It’s a sunny afternoon in Mexico City, and outside a brightly colored storefront by the Xola metrobus station, a rainbow flag glows in the sunlight. Inside, I’m greeted by Samantha Flores, an 87-year-old transgender woman. This place is not only the culmination of her years as a dedicated activist in Mexico City’s LGBTQ community, but it’s also a one-of-a-kind space for a group of people who need it most.
Vida Alegre is a drop-in day center for LGBTQ seniors, and it’s the only one in Mexico City. Which is a big deal: Discrimination against the community is rampant in the city, and safe spaces tend to cater to the youth. Many older people in Mexico live with their children and families, but LGBTQ seniors may not have traditional families to support them. Vida Alegre offers this often-ignored community a candy-pink haven — providing everything from meals to exercise classes; from connection opportunities to help with everyday life tasks.
One of the most popular services? Cellphone help. Regular Celestino Marquez Vazquez, who lives nearby, shows me the chunky cellphone that the volunteers helped him learn to use. The volunteers, he says, are way more helpful than his grandchildren.
Vida Alegre also hosts speaking events on more taboo subjects like sexuality for older adults and how to prepare psychologically for death.
Flores opened the senior center in the central Alamos neighborhood in 2018, after raising the monumental sum of $20,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. These days the volunteer-run space opens five days a week from mid-morning to late evening, depending on the day. A few dozen regulars come each week, mainly for the wide range of free activities. For example, Tuesday’s packed schedule includes yoga, meditation and lunch (for 10 pesos, or about 50 cents) — with ample time allocated for gossiping over coffee. Vida Alegre also hosts speaking events on more taboo subjects like sexuality for older adults and how to prepare psychologically for death.
And while the two-room space was created for LGBTQ seniors, it’s open to anyone who wants to visit. It’s small but cozy, with walls plastered with photos and posters about upcoming events and LGBTQ issues. The sunny front room is used for gathering, and in the darker back room, where lunch is served, visitors watch films and attend workshops.
Luis Rivera began volunteering at the space this past May, partially because he identifies with its target population: “This is what my future will be like, sooner or later,” he says, adding that LGBTQ seniors are “one of the most vulnerable social groups” and they lack support and opportunities. He enjoys connecting with the people of Vida Alegre, he says, most of whom have a positive take on life.
For many of the visitors, Vida Alegre is a rare space to find community. And the regulars who frequent it don’t all necessarily identify as LGBTQ. Some, like local Patricia Canan who discovered Vida Alegre one day while walking by, just enjoy hanging out there. And singing a song or two: The former professional singer of rancheras (traditional Mexican ballads) is sometimes asked to perform — during my visit she lets loose a classic about heartbreak that garners enthusiastic applause. For Canan, Vida Alegre is a space where she can relax, share what’s going on in her life and get things off her chest. She’s made new friends, and she likes participating in the activities, including yoga and therapy.
Of course, it’s not all songs and laughs: Maintaining Vida Alegre continues to pose an economic challenge. The space runs entirely on donations and, since the initial crowdfunding campaign, those are erratic.
During an average afternoon, though, there’s a stream of visitors drawn in by the center’s unique mission. Students come looking to interview older members of the LGBTQ community about their life experiences. Passersby ask about the chalkboard on the sidewalk advertising yoga classes. Neighbors donate sweaters for the wintertime. Each person is greeted enthusiastically by about a half-dozen seniors.
Rivera tells me that most of all he appreciates the warm atmosphere here. “Despite the whole social problem,” he says, “they’re people that have a lot of hope.… Their hope is what has surprised me the most.”