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Teresa Oyos: Truax-award winner and true advocate for all San Diegans

Posted: December 28th, 2012 | Columns, Featured, Profiles in Advocacy |

Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy

December 2012 brings me full circle as I complete the first year of Profiles in Advocacy, returning to the topic that started it all, the current A. Brad Truax award recipient. I am thrilled that this year’s honoree is both a friend and colleague at University of California, San Diego (UCSD): Teresa Oyos of the HIV Neurobehavioral Research Program (HNRP) housed on UCSD’s Hillcrest campus.

Ian Morton

Having spent 18 years with the HNRP as an outreach representative, and now supervisor, is a significant contribution to the effort toward understanding and eventually ending HIV/AIDS, but my interviews with Oyos showed me that this was really just one chapter in a 40-year commitment to advocacy in San Diego.

Her story begins in the 1970s, a time of change and progress for the Latino and Chicano populations. Set against the backdrop of migrant farmworker struggles, increased visibility for Latinos in cinema, theatre and contemporary literature, and the raising of awareness for Latino voters, Oyos found her activist voice while attending San Diego City College.

With her initial focus stemming from her identity as a Latina woman, she became involved with the Chicano Newspaper “La Verdad” and the SDSU chapter of M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán). Additionally, she spent much of her early efforts advocating for a comprehensive Latino/Chicano studies program in San Diego City College. To this day, Chicano Studies at San Diego Mesa remains a thriving and vital program, and has set a standard for inclusion in all San Diego higher education centers.

Oyos’ desire to further delve into women’s rights and challenge traditional roles thrust upon Latina women prompted her involvement with Teatro de las Chicanas, a grass-roots troupe that later operated under a variety of names, including Teatro Labora and Teatro Raíces. This national theater movement is credited by many as an extension of El Teatro Campesino by Luis Valdez in Delano, Calif. El Teatro Campesino developed as an arm of the United Farm Workers union and became an effective and accessible way to spread the word of the farm-worker struggle.

Now called Teatro Chicanas, this collective of women continues to evolve and inspire change through performance art. A compendium of written work from many whom started this movement was published in April 2008 and includes Oyos’ poetry. The publication of “Teatro Chicana: A Collective Memoir and Selected Plays” and her inclusion therein is a truly proud moment in her life.

In the late 1970s, Oyos came to terms with her sexual orientation and, not one to sit on the sidelines, bolstered her efforts toward the recognition of the gay and lesbian community in San Diego. She began volunteering at Las Hermanas coffee shop and women’s collective, a safe space for all women and children. As Oyos became more plugged into the gay and lesbian community, she began calling on her literary skills again as she took work writing for the San Diego Gayzette. Published from 1982 to 1986, she worked with many San Diego community notables, including Christine Kehoe, Julie Warren and Nicole Murray Ramirez.

I spoke with Warren who said, “Teresa Oyos walked into our offices at the San Diego Gayzette where I was the art director and asked for a job as a graphic designer. She was wearing a black suit, make up and had lovely, painted nails. It was 1985. We liked her right away and she had a portfolio and resume that showed she could do the job, but we were reluctant to hire her. We thought, ‘why would this straight woman want to work with us?’ Of course, she was just a lipstick lesbian. And I am so glad we did hire her. She has turned out to be a life-long friend who brightens every situation she encounters.”

During this decade, Oyos had the opportunity to marry her passion for Latino rights and those of her fellow gay and lesbian community, co-founding “Orgullo” (Spanish for pride). Along with Ramirez and Adam Gettinger-Brizuela, Oyos worked to create a dialogue between members of multiple communities that identified as LGBT.

Gettinger-Brizuela commented on the efforts of Orgullo: “We encouraged African-American, Asian Pacific and Native-American gay people to organize themselves based on double-affinity. Later, we were among those who organized the People of Color AIDS Survival Effort [and] Neighbors United Against Hate Crimes, which formed collaborations with Jewish and other ethnic minority groups, and the Medicine Wheel, a HIV/AIDS prevention education campaign aimed at the communities of color and marginalized whites such as IV drug users and sex industry workers. Orgullo maintained a policy of binationality and [had] female and male co-chairs, working together, and remained organized for at least five years.”

