Voice To Voice: Jessica Aquilar and Alyssa Puno Discuss Latina Heritage And Sexuality

Each month Athlete Ally and Huffington Post will feature a new Voice to Voice segment featuring LGBT and ally people of color leading the movement to end homophobia, biphobia, sexism and transphobia in athletics. The discussions will focus on the interplays of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and how those relationships affect LGBT inclusion and allyship in sports. Topics may include faith, family, health, body, immigration, community, stigma, visibility, economic status, violence, masculinities and femininities, language and more. Kye Allums, Ashland Johnson and Akil Patterson, all active and accomplished LGBTQ advocates, will act as lead moderators for the initiative. They will be joined by guest moderators Katheryn King and Alyssa Puno.

Jessica Aguilar, #1 ranked female straw-weight fighter in the world, spoke to emerging leader Alyssa Puno before her recent bout in Japan. In this voice-to-voice interview, issues on Mexican culture, LGBT inclusion within the MMA community and sexual orientation are discussed.

Alyssa: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us before a very important weekend. I heard that your mother is accompanying you on this trip to Japan for the rematch against Megumi Fujii, which has also been confirmed that this will be her retirement fight. How do you feel about that?

Jessica: I am thrilled that she will experience what I do -- witness my sport in such a respectful place. This fight means so much to me for so many reasons, but having my mother with me is top on the list.

Alyssa: That’s awesome; I know that your mother is one of your biggest supporters. Considering that you are a woman of Mexican descent, do you feel that there are cultural obligations that come along with that? Do you think being an athlete goes against the cultural norm for you?

Jessica: As a child my mother would not even let me play outside because she felt it was not a girl's place. She was about as old-school, traditional as they come. In Mexican culture our place as a female would to be in the house cooking, cleaning or to study for something big like a doctor or a lawyer. So I was a little different... haha.

Alyssa: Yeah, being a fighter is very different from being a doctor, for sure. My Filipino family, for example, is really close-knit like Mexican culture so I totally understand the old-school aspect and have experienced similar situations before.

Jessica: Absolutely. As a child I would sneak out after my hours of chores just to get a few moments of “play” time. My mother lost my father when I was 6 and then lost her eldest son 10 years later so she is very protective, to say the least. I did not even tell her I was a fighter until very recently.

Alyssa: Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. Knowing that about your mother really does put things into perspective though. I have two younger brothers but I would definitely say they act older because they’re so protective over me, so I know the feeling. By being a woman of color, are there any challenges you face in the gym? Do you feel that you need to work a little harder for respect or recognition?

Jessica: As a Mexican-American I don’t struggle with that. Of course, being a female has its issues, but even that area is improving for us females. The guys at the gym are all like my brothers and protect me just like yours. They make me better every day by being tough and not taking it easy on me during training. The push me to be the best and they are one of the reasons I am #1!

Alyssa: I love that, it’s great to hear that you have so much support from the guys at the gym and can consider them like a second family. In August, it was announced that Bellator MMA dropped their women’s division and let go of the female fighters within, including yourself. Do you feel that Bellator's decision to drop their women's division was an act of discrimination against women? Can you ever recall a time where you’ve experienced a moment of discrimination within the MMA community?

Jessica: I do not feel it was intentional discrimination for Bellator to drop female fighters. I believe the issue was their tournament style and lack of females in their stable. The Bellator team was great to me and I am thankful to them for the opportunity they gave me.

Alyssa: That’s understandable. Earlier this year, there was a lot of controversy after Matt Mitrione's transphobic comments towards openly transgender fighter Fallon Fox. Do you feel that the fighting community as a whole is LGBT-inclusive? Do you feel that MMA athletes still have to walk on thin ice about expressing who they are/being allies?

Jessica: I think most of the athletes in the sport are open-minded individuals; however, some of them have not been exposed to the LGBT world. It is just a lack of education on their part. In another year or two I believe it will be the norm, in my opinion, like everything else.

Alyssa: Yeah, you’re right. I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done but talking about these kinds of issues, especially in the sports spectrum, is imperative. Hopefully shining light on LGBT issues can help educate others and inform them that we do exist and being gay or being a vocal ally isn’t a “weird” thing. Since we’re on the topic of LGBT visibility, what inspires you to be open about who you are?

Jessica: My inspiration is and has always been my mother. She is the strongest individual I know and she has made things possible in all of her situations. She didn’t choose her life and yet she made it. She is my motivation, my drive, and the person that keeps me going. I have chosen what I want and how I want to live, which is a lot more freedom than what she was exposed to. We live in a different time now where we talk about sexual preference, line of work, and so on without having to worry about rules. I am definitely grateful for how strong she has made me.

Alyssa: That’s great. A lot of people can comment on your strength and agility as a fighter, but emotional strength is the foundation behind all of that. With coming out as lesbian, especially, you need to be bold and strong enough to take a stand.

Jessica: Oh, for sure. I actually did an interview in 2012 and the topic of sexual orientation was addressed and the reporter took what I said a bit out of context, but it’s okay.

Alyssa: Out of context, how so?

Jessica: The interview was transcribed in a way that announced that I was a bisexual fighter and that is not true. For the record I am not bisexual, I am 100 percent a lesbian. I am proud to be a leader for females across the globe in the LGBT world!

Alyssa: That’s amazing. I’m grateful for you clarifying that with me today. Considering that your mother is a very important player in your life, does your mother approve of the certain things you stand behind -- be it fighting or being open about your sexual preference?

Jessica: I can say this much: my mother respects and stands by whatever I decide to do. She knows that she has raised someone with respect, morals and dignity. She also knows that what I do is never to hurt anyone else.

Alyssa: Nice. What are your thoughts about standing behind something you believe in regardless of others not approving or agreeing? Does it affect the way you present yourself in the public eye?

Jessica: I think we all just need to be true to ourselves regardless of the public’s opinion. At the end of the day you have to live with yourself, just be happy and never forget to smile and believe!

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