Born near Cali, Colombia, Guillermo Vasquez (1953-1996) immigrated to the United States in 1972 to study international law and political science at Pace and Columbia universities. A long-time resident of Jackson Heights, Queens, Vasquez was a leading advocate for the borough’s Latino community and helped new immigrants, particularly those from Colombia, acclimate to life in New York City. He was a founding member and president of the Queens Hispanic Coalition, a founding member of the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens, and a member of the Colombian American National Coalition.
Vasquez was also instrumental in pushing for LGBT visibility in Queens and raising awareness, especially among Latinos, about the AIDS epidemic. City Council Member Daniel Dromm recalled that Vasquez was “a fierce soldier in the battle against HIV/AIDS and a bridge between Latino activists and other movements for social justice.” Vasquez was a member of Queens Gays and Lesbians United (Q-GLU), worked with the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (now the Anti-Violence Project), and served on the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a statewide organization that advocated for LGBT rights. In 1993, as a member of the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, he helped organize the first Queens Pride Parade and served as a translator for Spanish-speaking participants.
“It is important to send a message to politicians that there are large numbers of us in Queens. Queens is coming out of the closet.”
During the early years of the AIDS crisis, the New York City Department of Health cited Jackson Heights as the neighborhood with the greatest concentration of at-risk gay Latinos. In order to spread awareness to this community, Vasquez founded the Latino Commission on AIDS and the U.S. Colombian SIDA/AIDS Foundation. He was also the coordinator of community outreach for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and spent many evenings educating people about HIV/AIDS, most often at a gay Latino bar called the Love Boat at the corner of 77th Street and Broadway in Elmhurst. In 2013, seventeen years after Vasquez’s death from AIDS-related complications, Nayibe Nunez-Berger, a fellow Latino community activist, chose this location for the Guillermo Vasquez Corner street sign because of its proximity to the bar where she and Vasquez engaged with the community. On July 27, a week after Colombian Independence Day, the street sign was unveiled by Nunez-Berger, president of the Latin American Cultural Center of Queens, and City Council Member Dromm, both co-sponsors, as well as Elsa Gladys Cifuentes Aranzazu, Consul General of Colombia in New York; State Senator José Peralta; and others.
Vasquez was also remembered soon after his 1996 death with a memorial mass at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Church in Flushing, Queens, and a memorial ceremony at Queens Borough Hall. In Pereira, Colombia, an AIDS hospice recreation room that he had funded was named in his memory by the nun who took care of him during the last three months of his life. In 2002, the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens was founded to engage and serve the borough’s diverse LGBT community.