WRITTEN BY DANIEL STAROSTA / PHOTOGRAPHED BY NATE FONG
Alán Pelaez Lopez
AFROINDÍGENA, CULTURAL RESIDENCE WORKER, POET-IN-RESIDENCE AT SF MOAD
Formerly undocumented Afro-indigenous Mexican queer activist, writer, artist, PhD candidate. And not necessarily in that order. Alán Pelaez is a venn-diagram of an existence. It’s one thing to live at the intersection of so many different communities, but it’s another thing to make sure their stories actually get told. For Alán, though, this is just another day. This is the job.
Their journey to the Bay Area is a complicated one, from Northern Mexico to Boston to New York to Oakland, but despite the roundabout road, their mission is fairly simple: raise the voices of the queer and trans Black (un)documented communities–those that are often the last to be attended to, the least helped, the least spoken about.
From going directly into detention camps, to hosting monthly open mic poetry nights, to running writing workshops, Alán helps these communities understand themselves, their place and identity, and their potential.
“It was one of the few spaces that felt like a little safe haven,” they reminisce on the now-defunct open mic that was largely by and for trans people of color. “Oakland is big, but it’s also tiny. The Bay Area is small. Everyone has a different struggle, but it’s hard to remember that we’re walking these streets together.”
“In some spaces, I make them uncomfortable. There’s no room for nuance. They don’t know what to do with me.”
Much of their PhD work asks what happens when the undocumented, the dispossesed, and the fugitive actually get to write their own stories, rather than take on a small part in a narrative that has been established. “This idea that migration is beautiful is violent, because it normalizes it. It doesn’t question the root causes, it falls into a single story that we wanted to come here.” It’s one of the reason Alán feels so at home in a variety of East Bay communities and wants to establish spaces that bring them together, from queer to black to indigenous.
“I want spaces that are not created through trauma bonding. I feel like in a lot of spaces we measure each other’s oppression, opening wounds that nobody is necessarily prepared for,” Alán explains. Instead, they’re invested in bonding over trash tv and ‘serious silliness’ at the club, a chance to explore an alternative imaginary side as opposed to “opening other people’s wounds that they weren’t prepared to open — forcing people to hold you when they don’t have the tools to hold themselves.”
On the other end of the spectrum, their work with immigrant and migrant rights and detention centers explores the power that the law has in how we create culture. “The law is a literary genre that we don’t consider,” they explain. For example, the narratives produced by the Fugitive Slave Act, the American Indian Child Welfare Act, and The Dream Act are problematic — Black folks weren’t considered US citizens, American Indians were wards of the state. The lawmakers, descendents of colonizers, often white cis gendered men of a certain privilege, control the story and narrative. Pelaez works to reframe the story.
The work feels heavy and satisfying and complicated all at once. And even in the position of facilitator, Alán recognizes his place in the changing face of Oakland. Can you attempt to fix one problem while feeling like, in a sense, you’re exacerbating another? Alán is visibly torn. Again, it’s complicated. “In some spaces, I make them uncomfortable. There’s no room for nuance. They don’t know what to do with me.”
For Alán, that’s a sign of progress.