The late 1980s and early 1990s brought Oyos to a new leg of her journey: a chapter of love and recovery. Twenty-six years ago she met the love of her life, Rose, and just celebrated 25 years of being clean and sober. In her usual style, Oyos brought these aspects of her life into a new period of advocacy.

Oyos’ wake-up call to sobriety came in a very personal and quiet way, not a story of hitting rock bottom like so many we hear. She infrequently attended some support groups, but never considered recovery for herself until two very different females influenced that choice.

The first was a counselor from San Diego City College, Alicia Crow, who spoke of a “fungus in your lungs” caused by smoking pot. While this image stayed in her mind, the true “spiritual transformation,” as Oyos said, came when she was holding her 1-year-old granddaughter. The thought of doing anything that would compromise Oyos’ health and give her any less quality and length of time with her grandchild was not worth it.

Little did Oyos know, her partner had independently made the same decision, and Oyos is proud to say that they have beaten the odds, maintaining a 26-year relationship while successfully engaging in the recovery process.

Having benefitted from support groups and the 12-step program, Oyos found an opportunity to utilize her experience through work with CRASH, Inc. (Community Resources And Self Help). This San Diego County-funded program was founded in 1970, and makes it their mission to not only assist with recovery process, but to help individuals find the value in themselves for sustained successful healthy living. CRASH programs have facilitated alcohol and other drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation by providing short- and long-term residential treatment, day treatment, outpatient recovery services and community education.

Oyos’ role was in outreach to injection drug users (IDU), and she was never afraid to share her own story of recovery. Bringing individuals into a better and more productive quality of life would remain a defining characteristic of her advocacy.

She then spent a year with MAAC (Maximizing Access to Advance our Communities) as a drug and alcohol counselor before returning to San Diego City College to pursue her degree in that field. During this time, she continued working for CRASH, branching out into street and jail outreach.

About 18 years ago, Oyos received information that would bring her to her current position and, indeed, the role which made her eligible for the A. Brad Truax award nomination: employment at the HNRP at UCSD. While working at the gay and lesbian publications and volunteering, she became educated about HIV/AIDS and how it was affecting the community. She had become involved with the San Diego HIV Women’s Conference and had been a co-presenter of the “HIV and Substance Abuse” workshop. The opportunity to once more engage her personal skills of advocacy and outreach came in the form of a part-time job doing HRNP outreach to the Latino community.

No research program is complete without a full representation of the community in which it functions, and Oyos said she recognizes how crucial it is that the Latino population be reached. Her passion and dedication did not go unnoticed, and she was made a full-time employee within one year. In three years, she had been promoted to a senior outreach representative and she now serves as the supervisor of outreach.

In addition to her responsibilities at HNRP, Oyos also serves on The HIV Care Partnership for Women, Children and Families and spent four years on the Human Relations Commission. In 2008, she was honored with the “Heroes, Pioneers and Trailblazers” designation at Lambda Archives San Diego.

I doubt that she is done evolving, but right now Oyos enjoys her position where she is both loved and respected. Because of her own journey through recovery, she brings a very important perspective about these populations, which are disparately infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. As a resource to the program director and clients, she recognizes the value in her openness and connection to the many communities she represents.

Oyos is so many people: a Latina, a lesbian, a devoted spouse, a mother and grandmother, an artist, a clean and sober individual and an advocate but, lucky for us, she’s also a San Diegan.

Congratulations, and thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do.

—Ian Morton has worked in the HIV field since 1994 when he began volunteering with AIDS Response Knoxville. He currently serves as outreach liaison for the AIDS Research Institute at UCSD. To nominate a person or organization to be featured in Profiles in Advocacy, please submit name, affiliation and contact information to imorton@ucsd.edu.

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