Paulina Helm-Her­nan­dez

Queer po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer on fight­ing for LGBTQ peo­ple of color, im­mi­grants’ rights

GA Voice - - Black Gay Pride -


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].

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