If life is a tapestry of experience, the threads of Juan M. Calderon’s existence are inextricably woven with Humboldt Park — and by extension, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC). 

Calderon, born to a Puerto Rican father and a Mexican mother, also identifies as trans and uses his platform to advocate for the broader LGBTQ+ community alongside his dedicated work in the Latino community and in Humboldt Park in particular. 

As a child, Calderon attended Humboldt Park’s Consuelo Lee Corretjer Day Care Center, named after the Puerto Rican poet, pianist, and educator. And he was first introduced to PRCC at the age of 2, when he first met the Center’s long-time executive director, Jose Lopez. He later began working full-time at the Center as a director for Vida/SIDA, an HIV prevention and intervention program. Today, Calderon is the Center’s chief operating officer – a role he took on at age 26.

Calderon, now 37, is also a member of the Illinois Commission on Poverty Elimination and Economic Security, to which he was appointed in 2020, and he previously served on the Chicago Board of Health, Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund and Chicago Board of Ethics as an appointee of former mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

On any given afternoon, Calderon is holding meetings, fielding phone calls, and preparing to travel to Springfield or Washington Dc. When asked about his go-to activities outside work, Calderon said volunteering in municipal elections. After continued questioning, he mentioned working out and reading the news.

“In my downtime, I do hang out with friends every once in a while,” Calderon says. “I do a lot of that in Springfield, when I go and work as a lobbyist.”

Work-life balance is a fallacy for him. And he’s perfectly fine with that.

“A lot of my time is primarily work,” he says, “and the promotion of Puerto Rican culture. I find joy in that. I find joy in everything I do.”

“A lot of my time is primarily work and the promotion of Puerto Rican culture. I find joy in that. I find joy in everything I do.”

Juan M. Calderon

Chief Operating Officer, The Puerto Rican Cultural Center

Creating Space for Marginalized Communities

If Calderon knows what it means to build a home — in Humboldt Park, at the PRCC — he understands what it feels like to lose one, too. Growing up, Calderon, who identified as a gay man as a teenager, faced resistance from his family.

“We had an issue of homophobia in my household,” Calderon says before softening his language. “I shouldn’t say homophobia, because that’s strong. But my father didn’t accept my lived experience at that point.”

Around age 21, he faced a harsher form of resistance: Calderon was no longer welcome in his parents’ house. He dealt with homelessness.

“I experienced some form of displacement from my own home because my parents did not understand. They’ve evolved as individuals over time; they now have a better, comprehensive view and understand things differently for the following generation. But among their kids, we had that challenge,” says Calderon, who has a twin brother.

Calderon’s experiences colored his work. Long involved in the ball scene — a centuries-old culture of drag pageantry, vogue battles, fashion, and dance among predominantly Black and Latinx queer people — Calderon established a pageant in 2007 for transgender members of the Latinx community to feel seen and celebrated. Local filmmakers created a documentary about the event, entitled “I Am the Queen,” which follows three trans women preparing for the PRCC’s  Cacica Pageant. 

The pageant winner served as a PRCC ambassador, promoting public health initiatives, educational programs, and other services. The winner, in all her splendor, also participated in Chicago’s annual Puerto Rican People’s Day Parade. The inaugural pageant raised about $20,000.

“For me, it was very, very important to address the issues of homophobia and transphobia in this community,” says Calderon.

He also helped the PRCC create El Rescate, which translates to “The Rescue,” a homeless shelter for Latino LGBTQ+ or HIV-positive young people ages 14 to 24. Founded in 2012, the transitional living program provides housing alongside counseling and culturally relevant workshops. It is the only housing program of its kind in the Midwest. 

“I became very active in a lot of our LGBTQ+ spaces, and I began to see the inequities that we were experiencing as people of color,” Calderon says, pointing out the prejudice, violence, substance abuse, housing instability, and other issues that Black and brown people, particularly those who are LGBTQ+, encounter. “So then I got angry.” 

And he got back to work. 

Calderon dived deeper into public health, helping the PRCC secure grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Department of Justice, Health and Human Services Family and Youth Service Bureau to reduce HIV/Sexually Transmitted infection, substance abuse prevention and counseling, residential housing, in the community and expand services. He began graduate studies, working toward earning his master’s degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

After the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, Calderon visited the island nation to work with and learn from TransCuba, a national network of trans individuals committed to HIV prevention and trans awareness. Calderon also led a delegation from Chicago and New York to Cuba in partnership with CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, directed by Mariela Castro, daughter of former Cuban president Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro. 

In the fall of 2020, Calderon helped launch the PRCC’s Lisa Isadora Cruz Trans Empowerment Center. Serving Puerto Rican/Latinx and Black transgender and gender-nonconforming teens and adults, as well as men who have sex with men and with transgender women, the center offers culturally affirming wraparound services that promote an enhanced quality of life. 

Don’t be mistaken — while the LGBTQ+ community is dear to Calderon, it’s not the only population he strives to elevate. He fights for the well-being of all Humboldt Park residents. As the PRCC’s chief operating officer, Calderon supports initiatives like the Illinois Small Business Development Center housed at PRCC and the ¡WEPA! Mercado del Pueblo, an incubator that helps local entrepreneurs sell their products and grow their businesses.

Calderon also partners with Community Desk Chicago; the PRCC is part of The Desk’s Neighborhood Developers Initiative, a $2.7 million investment that assists community-based organizations in taking on local real estate projects.

Of all the developments that get funded in Chicago, Calderon notes, few are for people of color. “My question when I talk to people that are in office right now, in city government, is, who are you creating developments for?”

That question is personal, too, as Calderon and his husband, Yaimanis Cuza Navarro, are expecting a baby girl in November 2023.

“My great-grandmother died near the Cubs field,” Calderon says. “We’ve been getting pushed farther and farther to the west, to areas that are not completely developed, that need more urban planning and direct financial investments. A lot of my time is focused on community building, finding ways to create generational wealth, finding ways to invest in Humboldt Park.”

Lifelong Commitment to the Work

As a kid, Calderon never forgot his ancestral roots. He frequently visited his mother’s family in Guerrero, Mexico, and his father’s in Luquillo, Puerto Rico. But the most foundational location in his maturation was, perhaps, on West Division Street in Chicago — Paseo Boricua — the site of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Discussing the day in 2007 when he began work at the PRCC, Calderon said, “January 16th is my birthday. I mean, January 16th was the day I started.” 

A Freudian slip scratching at a deeper truth. The PRCC shaped him, as he shaped it.

Flipping through the pages of a booklet commemorating the 50th anniversary of the organization, which the PRCC celebrated in 2022, Calderon said, “These are the services that we currently offer. This is the work. This is my story to tell.”