation and throwing it back in your face. Not literally, but through our stories, actions and art. The word queer encompasses so much more than our sexuality.

For us queer people of color, the word gay is sometimes connected to a white world that cannot began to comprehend what is like to struggle with all these identities. When we think of gay rights, we automatically think gay marriage and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But when you have laws that make it hard for undocumented immigrants to get some of the most essential necessities like water, gay marriage is just not at the top of my list. That is not to say that I don't want to get married one day. After all, I am still a traditional Latino.