The number 41 once terrorized out Mexican-American Alberto Mendoza.
The number known throughout Mexico as a homophobic slur was a nickname given to him by bullies at his predominantly Latino high school in San Diego some 30 years ago, according to Mendoza. They taunted him with the number, even when Mendoza — then-student body vice president — stood up to give a speech during a student assembly.
“41, 41, 41!” the bullies chanted repeatedly from the back of the room as a mortified Mendoza plowed through his speech.
“I remember just feeling like I wanted to die,” Mendoza told NBC Out.
He said the number continued to haunt him into adulthood.
“It just kind of kept coming at me in numbers,” Mendoza said. “The time would be 41, and the change would be 41 cents. It seemed like every credit card or every ATM card had the 41 digits.”
Mendoza grew especially anxious about turning 41.
“In my mind, I assumed that in Mexico if you’re 41 and not married, it meant you were gay and that’s where that came from,” Mendoza explained.
That was what Mendoza believed until he mentioned it to a friend during dinner at his Los Angeles home one night. The friend, an LGBTQ activist and expert in Mexican history, gave him a different explanation. In 1901, Mexico City police raided a clandestine party and arrested 42 men, half of whom were dressed as women and assumed to be homosexual, his friend said. According to rumors, police released one of the men who was a relative of the Mexican president, reducing the number to 41, he explained to Mendoza.
The history lesson helped relieve Mendoza’s anxiety.
“I remember in my living room literally feeling like this warm feeling was coming over me as he was telling me this and I think it was really that sense that I wasn’t alone,” Mendoza said.
After he turned 41, Mendoza decided to reclaim the number as a voice for LGBTQ Latinos.
“What I knew was missing for me and what I knew was missing for a lot of [LGBTQ Latinos] was the visibility of positive role models,” Mendoza said.
He said LGBTQ Latinos face a double dilemma: not only is the community often erased from mainstream Latino media, it also gets little attention from mainstream LGBTQ media. To create visibility, Mendoza started an online storytelling platform for the LGBTQ Latino community in 2013, which he named Honor41.
The website features 41 first-person narratives from LGBTQ Latinos of different ages, nationalities and walks of life each year. The videos are helping those in the community realize they are not alone, according to Mendoza, who shoots and edits the interviews on his own.
“I think coming out is still a big challenge,” he said. “I still have friends who are very successful and are doing amazing things with their lives, and they still don’t have that dialogue with their parents or their family.”
Mendoza said Latinos are typically very involved in their families’ lives, and for those who aren’t out, having to constantly hide their sexuality is exhausting.
“I’ve seen friends who have abused alcohol and drugs that have led to them getting infected with HIV, and now there’s this double closet where they can’t talk to their family about being gay or being HIV positive,” he said.
Mendoza struggled with coming out to his own family. He was 19 when he gathered the courage to tell his proud Mexican father he was gay.
“He literally looked in my eyes, shook my hand and said ‘OK,’” Mendoza recalled.
“A lot of us do assume the worst, but our parents do eventually come around,” he said.
Mendoza, now 45, is no longer preoccupied with numbers. He said his day job as the executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists keeps him busy, but Honor41 keeps him busier, though it doesn’t feel like work to him. He called it “a healing project” for himself and “so many others.”
“I think one thing that surprised me that I never even thought about [was] that parents, family members [and] teachers are watching the videos and are leaving comments about the fact that their kid is going to be OK, or they didn’t know, or they understand their nephew better, or they sometimes directly reach out and say, ‘Hey, I need to get HIV tested, do you know where I can go?’” he said.
The people Mendoza has helped have given him a reason to love the number 41.
“Every time before, when I would see 41 I would just cringe,” he said. “And now it just makes me smile.”
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community