Ivan Davila was only 15 when his family moved to Houston from Monterrey, Mexico, but the experiences and struggles that shaped their adjustment to a new culture drive him every day in the work he does now.
Davila, communications coordinator for El Buen Samaritano, is passionate about his work. El Buen Samaritano’s mission is to provide working-poor Hispanic families with the tools to lead healthy, productive lives. And the organization has a big toolkit, from food assistance and medical services to education programs and wellness programs. It started in 1987 from a home in South Austin with a free hot lunch program, and today it has grown beyond its soup kitchen roots to provide psychological, nutritional, medical and educational resources to low-income families.
“We hear people say they love what they do. I think in my case, I’m actually in love with what we do,” Davila said with a smile. “I’m doing what I love, in a place that fulfills a mission that I’m passionate about.”
Davila remembered how hard it was for his parents and older siblings to integrate their lives into a new culture when they moved to the United States. His face lights up when he describes how El Buen Samaritano’s services impact entire families. It’s not uncommon for parents to come to the organization’s south Austin campus for a computer class while their children are busy with children’s camp. That range of services allows the organization to reach more people.
Davila recalls a family he’s gotten to know in his three years at the nonprofit. The whole family wanted to change their exercise and nutrition habits and started participating in classes and activities. Two years later, he’s seen not only the physical changes in the parents and their children, but watched one of the sons transform from a secluded child to one who’s comfortable playing and laughing with other kids.
Ask Davila what the most important aspect of his work is, and he doesn’t hesitate: it’s the ability he’s been given through his job to simply help people who need it.
“I saw how my family struggled to integrate into a culture,” Davila said. “I’m the youngest of four, and at age 15 I found it easier than my siblings to integrate and learn the language. But I still saw how much they struggled.”
Davila said that challenge drew him after his graduation from the University of Houston to an internship in Washington, D.C. with the Sallie Mae Fund, and once he’d decided to move back to Texas, to El Buen Samaritano.
Davila knew he wanted to come back to Texas after his time in Washington, D.C. But moving to Austin had a particular impact on him personally and professionally–professionally because he found the job he loves at El Buen Samaritano, and personally because Austin’s more liberal environment helped him come out to himself.
Growing up in a culture that doesn’t always embrace gay rights brought Davila a particular set of challenges, he said, alluding to how easy it can be to find oneself saddled with the label “sissy” for something as simple as not liking football (soccer on this side of the border). He hesitates while searching for the right description, not wanting to sound self-pitying, finally settling on a brief synopsis of his experience.
“There are a variety of different stories when you talk to gay people in general [about coming out],” Davila said. “Some were ok with their sexuality at age 14, and that’s great, it’s awesome. I sort of envy them. I still want people to know that even in this day and age, there are cultures that still aren’t as accepting of homosexuality. There are actual people, like me at age 24, still coming out to myself.”
Let alone coming out to his family, which Davila said he’s doing slowly in order to make sure his own emotional needs are met while also respecting their needs. At work, Davila said he’s partially out but feels very supported in the day-to-day environment there. And the city itself has supported him, he said.
Davila said he would stay here all his life–but then again, he adds with a grin, he may not. One thing he’s sure about: helping people in need and communications will certainly continue to play a role in his life. Perhaps in 10 or 15 years he’ll have his own public relations firm that works with nonprofit clients, he mused. Marriage and children will also hopefully be part of the picture in his future, Davila said.
“I don’t know if I could have come out to myself if I hadn’t come to Austin,” Davila said. He adds that he’s been impressed by the level of care the city’s LGBT community has, not only for LGBT issues, but for the community at large.
“I would like it to continue to be on the route it’s been going,” Davila said of Austin. “Which is an integrated and diverse, and also inclusive, community. I’d want to make sure it keeps heading that way.”