Alumnae/i Feature

Wilfred Labiosa ’20PhD Continues the Simmons Tradition of Social Work in Puerto Rico

Wilfred Labiosa ’20PhD

“There are individuals from Simmons all around the world doing the work we need to make sure these voices are heard. We’re continuing the legacy of Simmons here [in Puerto Rico].”

When Wilfred Labiosa ’20PhD returned to Puerto Rico to care for his ailing parents, he recognized a need for services for older adults with medical and mental health issues.

“What is going to happen to me when I grow older?” Labiosa wondered, noting the dearth of services for elderly people in Puerto Rico, and especially the LGBTQ+ population. Labiosa had worked with the elder LGBTQ+ population in Boston and Cambridge, in addition to homeless older adults and people in recovery. “There were services available for these communities in Boston and Cambridge. There was nothing in Puerto Rico.”

In 2017, Labiosa opened the first Waves Ahead community center in San Juan. The nonprofit is dedicated to working with marginalized and vulnerable people in Puerto Rico — most notably, LGBTQ+ elders — by providing support in needed areas, from housing and food insecurity to discrimination and lack of access to mental health resources. “The island is only 100 by 35 miles, but there is no direct route [to San Juan], and the roads are windy. Many older adults could not make it to San Juan on the North Coast. I knew we needed to develop [resources] across the island.”

Since then, Waves Ahead has opened five community centers in municipalities across Puerto Rico, providing mental health services, yoga, meditation, nutrition counseling, mindfulness, acupuncture, and physical therapy on the premises. The staff has grown from three (including Labiosa) to 20 across the different sites. “We work with older adults and LGBTQ+ adults who want to open businesses,” says Labiosa. “We provide leadership opportunities and analyze issues impacting us as a community.” Waves Ahead will be opening living quarters for older LGBTQ+ adults and the first shelter in Puerto Rico focused on members of the LGBTQ+ community experiencing homelessness.

“If you impact someone’s life on a daily basis, you’ve done your job.” 

“There is so much institutional homophobia and sexism in Puerto Rico, so any impact that [Waves Ahead] can have is [vital],” says Labiosa. He notes that Puerto Rico has the highest rate of homicides against the LGBTQ+ community than any other state of the continental United States. Homophobia, sexism, and ageism are ongoing issues. “We need to shine light on these individuals who have survived so much,” says Labiosa. “They are heroes.”

In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian crisis. “The hurricanes brought a spotlight onto Puerto Rico and all the circumstances we were facing, including economic unrest,” says Labiosa, who received seed money and capital funds from people in the continental U.S. and around the globe. Having studied and worked in Boston — including for prominent local LGBTQ+ organizations — became a boon for his efforts in Puerto Rico. “A lot of my friends in Boston were the ones who stepped up. They were among my greatest supporters.”

Beyond Boston, Labiosa has received support from Puerto Ricans across the globe, especially those who identify or ally with the LGBTQ+ community. “A Puerto Rican guy who leads a motorcycle club for straight and gay people in Washington D.C. did outreach for us, after seeing an article about my work in the Washington Blade,” says Labiosa. “He started sending us money. This week he’s visiting Puerto Rico to meet with me and spread his mother’s ashes. He hasn’t been back in a very long time. It is important to me to meet with him and talk to him. People like that encourage my work.”

Labiosa reflects on how Simmons prepared him for his current work. “Simmons taught me how to research,” says Labiosa. “I love statistics! Simmons gave me a wide array of theories and ways of thinking and helped me find the theories that are most in tune with my work.” As a doctoral student at Simmons, Labiosa was able to take classes that enhanced the Social Work curriculum, including nursing and sociology.

Further, Labiosa’s research at Simmons led to his first significant publication. His dissertation, The LGBT Cuban Revolution, was published by Deletrea in 2023, and is available in both English and Spanish. “I feel very proud of that book,” says Labiosa. “It is the first book written about the community who stayed in Cuba. Other books focus on the people who migrated, but this is focused on those who stayed and died in Cuba.” Labiosa was encouraged by his professors to interview people in all provinces of Cuba in the course of his research to represent the diversity of all races and backgrounds of Cuba. In the 1960s, a lot of LGBTQ+ people were sent to labor camps as an alternative to joining the armed forces.

“When I go back to Cuba, people give me memories of things that people survived in those dark times.” Labiosa has plans to return in April, to receive a gift from one of the men he interviewed, after his death. “He told his sister to give me the only dress he wore as a drag queen — before he was arrested for performing — and his journals. I’m going to meet with her, and that’s all because of Simmons.”

Labiosa notes that there is a sisterhood and brotherhood in Latinx culture, and hopes that this camaraderie will extend to the LGBTQ+ community. “That’s how it should be with the new generation. Not forgetting any of the people in our community, not leaving them behind,” says Labiosa. “There are individuals from Simmons all around the world doing the work we need to make sure these voices are heard. We’re continuing the legacy of Simmons here [in Puerto Rico],” noting that Simmons was the nation's first institute of higher learning to offer training for clinical social workers. “We’re continuing the principles of how Simmons began.”

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Alisa M. Libby