A Grim Prognosis

HIV infection is soaring in the Latino population. Can El Futuro slow it down?

Velasquez is one of more than a thousand Latinos living with HIV infection and AIDS in Colorado. For Latinos -- an often-splintered amalgamation of Mexican-born immigrants, U.S.-born Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Latin Americans, monolingual Spanish speakers, illegals, immigrants and naturalized citizens -- overall rates of HIV infection have risen over the past few years to higher than the national average. The state's Spanish-speaking population has more than quadrupled since 1990, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic has swelled with it.

"When I found out, I was first in shock, then I was scared," Velasquez says. "I thought about moving back to L.A., where my friends were. But then I said, 'No, I'll stay. I'm a hard, tough person. I'll wait here and see what happens.'

"I went to some support groups through the Colorado AIDS Project, but I didn't like them," he continues. "I didn't feel like I fit. I would sit in the corner and just watch and listen. It wasn't because it was white people, but I wanted to be around people like me who'd been through this. I wanted to find them."

El Futuro was first imagined by Latino HIV activist 
Lorenzo Ramirez.
Anthony Camera
El Futuro was first imagined by Latino HIV activist Lorenzo Ramirez.
Talk to me: Counselor Ricardo Bañuelos holds the 
floor during a Spanish-language support group for gay 
and bisexual Latino males.
Anthony Camera
Talk to me: Counselor Ricardo Bañuelos holds the floor during a Spanish-language support group for gay and bisexual Latino males.

Twice a month for the past ten years, Velasquez has attended Grupa Palanca, a support group for Latino men effected by HIV/AIDS. Currently, all ten of the group's members are living with the disease. When the group first formed in 1994, it was loose and mobile; meetings would be held in people's houses and apartments, at art studios and restaurants in northwest Denver. But since the El Futuro Community Center opened in a ground-level brick building in Denver's Golden Triangle neighborhood, Grupa Palanca has had a comfortable, safe and, for now, permanent home.

"The point of El Futuro was that it was not going to be like an office or a clinic," says Chris Medina. "It's supposed to feel like a Latino living room, like somebody's kitchen. The groups are comfortable here. They can do whatever they want. Turn on the radio. Turn on the TV. Whatever. There's no boss here.

"We're not going to bring them in and say, 'This is what you've got to do,'" he adds. "We're not going to preach to the choir or anybody else. The whole thing is about communication and trust. If we are open-minded and easy to connect with, then we can get the job done. No matter your color, religion, spirituality or language, it all comes down to communication."

Most weeks, the Grupa Palanca members spread around on couches in the center of the room, sipping punch and coffee, talking about all kinds of stuff. New medications and new movies. They talk about God, art, their moms, their jobs, their T-cell counts. They laugh, cry, get pissed off, eat and learn. Sometimes they go out, have barbecues. They help each other weigh the good days against the bad and get through both -- just like a family.

"When I was first sick, I didn't always know how to talk to my doctor, to understand what was happening and the things that he would tell me about HIV," Velasquez says. "The group helped me figure out my meds; they answered all the questions that I had. All of these guys, we've all been living with this for ten years. Everyone's infected, but we're all healthy. We're still living."

It's unseasonably warm for a late October day, and the cruise is on in Cheesman Park. A lime-colored convertible zings by blasting Britney. A dark-haired guy with a tight mustache walks a tiny, stick-like dog through the center of the green, checking out a small group of well-toned men playing Frisbee with their shirts off.

The scene distracts a few of the people meeting inside the Tears McFarland Mansion, a community center just off the park's northern entrance. Around a large table in a room perfumed with the smell of intermingling colognes, twelve Latino men are learning about what AIDS can do to the human body -- and how to avoid ever having to find out for themselves.

Standing before a computer projection of what looks like a hairy lima bean, Elizabeth Connick, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, demonstrates how human cells degenerate and change inside an HIV-positive "host." In Spanish, she explains how the virus can render a body utterly defenseless to fight off even the most trivial infections. A hefty, forty-something Mexican guy wearing a turquoise Western shirt raises his hand, picking up a Coke can to punctuate his question: Can he get AIDS from drinking after someone?

No, Connick responds. Only from blood. Semen. Breast Milk.

Si, the man says, nodding. Sangre, semen, leche de la mujer.

Tonight's meeting is part of a series of Spanish-language outreach programs sponsored by El Futuro, the Colorado Aids Project and Proyecto Nosotros, another Denver community program that does HIV prevention for the Latino population. Several of the men who've shown up for Connick's lecture receive services from one or all of those organizations. Some found out about the event during outreach sessions, from fliers given to them in bars. Others have been drawn by a promise of free food. They seem, on the surface, like a mismatched group. A young guy wears a baggy hip-hop shirt and a baseball cap; another sports chic alligator lace-ups and perfectly plucked eyebrows. A huge, sparkly wedding band flashes on the hand of the Mexican man who asked Connick about the Coke. Not all of them consider themselves to be gay. Some have girlfriends or wives. But they all belong to a group that the Centers for Disease Control consider to be at the highest risk of contracting HIV: men who have sex with other men.

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