When someone is described in their bio as “a queer femme cha-cha girl, artist, trainer, political organizer, strategist and trouble-maker-at-large,” you know that there is a lot to unpack there.
And sure enough, there's lots of depth to Paulina Helm-Hernandez, but she's most well known in her role as co-director of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), the queer liberation organization that brings together LGBTQ people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural people across the region.
Helm-Hernandez was born in Veracruz, Mexico, and at age 12 made the move with her family to rural North Carolina. It was around the time that the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, leading to a surge in migration into the U.S. of people from Mexico, Latin America and other parts of the world. An anti-immigrant sentiment began to form around her just as she was learning more English, becoming politicized, and getting angry. And this was before she even knew she was queer.
She became a community organizer like her mother, landing a job at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, but the lack of diversity in the area pointed her to Atlanta. She now lives in East Atlanta Village with her partner, Ashe Helm-Hernandez, an activist in their own right working to eliminate poverty and genocide with Project South.
So Paulina, what was it like growing up in Veracruz? I have a huge family. So many of my younger cousins and uncles were already coming across the border to the U.S. to work so that was part of my childhood, kind of knowing that people had to leave home. So I wouldn't see them but once or twice a year when they came home. That was an ongoing part of my childhood kind of thinking about migration and stuff like that.
How old were you when you made your way to the States? I was 12. My parents owned a small business in Mexico and my father was the first generation to go to college. Most of our people on both sides of the families were folks that worked the land. So it was around the time that the North American Free Trade Agreement had come to pass [in 1994] and their small business just collapsed. As a kid I didn't really understand what was happening. Him and my mother just made the decision for us to live together as a family in rural North Carolina, in Johnston County.
What was that adjustment like going from Mexico to rural North Carolina? Oh man, such a hard adjustment! One, you don't know nothing about the U.S. except what you see on TV and the movies. So you think everybody's rich, for one thing. Then you're like, what? There's poor people in the U.S? That was a shocking thing to me that there was poverty in the U.S.
I just remember there not being a lot of Latinos, definitely not a lot of Mexicans in my middle school. But then by the time I graduated high school there were a lot more immigrant folks, a lot more Latinos. I just grew up in the cliques of black and white kids and I was learning English and becoming very politicized around class because of all the stuff that my parents were struggling through. There was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment that was starting to rise up in response to the upsurge in migration from Mexico, Latin America and other parts of the world. There was a lot of antagonism against the community, a lot of local robberies, these rash of attacks and break-ins.
Then when I was a teenager I got really involved with Student Action with Farmworkers which were working primarily with the children of other farmworkers, encouraging them to stay in school and finish high school and college. I do remember being like really angry, learning English at the same time that I was falling in love with Tupac Shakur and hip hop and being like oh, there's this narrative that black folks had around race in the U.S. that felt so true to what I was seeing play out with immigrant people. And this was before I even knew I was queer [laughs].
So how did you make it to Atlanta? I was living and working in Tennessee at the Highland Research & Education Center. They used to gather Latino immigrant leaders throughout the Southeast to support each other around community centers or bilingual education programs. I started going there when I was a teenager with my mother because she was a community organizer too. They invited me back to be an intern and then I came on full time as their youth organizing program director.
I love East Tennessee, and I still do, but it's mostly a white Appalachian region that just felt really hard in some way personally. I felt like I was growing politically but that's when I was coming out and it's a very closeted community and the [number of] people of color that were out in the community was even less. My partner and I at the time just made a decision that we needed to be around more people of color that were out and for family and safety and isolation and a variety of different things. I really love Atlanta. Georgia’s hard [laughs], and the South in general.
When did you start at SONG? 10 years ago, when I left Highlander and I began to do contract work with SONG. The organization was fairly small and we didn't have a lot of money. Mandy Carter had been our director at the time and she wanted to play a different role. I was 23 at the time and had nothing but energy [laughs].
So they contracted me and others to do a listening campaign with other Southern LGBTQ folks who were involved in racial justice or economic justice work or community work. The question was, should SONG even exist anymore? Is there a role for SONG to play?
Around the time part of what fueled that was Hurricane Katrina had just happened. It was such a crisis and a lot of us didn't know if our people were okay that we had been working with. We couldn't reach people for days and days and days. So there was a whole question of, oh my God, when a real crisis happens the nonprofit infrastructure is not good enough if we don't personally know each other and have each other's cell phone numbers and don't know how to show up outside of what the government is or isn't willing to do.
What are the biggest obstacles in dealing with the issues that SONG addresses? I feel like one of our biggest obstacles is definitely structural oppression, but also cynicism.
Like an attitude that these things cannot be solved? I think so. We sometimes struggle with our lack of imagination over what else is possible. That to me has a lot to do with people getting beat down, or the law will only protect you to a certain point, or you actually don't have any rights, or you think you have rights but you actually don't. All of these people are struggling to reclaim their humanity in some ways for ourselves and for each other.
It's a generational fight and we're facing a different beast right now. We're part of a long legacy that we can draw from and glean lessons from, and this moment we're facing right now around police brutality and state-sanctioned violence, around gender and violence, this is a different political moment.
There's some old school South stuff, there's definitely the neo-Confederacy stuff that's playing out post-Ferguson and in reaction to the Charleston shooting. I don't know about you but I'm seeing people fly their little Confederate flags all over Atlanta in a way that I have not seen since I have lived here. We're not living in a vacuum, we're living in a region where that shit has not been resolved and we have a lot of work to do to build the multiracial alliances that will really transform the South. And it's good that we react to crisis but sometimes the daily crisis can take over a long term vision for what else is possible.
We actually have some political room right now for our communities to say, “This is what we think safety looks like. It doesn't look like 20,000 cops in my backyard.” That's one of the things that I love about living in Atlanta is that we get to have those kinds of conversations.
You're an artist too? What medium? I love to paint, I love to write, both political writing and poetry and some creative writing. I've been really struggling to figure out how to bring that back into my work. It's been really awesome to work with all of these artists and culture makers. It's been a little while. I have it in me, I came out of culture change work and knowing how important it is. There are some ways that we can talk about what we want all day long, but then you have people pull from their soul, their artistry, their third eye. It just opens up something else that's really important politically.
So what do you do for fun when you're not out saving the world? [laughs] Me and my honey spend a lot of time together. We both do the work together but also have some shared dorky interests, so whenever we can we do that as much as we can and try to go to things that feed our artistry. I try to spend as much time as I can with the little ones. I have a beautiful godbaby here in Atlanta and I have my nieces and nephews in Memphis and Kentucky and all over the region.
What else? Man … I love to talk shit [laughs]. I used to party a lot in my 20s and now I’m tired, now I’m all about the low-key shit-talking hangout. It just gives me life [laughs].