Lydia Otero

I knew I was queer the moment my consciousness had evolved enough to formulate thoughts. I attribute my heightened awareness of difference at such a young age to this perceived reality. I recognized my queerness even though I lacked the language to name it. My family saw it too. Even before I entered the first grade, my older brother had nicknamed me “La Butch.” My queerness never faded into the background, and it stood at the core of almost every dialogue that took place in my head and every decision I made.

Born in 1955 in Tucson, Arizona, I am the Otero family’s youngest child and the only one that my mother, Chita, gave birth to in a hospital. At that time, my father, Daniel, worked as a laborer for the City of Tucson’s Water Department. His job provided health benefits, which allowed for a hospital birth. They had been a bit uneasy and had taken precautionary measures to ensure my mother often rested because they did not know what to expect with this pregnancy. Four years earlier, she had given birth to a baby girl with Down syndrome who also suffered from severe respiratory problems. Tragically, the child lived for only twenty-five minutes before dying. My parents, who were always strapped for money, had to pay $300 for the deceased child’s funeral, a debt that they did not manage to pay off until I was about two years old.

Of course, my mother’s pregnancy with me was marked by stress. At forty-two years of age, she was much older than the average mother. I heard my aunt tease my mother once about how Chita had tried to conceal her pregnancy and even stayed away from their good friend’s wedding because she felt ashamed to be pregnant again at her age. When Chita gave birth to a healthy baby “girl” on Valentine’s Day in 1955, she could not have been happier. The sentimentality of the day, coupled with the prospect of dressing me in pink or red frilly dresses, added to her joy.

Arizona celebrated its forty-third birthday on February 14, 1955, the morning I was born. All city, county, and state offices and banks closed that day to celebrate Admissions Day. As I grew older, I started to find meaning in this coincidence of birth. During my early years of elementary school, teachers referred to Arizona by its nickname, the Baby State. It was the forty-eighth and youngest state admitted to the United States for close to five decades, until 1959, when the country expanded beyond its continental boundaries with the addition of two new states, Hawaii and Alaska. The baby of the Otero family’s link to the Baby State may have gone unnoticed by others, but I felt a special connection to Arizona, and at an early age I began to zoom in on conversations and lessons that focused on the state’s history and geography. Although its political stance often stood in direct opposition to my interests and those of brown people more generally, Arizona and specifically the city in which I was born, Tucson, came to represent home.

On the other hand, the Valentine’s Day holiday reminded me that I did not belong. As with many things in life that we try to make sense of, but never quite do, I had to make peace with contradictory feelings. I often felt displaced by my queerness, but rooted in place through my relationship with Tucson. Although my mother loved celebrating my birthday on Valentine’s Day, I loathed it. The dresses adorned with lace, the heart-shaped cakes, and the idealized heteronormative fantasy couplings made me cringe. Early 1960s photographs of celebrations captured the glitter and smiles, but they remind me how off the scales my own gender realities were. Despite presents and piñatas, at ten years old I began to refuse to attend my own birthday parties.


A few bio highlights:

• Being born and raised in Tucson with deep family roots on both sides of the Arizona-Sonora border inspired my interest in regional history.

• In January 2020, Mayor Regina Romero and Ward One City Councilperson Lane Santa Cruz appointed me to a four-year (advisory) term as the “Historian” for the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission.

• In 2019, Arizona’s César E. Chávez Holiday Coalition awarded me the Dolores Huerta Legacy Award for my activism and scholarship focusing on bringing awareness to Mexican American and local history.

• My first book, La Calle provided the source material for the local Borderland’s Theater's “Barrio Stories,” a site-specific theatrical event that took place over four days in 2016, and that attracted over 5,000 people. Click here to learn more and watch a documentary on "Barrio Stories."

• In 2011, the Border Regional Library Association awarded my book, La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwestern City a Southwest Book Award.

• I founded and directed the public history program at the University of Arizona, Nuestras Tierras, Nuestras Culturas, Nuestras Historias designed to reclaim, preserve, and document the experiences and contributions of people of Mexican descent in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

• I was a tenured professor in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona (2003-2020). 

• I have a PhD in History.

• I received a BA in 1992 and MA in 1996 from Cal State LA. 


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©2020 by Lydia R. Otero.