Queer political organizer on fighting for LGBTQ people of color, immigrants’ rights
By PATRICK SAUNDERS
When someone is described in their bio as “a queer femme cha-cha girl, artist, trainer, political organizer, strategist and trouble-maker-at-large,” you know that there is a lot to unpack there.
And sure enough, there’s lots of depth to Paulina Helm-Hernandez, but she’s most well known in her role as co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), the queer liberation organization that brings together LGBTQ people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural people across the region.
Helm-Hernandez was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and at age 12 made the move with her family to rural North Carolina. It was around the time that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, leading to a surge in migration into the U.S. of people from Mexico, Latin America and other parts of the world. An anti-immigrant sentiment began to form around her just as she was learning more English, becoming politicized, and getting angry. And this was before she even knew she was queer.
She now lives in East Atlanta Village with her partner, Ashe Helm-Hernandez, an activist in their own right working to eliminate poverty and genocide with Project South.
So, Paulina, when did you start at SONG?
I began to do contract work with SONG ten years ago. They contracted me and others to do a listening campaign with other Southern LGBTQ folks who were involved in racial justice or economic justice work or community work. The question was, should SONG even exist anymore? Is there a role for SONG to play?
Around the time part of what fueled that was Hurricane Katrina had just hap-
August 21, 2015
pened. It was such a crisis and a lot of us didn’t know if our people were okay that we had been working with. We couldn’t reach people for days and days and days. So there was a whole question of, oh my God, when a real crisis happens the nonprofit infrastructure is not good enough if we don’t personally know each other and have each other’s cell phone numbers and don’t know how to show up outside of what the government is or isn’t willing to do.
What are the biggest obstacles in dealing with the issues that SONG addresses?
I feel like one of our biggest obstacles is definitely structural oppression, but also cynicism.
Like an attitude that these things cannot be solved?
I think so. We sometimes struggle with our lack of imagination over what else is possible. That to me has a lot to do with people getting beat down, or the law will only protect you to a certain point, or you actually don’t have any rights, or you think you have rights but you actually don’t. All of these people are struggling to reclaim their humanity in some ways for ourselves and for each other.
It’s a generational fight and we’re facing a different beast right now. We’re part Paulina Helm-Hernandez says that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led her and others to realize the importance of Southerners On New Ground’s work. (Photo by Patrick Saunders) of a long legacy that we can draw from and glean lessons from, and this moment we’re facing right now around police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, around gender and violence, this is a different political moment.
There’s some old school South stuff, there’s definitely the neo-Confederacy stuff that’s playing out post-Ferguson and in reaction to the Charleston shooting. I don’t know about you but I’m seeing people fly their little Confederate flags all over Atlanta in a way that I have not seen since I have lived here. We’re not living in a vacuum, we’re living in a region where that shit has not been resolved and we have a lot of work to do to build the multiracial alliances that will really transform the South. And it’s good that we react to crisis but sometimes the daily crisis can take over a long term vision for what else is possible.
And you’re an artist, too? What medium?
I love to paint, I love to write, both political writing and poetry and some creative writing. I’ve been really struggling to figure out how to bring that back into my work. It’s been really awesome to work with all of these artists and culture makers. It’s been a little while. I have it in me, I came out of culture change work and knowing how important it is. There are some ways that we can talk about what we want all day long, but then you have people pull from their soul, their artistry, their third eye. It just opens up something else that’s really important politically.
So what do you do for fun when you’re not out saving the world?
[Laughs] Me and my honey spend a lot of time together. We both do the work together but also have some shared dorky interests, so whenever we can we do that as much as we can and try to go to things that feed our artistry. I try to spend as much time as I can with the little ones. I have a beautiful godbaby here in Atlanta and I have my nieces and nephews in Memphis and Kentucky and all over the region.
What else? Man ... I love to talk shit [laughs]. I used to party a lot in my 20s and now I’m tired, now I’m all about the low-key shit-talking hangout. It just gives me life [laughs].