Ever since high school, he’s been involved in volunteerism or some form of activism. Beyond that, he’s made the professional jump from the automotive to the aerospace industry and back again. It’s very clear: Mike Flores is driven. Now, at 38, his drive has led him to the position of interim president at the Affirmations LGBTQ community center. When asked about what pushes him forward he was direct: he said it stems from his family.
“I’m a first-generation American. My dad is from El Salvador and my mom is from Nicaragua, and my father had a vision of what he considered the American dream for us,” Flores said. “For him, for our family to achieve the American dream was to go to college and to enter corporate America. That’s the path that I followed.”
And that was a path that he excelled at. From an early age, Flores said that his family instilled in him a sense of awareness and gratitude for the opportunities he was being afforded as a U.S. citizen. This, he said, helped him work hard at school, do well in extracurricular activities and put down a strong foundation for a succesful career in business.
Talk to Flores today and he exudes a sense of confidence both about his background and the person he has become, but it wasn’t always that way. Growing up, everything was perfectly in place, except for one thing he couldn’t change: his sexuality.
“I tried very hard to fit in the mold that my father was trying to develop for me. I finally realized that I was gay in high school, but at that time, I did not feel comfortable telling my parents because the only gay images I had were very stereotypical gay images,” Flores said. “I was afraid that if I told my dad I was gay that he would think that I would be one of those stereotypes that I saw, and one of the stereotypes that he believed.”
Part of that fear stemmed also from not wanting to disrupt the carefully outlined future that Flores’ father had drawn out for him.
“In the Latin culture we’re very patriarchal. The father sets the tone for the family and my father set the tone and the expectations for our family,” Flores said. “I never remember having a debate with my father about any issue. He was the authority figure and we knew that he was doing what was best for the family.”
So, Flores didn’t disturb the path that was serving him well. When he was accepted into the University of Detroit Mercy, he also began to gain an understanding of what it meant to be himself, and what it meant to be in marginalized groups — for him being both Latino and gay — and it was at school that his streak of activism began to develop. He decided that in addition to his career, he was going to make a concerted effort to “pay it forward.”
“I personally have benefitted from education. I think education is one of the easiest ways for people to enter the middle class because my family has benefitted from education,” Flores said. “One of the things I work on today is, ‘How can I make sure education is accessible — when I was younger it was to Latino people — so when I was at university we volunteered in southeastern Detroit doing mentorship programs with La Comunidad, and the LGBT gay community that we started, and that had educational elements attached to it.”
Eventually, however, Flores’ family caught on to the fact that something was different about him, and in his junior year at school he was forced to answer a direct question from his father, “Are you gay?”
“I told him. I cried while I was telling him. It was very emotional because I really felt that I was about to lose my dad and my family and the support that he had provided to get me through college,” Flores said. “But, what was remarkable about that conversation was that my father said, “I’m more upset that you weren’t comfortable enough to tell me.” Of course, I started sobbing after that as well (laughs). What he was telling me was that he loved me more for who I am and who I’m going to become, versus the fact that I was gay.”
It certainly wasn’t an easy process for his family to come to terms with the fact that Flores was part of the LGBTQ community, but there was something that made it easier. Flores didn’t fit into the negatively-associated stereotypes that his father had about homosexuality. In fact, he was completely different than his father thought was possible.
“That’s what most parents fear: that their kids are not going to be OK. And that was my dad’s biggest fear. He thought I was going to be living a very stereotypical image of what he thought being gay meant,” Flores said. “This is my father, Latin American, barely speaks English at the time, and he still has that negative image of the ‘80s of what it meant to be gay during the AIDS epidemic and all that. I know that that was going through his mind.”
But when Flores did win his father over, he began to flourish not only personally, but in his career. He attributes part of his confidence in himself not only to his family but to the wise words of a mentor early on in his career.
“I had a Latino mentor and I came out to him and he gave me the best advice ever: ‘If you do a great job and you produce, no one’s going to care.’ He said, ‘Focus on what you do best, and everything else is going to fall into place.’ And, let me tell you, when he gave me that advice, it has helped me in focusing on what I can deliver, making sure that I can provide 110 percent to everything that I do — if not more — and it has worked out well for me.”
To learn more about Mike Flores and his role at Affirmations as interim president go to goaffirmations.org.