Elia Chinó has touched thousands of lives through her nonprofit dedicated to the health and wellness of Houston’s Latino LGBTQ community.
Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, over 60 million have been infected and over 30 million have died, according to the World Health Organization.
After her best friends died from HIV/AIDS, in 1994, Chinó created Fundación Latino-Americana de Acción Social, Inc. (FLAS). “We are here to provide free services to everyone, and to embrace people with love and compassion with passion,” says Chinó, a transgender Latina. “I am proud to have saved so many lives throughout my life.”
Chinó originally founded FLAS to prevent the spread of HIV by educating the local Latino LGBTQ community about the AIDS epidemic. FLAS has provided HIV testing to over 25,000 people and informed over 500,000 Latinos about HIV and AIDS. The organization has since expanded, and now offers behavioral- health services such as mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.
Victoria Williams has worked with Chinó for over 15 years through the Ryan White HIV/ AIDS Program, an organization committed to helping Houstonians living with HIV.
“Elia and FLAS are safe harbors for those who need a space to grow themselves,” Williams says. “She has been a generous teacher to those of us who are not Latinx or transgender, and an important leader for those who are.”
FLAS’ data manager, Jorje Lopez, met Chinó in 2009 through community service and has worked with her ever since. He describes Chinó as a passionate leader committed to serving humanity. “She is a guerrera (a warrior) who has broken several barriers in the community involving homophobia and transphobia.”
Chinó has been honored for her advocacy and for educating thousands about preventable diseases, mental illness, and more.
In 2016, she was recognized by OutSmart magazine as one of Houston’s top LGBTQ Hispanic leaders. In 2021, she was honored by Comcast with their Hispanic Hero award for playing a vital and positive role in her community.
Her journey to success has been rife with hardship. Born in 1962 in the small Mexican village of Agua Blanca, she didn’t have time to play with toys because she was too busy helping her parents and eight siblings. When her father had to take her mother to see a doctor, or while her parents worked, the 4-year-old Chinó took care of her 6-month-old sister and 18-month-old brother. She cooked, cleaned, and had to walk to a river to wash her family’s clothes.
Still, she made time to go to school in La Huacana, the next town over. She remembers waking up at 4:00 in the morning to walk to school. Sometimes she carried her mother’s handmade tortillas filled with beans to eat for lunch, and sometimes she went to school hungry.
Growing up in a Christian household and a predominantly Catholic country, she was told that gay people would be burned and fried in oil when they died. She was targeted for being feminine and suffered from extreme bullying. She also recalls being robbed and sexually assaulted on her way home from school.
“For me, it was normal how I was looking, acting, and walking, but for other people, it was not normal. That’s why they always called me faggot, bitch, or gay.”
When she finished her elementary and middle school in La Huacana, her parents told her they could not afford to support her further. Chinó cried for two months, which led the heartbroken parents to change their minds and sacrifice what little they had to pay for her high school education.
At age 14, Chinó moved to Uruapan, the second-largest city in the state of Michoacán, to continue her educational journey in high school. She faced many hurdles. The aunt she had moved in with kicked her out because of her gender identity and sexuality. Homeless, she headed to Mexico City to work and continue her education, but found no respite.
She remembers waking up before dawn to go to school, and then taking several buses to her evening job. She worked until 1:30 in the morning for two years before dropping out of high school.
While Chinó’s life was difficult, it wasn’t without levity. During this difficult period, she met her best friend, Gustavo De La Vega, a nearly 50-year-old gay man who provided her with food, housing, transportation, and entertainment. He even took her to her first gay bar.
When she decided to move to the US for a better life, her brother connected her to a family she could live with and a mentor who would help her navigate life in the United States. Her brother asked Ed Wells, a member of the Church of Christ, to watch over her, and he helped Chinó find her first and second jobs. He also connected her to a school that taught her English and taught her how to drive.
“He taught me the culture. He taught me everything in this country,” she says. “He really was my father in this country.”
But life in America for Chinó wasn’t any easier. She missed her family, and her country, and had to juggle three jobs. She didn’t have a car, so she’d have to wake up at 1 a.m. and walk in the middle of the night, even when it was raining, to get to work.
The manager at a restaurant she bussed tables at recognized her hard work and promoted her to wait on customers. She was finally able to pay for a one-bedroom apartment and the bills that came with it, and even send money back home.
And then she was fired.
She later learned that her former manager fired her because at one point she lived with someone who was diagnosed with HIV.
Then in 1989, her best friend in Mexico died due to complications from AIDS.
“He was more like my brother. He taught me the flavor of life,” she says with tears in her eyes. Four years later, Wells also died due to AIDS complications. “He was like an angel to me. It really hurt so bad when he died.” Accurate information about HIV/AIDS was limited at the time, especially among the Latino community, which faced language barriers. Chinó wanted to educate the Latino and LGBTQ communities and fight misinformation—especially the idea that AIDS affects only the LGBTQ community.
“I was hungry to help the community,” she emphasizes. And since other organizations were providing information that was not in Spanish and seemed to alienate the Latino community, she decided to form FLAS.
Chinó also volunteered at AIDS Foundation Houston to learn more about the disease. She remembers walking into a hospital and seeing three floors of beds full of people dying from AIDS complications. She would help patients when they were too sick to feed themselves and walk them to the bathroom when they were too weak to stand. She prayed and read the Bible with them, and often held them in her arms as they took their last breath.
She continued volunteering with AIDS Foundation Houston while building a rapport with the Houston Health Department and Texas Southern University. Both institutions provided her with condoms and pamphlets about HIV/AIDS to hand out. She stayed out all night offering information about HIV and AIDS to people at several local nightclubs, bars, and cantinas.
“I wanted people to receive the information because I didn’t want to see any more people dying,” she says.
After years of hard work, she was able to open an office for FLAS and help people in the Latino LGBTQ community.
However, her struggles didn’t end there. In 1995, she lost her apartment and car because she was dedicating all her time and resources to establishing FLAS. She was homeless for nearly eight years, but never gave up.
In 2017, she was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries to remove her gallbladder and repair her hernia. She is currently in remission.
“I wasn’t scared to die. I was scared to leave my community behind without the services and empathy and quality [care they deserved],” she says.
“Our community is treated badly by health providers because we are different—because we are trans, gay, lesbian, or whoever we are. But in the end, we all are human beings, and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
While Chino continues to experience a great deal of turmoil—her mother passed away last April—she says she now lives in peace.
She was recently recognized by Televisa Univision for serving the local Latino community, and she will receive an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Veracruzana.
“I just ask God to continue giving me life [so I can] continue giving hope and life to people who are really underserved and marginalized by society,” she says.
She encourages people to give back to their community by either volunteering or donating to organizations such as FLAS whenever possible. “Nothing is impossible when you have love in your heart to help somebody.”
For more information, visit flasinc.org.