The community center that feeds “the stomachs and souls” of LGBT+ people in Mexico City

A towel can eloquently depict homophobia in some parts of the world. When Brent Alberghini of New York, 45, was working at a community center in Mexico where food was donated to the needy, he gave two towels to a “girlish” looking boy who needed them to use in public toilets. The head of the dining room told Brent he couldn’t give them to him because they didn’t even have the resources for that. “You gave it to him because he’s gay, right?” She reproached him angrily. “What are you talking about,” he replied, “I gave it to him because he’s a human and he had to use the bathroom.”

As they left, the boy saw them arguing. He said he didn’t want to cause them any trouble, he just wanted to use the bathroom, which was open to everyone. Brent was trying to explain to the woman that there are LGBT+ people all over the world and in all social groups. The boy left and she, in addition to telling him “rude, gay”, yelled at him that it was “his community’s problem”, that she was still looking for “special treatment”, when this place was ” for the poor”.

Frustrated and angry, Brent chose to leave the place where he had been volunteering for two years and cultivating relationships between the workers and the people who came to eat there. With this same project, he had won a grant to make a theater on wheels, in a truck with a stage that presented musical groups, circus groups and a series of queer cinema.

One of the cooks there, aware of Brent’s enthusiasm to help, told him some time later, “If you want to open your own dining room one day, let me know.” That’s how it happened. With his love for volunteering – which he has carried with him since the age of 12 – he worked at a help center for the elderly run by a senior trans activist. He ran a small daily meals program but had to shut it down when the pandemic hit, so he opened a home food bank with food pantries to provide weekly food during quarantines in conjunction with LGBT+ community organizations .

When the Covid-19 vaccination started, he raised funds to open Manos Amigues, a soup kitchen for LGBT+ people located in Colonia Guerrero in Mexico City. Approximately 250 meals are served there Monday through Friday, each week. Dishes are served from 1:00 p.m. and are finished two hours later or less. Each menu contains soup, tortillas, rice, beans, the main course which changes daily, flavored water and a dessert. On Fridays they serve mole with chicken (it runs out faster) and most people eat it there. The cost is accessible: eleven Mexican pesos (less than a dollar), intended for self-sufficiency expenses and payment of staff. On July 23, they celebrated their first year.

Everyone who works at Manos Amigues is part of the LGBT+ community, except for the cook, who told Brent to call her when he opened his own dining room. But she, Brent says, has a gay son and two brothers, as well as a trans daughter, who works there every day. “You are part of the community,” he told her.

The dining hall is frequented by people from all regions who are in need. Alberghini calculates that 65% of visitors belong to people aged 65 or over and 30% to the LGBT+ community, to whom it seeks to provide a safe and discrimination-free space. The homeless, the locals and the migrant population arrive. Some cannot afford the eleven pesos but are helped by free food programs.

For their funding, they receive in-kind donations, from private entities (“more and more”), and from individuals interested in supporting the LGBT+ community. Brent knows that in many cases they do this “because LGBT+ people are so trendy,” but big companies have joined without asking them to include their logo. They also benefit from the support of a government agency with a network of more than 500 public kitchens.

“We don’t just want to nourish the body and the stomach, but also the soul. People leave Manos Amigues not only with full bellies, but with the hope and inspiration to open another door in their lives,” adds Brent, because on weekends, at the same location on Pedro Moreno Street, the dining room space turns into a stage with shows, theater, music, vogue, poetry, rap, etc. The 7 people who work daily in the hall provide service at the bar-kitchen during the shows, in addition to the five others who complete the group.

Among those who have appeared is American musician and director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Shortbus”), friend and ex-partner of Brent and one of the most regular and generous donors, who has did a benefit show last May when he was in Mexico City for Pride celebrations.

Brent Alberghini has lived in Mexico for fourteen years, ten of them in the capital. He’s very active, that’s obvious, but he doesn’t like to work just for the money. “I’m not satisfied with working like this. It’s empty to do it just for the money, it gets boring after a while and it’s hard,” he says.

In New York, before coming to Mexico, she worked at a center for HIV-positive people focused on blacks and drug-addicted Latinos. In San Francisco, he was a gardener after his university studies, which he did between his hometown and London: he studied feminist theory, sociology and gender studies.

But perhaps the most influential thing about his life as a volunteer was that when he was 12, his parents took him to work in a soup kitchen at a Catholic church that served homeless. “My parents said they were recovering Catholics, but there were ideas in the churches about compassion and social work that were picked up by the social movements of the 60s and 70s that were promoted by the hippies and the Cultural Revolution.” At the same time, they drank in Buddhist philosophies, those of Martin Luther King and the idea that “everyone, all of us, have a common bond”. “If you want a community that’s better for you, you have to help create it, because we’re not an island and we’re connected,” Brent sums up.

He currently says he will look for what to do “to survive” in addition to volunteering, which seems to be what fills his heart the most. “It is important that everyone does one in their life. Whether they volunteer at animal shelters, or at a children’s hospital, or whatever they truly believe in. It’s difficult for many, people are always working and don’t have time. But it’s important to do things like that to create a community,” he says.

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