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The belt buckles on the dance floor at Tequila Rosa's shine as brightly as the mirrored ball that hangs overhead, sending fractured prisms of light onto the couples dancing to Mexican disco. Two men spin in mad concentric circles, around and around and around the floor, now and then tilting their heads to the side to kiss, bumping the brims of their colored cowboy hats.
Throughout much of the week, Tequila Rosa's is as deserted as the industrial complexes that stretch in all directions from its front door on Brighton Boulevard. But on Saturday night, it's where Denver's gay Latinos come to drink, to dance, to check each other out. Outside in the dusty parking lot, tricked-out cars and banged-up trucks are parked at erratic angles, left by owners anxious to get inside.
When he first arrives wearing a tight gray T-shirt, his blue-black hair shiny with product, Chris Medina looks like he's wandered into the wrong place. About 5'2", with a round, full face and onyx eyes, he looks small compared to the mustachioed vaqueros crowded around tables in tight, high-waisted jeans, their legs crossed to reveal pointy, fluorescent boots. And yet, as he makes his way to a back table, he stops to say hello to the doorman, the security guard and several customers, greeting them in both English and Spanish. When someone offers to buy him a drink, he orders a Coke.
"I have to remember when I'm out that I'm supposed to be a role model," he says, shaking his shoulders to the Tejano beat pounding up from the dance floor. "That's one of the hard things about my job: You never really leave it. It never really stops."
Medina is the director of El Futuro Community Center, the first program in the state dedicated to providing service and support to gay and bisexual Latino men. When the center opened in February, it vaulted Medina into a position as a leader of the Latino gay community. Like him, some of his clients are young and urban, born in the United States and more likely to hang out in hip gay clubs like Serengeti and Club Dream. Others, like many of the men at Tequila Rosa's, are immigrants and Spanish speakers, drawn across the border by promises of economic opportunity and personal freedom.
Tonight, Medina knows about a quarter of the people in the room: drag queens, cowboys, a couple of buttoned-down guys who sit at a table nursing a pitcher of draft beer. Eventually, he hopes, he'll know them all. Medina considers all Latinos to be his people, wherever they're from. And right now, his people face a very real threat of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
For Benigno Velasquez, the closet is a long, dark corridor leading all the way from Denver to Oaxaca City, Mexico, where he lived before immigrating to the United States in 1991. He's never come out to his family, not even when he was diagnosed with HIV a decade ago.
"We didn't talk about sex with our parents, our families," Benigno says. "In Mexico, people might even know something like that is going on. But it's just never spoken of. It's just not part of what families do."
Velasquez himself wasn't sure that he was gay until he crossed the border into a new world, first landing in Los Angeles. Before that, he was aware of a certain difference that set him apart from the other men in his life. They seemed aware of the difference, too. His father, a farmer, would tell him to stay home with his mother when he took Velasquez's two brothers to work the fields. His brothers teased him, called him a faggot because he liked to match his clothes and style his hair. It wasn't until he got to California that he knew what they meant.
"In Oaxaca, I never saw gay people," he says. "I didn't know what it was. But when I got to L.A., I knew some friends there who took me out to the bars. They were gay bars, dance clubs, and I saw men together. I saw that and I said, 'This is what I am.'"
Velasquez had come to America to join his friends in California, who said that the States were more fun and more free than home, with plenty of chances to make a living, if not get rich. But in 1994, Benigno moved to Denver, a city that reminded him of home: It was at a similar elevation, a broad valley bordered by mountains, and had four distinct seasons, unlike the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. He didn't know the language very well, but he got a job doing food prep for under-the-table wages at a downtown restaurant. He had no friends, no family and no papers. And six months later, he found out that he had tested positive for HIV.
"I didn't know anything about AIDS in Mexico," says Velasquez, who graduated from high school in Oaxaca City and attended college before quitting to help the family. "AIDS was never taught in our school. I didn't even know the meaning of the word. I remember someone once said a woman in a town in Oaxaca had AIDS. It was like, 'What's that? Like cancer?'"