Dan Guerrero: A Legendary Gaytino Activist Made in America

“That horrible night of the election, one of the first things was like – Oh my God – I better lay low until this thing blows over and not be doing Gaytino out there! Where is this gonna take me? That was my initial knee jerk reaction. Very soon after that I’m like ‘No, Fuck man, we have to be louder than ever! In fact, I have to beef up my show.’ And that’s what I did. At first I added a subtitle. It’s been called Gaytino for years! It is now called Gaytino: Made in America. For obvious reasons. Both as a Latino and as a LGBTQ person, I’m still an American.”

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At 77, Dan Guerrero doesn’t retreat from his identity – he fully embraces it. Gay. Latino. And damn orgulloso of it, he coined the term Gaytino to underscore his brand of intersectional identities and birthed an autobiographical play in 2006 with the same name to showcase his life of activism and the arts. After the election of 45, Dan turned shock and fear into powerful tools to rework a show that truly is a culmination of two lives – his own and that of his father, the legendary and late Lalo Guerrero.

Lalo Guerrero invented Chicano music with hits like the 1955 parody, Pancho López. Dan was a teen back then, trying to makes sense of his gay identity while growing up in East LA. Contending with homophobia and racism, Dan recalls, “this little white boy would peer over my fence and yell ‘you dirty Mexican!’ Those were the neighbors just next door. Meanwhile, they had tires in THEIR backyard and geese running around – it was a pigsty! We had a manicured lawn, we had a little pool, but he used to call ME a dirty Mexican?”

It was this experience that decades later inspired a portion of Dan’s rewrite of his play, commenting that he had to change very little of it because vignettes of his American credentials were peppered throughout the original script. The new tagline – Made in America – afforded him a new lens though, ushering in scenes where he proclaims poignantly, “I already know I’m Mexican!  I find that out during WWII. We were living in San Diego where at the same time, Mexican American boys are fighting for our country, along with other Americans. Meanwhile, there are ‘For Rent’ signs throughout the Southwest where most of us were huddled at the time and the signs read ‘No Dogs, No Mexicans.’ So that’s a very important statement.”

While at times intentional yet other times as a consequence of being Gaytino, Dan’s life has been full of statements. He’s a fan of the pithy kind of statements, sharing how his father, Lalo, had been awarded the National Medal of Arts by the Clinton White House for his body of work as a musician.  A few days after receiving the award, he was interviewed by NBC nightly news. Dan elaborates, “My dad smiles and he looks down at the medal that’s around his neck. He picks it up and says, ‘This medal, for me, makes me feel for the first time, like an American.’ He was 80 at the time, was born in Tucson. And this was the first time he felt like an American as opposed to Mexican. I thought THAT was PITHY! I added that to the show.”

Dan recalls another statement he made when he returned to LA after a 20-year hiatus in New York. He originally left for New York in 1962 and worked his way up in the theater world to amass A-list clients as a theatrical agent. Always the believer in paying it forward, he moved back to his hometown in 1982, only this time, he moved to the westside of town where all the Hollywood heavyweights like to play in their sandbox. He recalls, “You gotta be pissed to be an activist! And when I first came back from New York I was pissed. I’ve been gone 20 fuckin years from a city that I knew was oppressing Latinos and here, 20 years later, it’s the same! And we’re not in the media and since I was producing, I made sure to include Latinos.  And I was writing interviews for trade papers in Hollywood. I always interviewed Latinos. I had the tools. So that’s how I became a Latino Activist, and gay on the side.”  

The word, activist, though, causes Dan a degree of discomfort when adjoining it to his long list of accomplishments as a writer, director, and producer. The discomfort is attributed to his grand respect and admiration for the more boots-on-the-ground type of activism. When coupled with Dan’s own humility, it leads him to have reservations about claiming the mantle of activist. He shares this kernel of insight when reflecting on being honored for his activism, “There are different voices and different ways. And there again, I still feel very lucky to be honored a few times in my day. And I always feel a little embarrassed by it. Because I’m like, man, all the people in here, they’ve been doing it a lot longer than me, and they’ve been out there marching. And they’ve been in the streets. And I just feel a bit of a faux activist because I wasn’t here for that. I’m putting on a black-tie dinner fundraiser in a fancy hotel and I just don’t feel as Chicano as them. But at the same time, I very strongly believe that it takes all kinds of voices. I strongly believe that it takes those black-tie dinners and it takes marching in the streets. And it takes telephone calls. But I still feel they are more legitimate than I am in terms of activism than I am. In my show business world, I’m an activist in that way. And that’s an important voice too! But it still doesn’t seem to me as much as those people, God bless them for ringing door bells and doing phone banks. But what I do is very visible.”

Indeed, it’s Dan Guerrero’s orgullo for his gente and panache for creating productions that allow for an effective conduit of activist work. He worked with César Chávez, having booked him on the Paul Rodriguez show in 1992. Chávez was reluctant at first to go on the show, but after a two-year push by Dan, he agreed to go on air. Immediately following the airing of Chávez on the Paul Rodirguez show, the phone lines blew up! Dan reports this historical gem, “Cesar Chávez approached me after the phones blew up and asks, ‘Could you get me on more TV talk shows?’ I said, sure! I think I got him on Dennis Miller. That proves, the power of the media. And that’s what I plug into, that’s my small contribution to social justice. That now has expanded to include the Chicano Latino LGBTQ person.”

Small. Contribution. Those two words linger. Providing a medium for the plight of the farm worker’s message to be communicated to a wide audience is by no means a small contribution. Humility seems to run in the family. Similar to the elder Guerrero, Lalo, who ceased to feel like an American until he was 80 years old, now the son, Dan Guerrero, an elder in his own right at 77 ceases to see the power of his influence as a gay Latino. Dan Guerrero IS Legendary. A Gaytino. And an Activist, Made in America. There is also no doubt that his father, Lalo Guerrero, is orgulloso of his son as we – the Gaytino community – are proud of celebrating him as our elder.   

 

Follow Dr Eduardo Lara on Instagram @eduardoforeducation and Twitter @dreduardolara

 

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