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A Family's Love Hidden Behind Homophobia In Mexico City

Reporting Hate
Rodrigo Cervantes
At a family gather-up, Lluvia Zavala (far right) poses for a photo with her cousins and one of her sisters.

This is Part II in " Reporting Hate," a four-part Fronteras Desk series that takes a look at the roots of intolerance and prejudice in the Americas today. Each piece is a unique profile on an individual exploring specific kinds of conflicts and tensions in their lives arising from their identity.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s capital has legalized gay marriage and promotes tolerance, but homophobic jokes and slurs still prevail. So what do you do when the situation plays against you — and within your closest circle?

That’s the case of Lluvia Zavala. I met with her in Cuautitlán Izcalli, an industrial area in northern Mexico City. We were heading to a surprise party nearby for her uncle Alfonso’s 60th birthday. He is one of her dad’s younger siblings.

Lluvia Zavala is a 35-year-old graphic designer. She’s wearing black sneakers with punk studs and a t-shirt from one of her favorite bands, Blondie. Lluvia Zavala laughs and smiles a lot, despite the conflicts she said we would soon witness.

She's gay and can’t be open about it with her relatives. Only her mom and her two sisters know.

“My dad doesn’t know about my preferences because of his prejudices,” she said. Lluvia Zavala describes him as a very hard person to deal with — strict, close-minded and conservative.

Lluvia Zavala tells me her father abandoned her mom, but they still see each other occasionally and will even attend the party together.

“He’s a little strange, but I love him,” Lluvia Zavala said while giggling.

As ironic as it may sound, it seems that love and fear keep them both close and far away from each other.

That paradox in Lluvia Zavala’s life is one of many in Mexico City, a place full of contrasts. It was the first Latin American city to legalize gay marriage and provide equal rights to LGBT couples. It even has its own gay pride parade.

But another side of Mexico City still embraces conservative values, most of them inherited from the Catholic tradition.

“Double morality is a major problem here. People get scared of two men holding hands, yet they can tolerate seeing a couple fighting or hitting each other,” said Betsabé Zavala, a social worker and Lluvia Zavala’s sister.

It’s the mythical "machismo," which has given Mexico a bad name. And the combination of conservatism and male chauvinism has made Mexico — as with most of Latin America — fertile soil for homophobic slurs and jokes.

The Party

We arrived at the surprise celebration at exactly the same time as Lluvia Zavala’s uncle, Alfonso. To avoid ruining the surprise, Lluvia Zavala told him we were just visiting. A few seconds later, he opened the door and everyone greeted him with a big “ ¡Sorpesa!” yell while playing “Las mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican mariachi birthday song.

Rodrigo Cervantes
Alfonso, Lluvia's uncle, is welcomed and greeted by his family at a surprise party at his home in Cuautitlán Izcalli.

I greet 15 people in two minutes. And, just like Lluvia Zavala, they are all friendly and welcoming.

As I chat with them, I wonder how many would reject Lluvia Zavala for being a lesbian. The 2010 National Survey on Discrimination revealed that four out of 10 Mexicans would not be willing to let a homosexual person live at their home.

A few hours later, Lluvia Zavala’s parents finally arrive. Rafael Zavala, her dad, greets me cordially, but seems startled by my presence. As I thought of the tensions described by Lluvia Zavala, the affectionate hug between her and Rafael Zavala surprised me.

The party is finally complete, and everyone enjoyed the food and the drinks. An interesting conversation is about to happen — but first, the expected gay jokes start to pop up, as Alfonso and Rafael Zavala played around with words and meanings.

They were using “albures,” double entendres that usually carry a sexual undertone. At some point during the evening, Alfonso asks his brothers why they think he prefers drinking over other vices. His brother Rafael Zavala jokingly replies: because you are (a derogatory term for gay). And Alfonso replies that Rafael Zavala had to sin to become illuminated as a (another derogatory term for homosexual).

But on the other side of the table, a more serious conversation started right afterwards, where Lluvia Zavala’s cousins claimed to tolerate gay people, despite disliking their attitude.

