Queens Corner to be Renamed for Community Activist
JACKSON HEIGHTS — A street corner will be renamed this weekend for an activist and civic leader who died nearly 20 years ago, but is still remembered for the work he did for immigrants in the community.
The corner of 77th Street and Broadway in Jackson Heights will be named Guillermo Vasquez Corner on Saturday, after a ceremony is held at the Elmhurst Hospital Auditorium.
Vasquez was born in Colombia and moved to New York in 1972, settling in Jackson Heights. He died in 1996 due to complications from AIDS.
During his years in the neighborhood, he started various Latino and arts groups, and helped new immigrants, especially those from his native country, settle in Queens, according to friends.
"Guillermo was involved in everything," said Councilman Daniel Dromm, who was good friends with Vasquez. They were both instrumental in organizing the Queens Pride Parade, the first pride parade in the borough.
In 1993, the first year of the parade, the organizers and supporters told the New York Times the march was a milestone for their community, especially in a borough that the paper called "conservative."
Vasquez, then part of the group Queens Lesbian and Gays United, said that it was "important to send a message to politicians" that there were many gay community members in Queens.
"Queens is coming out of the closet," he said at the time.
Dromm said Vasquez worked as a translator at the parade, making sure Spanish-speakers could also be involved in the neighborhood's gay rights initiatives.
The parade is now one of the largest pride celebrations in the state, and Jackson Heights has continued to grow as one of the most diverse places in the country.
In addition to his work with the parade, Vasquez was a founding member and president of the Queens Hispanic Coalition, founder and vice president of the U.S. Colombian SIDA/AIDS Foundation, a member of the Empire State Pride Agenda, and a member of the Queens Lesbian and Gays United, according to a biography released by the councilman's office.
Dromm said Vasquez was "a fierce soldier in the battle against HIV/AIDS and a bridge between Latino activists and other movements for social justice."
The idea to rename the corner came from Nayibe Nunez-Berger, a close friend of Vasquez's and president of the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens.
Nunez-Berger described Vasquez as enthusiastic, energetic, and very charismatic.
They spent many nights canvassing the community, raising funds for community events, she said.
"He said, we make the perfect team because I'm small and quiet and he was tall and outspoken," she said.
Nunez-Berger said she chose the corner because it was the site of a former gay bar where she and Vasquez, who worked for the Gay Men's Health Crisis, spent many nights educating the community.
"That was the place that I remembered spending time with Guillermo most, doing the work that we had to do for the community," she said.
The approval process for renaming the street took about a year, and was signed into legislation last year, according to Dromm.
They waited to hold the ceremony so it could be around the time of the Colombian Independence Day, which was celebrated on July 20th.
Years after his death, Nunez-Berger says she still feels Vasquez's influence in the community, and hopes it inspires others to get involved. She also hopes it helps to honor a group of people she feels is overlooked.
"I think the Hispanic community doesn't get enough recognition, and having this street name in his honor is going to be important for us," she said.