“They act as if they were different or special. Why do they want to be treated differently?” said Gerardo Mercado, one of the cousins.

Mercado explained the LGBT community asks to be treated equally, while acting differently. He and another cousin agree that gay people shouldn't be offended when people use homophobic terms as a joke.

“What really pisses me off is when gay people want to educate children. No, no, no — they have to allow them to learn about homosexuality until they grow up and have their own criteria,” said Daniel Zavala, another cousin.

Rodrigo Cervantes
Rafael Zavala (front) prepares to sing karaoke with his siblings. Lluvia and her mom, Lidia, observe in the background.

“Preferences are not imposed,” Lluvia Zavala said.

She argued that other societies have allowed terrible things that are taught, such as marriage between an older man and a child or the existence of suicide armies, like in ISIS or the kamikazes.

Lluvia Zavala is listening, trying to understand, while questioning them: Why do you generalize? Who decides what’s right or wrong? Aren’t you imposing your vision by rejecting theirs?

The conversation kept going — until Aunt Altagracia interrupted them.

“You freely criticize others without seeing your own mistakes, your own stupidity and emotional trash,” she told the cousins, scolding them.

They changed subject, and I looked for Lidia Hernández, Lluvia Zavala’s mother.

Mom And Dad

Hernández told me her daughter was sobbing when she confessed her being gay — and she still struggles to understand.

“Every day I learn more and more from my daughter, but that doesn’t stop me from loving her,” Hernández said. However, she confessed that she has suggested her daughter avoid telling her father.

“He will never understand, he’s too afraid of other people’s opinions, and sometimes you can’t tell some people," she said. "It’s just pointless and too risky."

And after chatting with Hernández , I knew it was time for me to try to speak to Rafael Zavala, Lluvia Zavala’s dad.

“Can I interview you briefly?” I asked Rafael Zavala. As he tries to avoid me, he jokingly tells me his interview fees are expensive.

“Why do I want to talk to him?” he asked. “What’s the goal? What’s all this about?”

But Lluvia Zavala intercedes: “Do it for me, dad. Come on.”

And he finally agrees to chat, but for no longer than five minutes.

Rafael Zavala told me about his humble origins. His life was a “pure rock'n'roll,” as he described it, working as a breadmaker, a mechanic, a painter and finally a teacher. He didn’t become a criminal thanks to his passion for sports and the values taught by his parents.

And every time he mentions God and his parents, Rafael Zavala takes his cap off in respect.

Courtesy of Lluvia Zavala
Lluvia Zavala as a baby with her parents, Rafael and Lidia.

“Our family is humorous and chatty. We’re happy. And that’s the way we are. That’s why we like to play with words. Despite life being sour sometimes, we do our best to share beautiful moments,” he said.

I can’t ask him about Lluvia Zavala’s sexual orientation, but I want to ask him about his relationship to his family and with her.

He sighs and slightly, very slightly, smiles. He calls Lluvia Zavala his “pretty baby pup.”

He said he likes the way she gets along with her sisters. He continues in this vein about Lluvia Zavala and how love should always guide her, but I ask him about tensions between them.

I could see his eyes getting moist behind the shades that he never removed through the entire evening. He said he recalled something, but he doesn’t want to tell me; it still hurts.

As soon as I think Rafael Zavala is about to leave, he surprisingly decides to speak.

“I left my family — and I will never forgive himself for doing it,” he told me.

Rafael Zavala ends the interview, shakes my hand and said he doesn’t even understand why I am doing this, but he hopes it’s for good.

I don’t know if the conversation between Lluvia Zavala and her dad will ever happen.

And while I prepare to leave, Rafael Zavala and his siblings turn on the karoaoke machine. And they sing a sweet and mellow bolero. It is called “Todo me gusta de ti,” which translates to, “I Like Everything About You.”

I walked away, and the Zavalas waved goodbye. In that instant, one last thought struck me: that despite the problems they face and secrets they hide, just like many other families, they have plenty of care for each other — and love.

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Rodrigo Cervantes was KJZZ’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2016 to 2021.