A Grim Prognosis

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

HIV/AIDS is just one measure of a catastrophe already ripping through communities of color across the state, which experience vastly disproportionate rates of injury, disability and disease -- including cancer, diabetes and communicable diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. In Colorado, quality of life and health care differ radically from one ethnic group to the next. This spring, the state health department established the Office of Health Disparity to address these gaps and find culturally appropriate ways to close them.

"HIV is not the only burden of disease in these communities," says Jean Finn, manager of program support for Coloradans Working Together to Fight HIV. "We can't compartmentalize it. Part of what we're trying to do is to address multiple epidemics occurring at any one time among various populations. And it's critical that we have programs within the communities that they're intended to serve, and it's just as critically important that they're embedded in, and from, the community."

When it comes to HIV, public-health agencies have learned that, before anyone can help the Latino demographic, they have to recognize that the prevention models that had been so successful for whites simply don't fit. Within this population, change will come one conversation at a time.

Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.
Anthony Camera
Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.

"In the '80s, the gay white population was hungry for information," says CAP's del Mazo. "They would engage in every kind of outreach and program. But those same methods don't work with Latinos. You can't come from a model of barking out information. You have to engage and exchange information and validate that person. You don't just stand there and say, 'This is what you do, and this is what you don't do.' Latinos have real trouble with that."

El Futuro itself is the result of a focused statewide effort to figure out what kinds of HIV prevention would work with Latinos.

Three years ago, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment contracted with the Denver-based Latin American Research and Service Agency to produce a comprehensive survey of groups at the highest risk of contracting AIDS: men who have sex with men, and users of intravenous drugs. When it was completed -- one year and scores of interviews later -- the Latino Community Identification Project painted an explicit picture of a population whose social and economic circumstances were well outside the experience of the gay white population.

Some said that they were so desperate for sexual release that they pursued men because they couldn't afford female prostitutes, who were plentiful and cheap in Mexico. Even when describing orgiastic scenes at gay bathhouses and encounters with strangers, some didn't identify as being homosexual. Even if you had gay sex, you weren't gay. You were desperate. You were drunk. You were caught up in a moment.

"That's always the pretext that we offer: We were drunk. Always, always the person says, 'No, I didn't know what I was doing.' But the truth is that, yes, the person does know that they're doing," said one respondent. Others described encounters with heterosexual men, some of whom returned home to wives and girlfriends after having unprotected sex with another man. "A lot of men are bisexual, and they are out doing their thing with Mexicans or Chicanos or whomever, and then they are going home with their wives," a response reads. "I think 'real Mexicans,' 'machos,' they are all checking me out. I look at them and I am thinking, 'Buddy, you are married.'"

"The stigma around being gay is so negative within the Latino community, you have a number who live a dual life because of that internalized self-homophobia," says M.E. Morreo, executive director of the ECCOS Family Center, El Futuro's parent organization. "Even some who are out as having male partners, not all of them are gay-identifying. The stigma is so strong that even though you have a partner, you're living with this person, in the words of one of the members, 'I don't know what you would call me. I like to have sex with men. But I am not gay.'

"I really feel for the gay or bisexual immigrant that comes to the United States," Morreo continues. "It's similar to the streets-are-paved-with-gold idea, when people used to leave their home countries to pursue religious freedom and things like that. But when they get here, they find it's harder than they thought. They're foreigners; they may not speak the language; there's racism. They have a right to live the life that they wish to live, but there's so much machismo, so many barriers to tackle."

Most of the men who shaped the Latino Community Identification Project said that, above all, they'd like a place of their own -- a safe place where they could be open about their sexuality and feel the support of a community. A simple place where they could get together with other gay men -- not a bar or a nightclub, not in a bathhouse or in Cheesman Park -- and just talk, get help and be themselves.

"There are so many strengths within communities," says Coloradans Working Together's Jean Finn. "They tend to help themselves solve many of these problems. A place of safety, where someone can go and talk openly and honestly with someone who can help them and work with them -- they have proven to be effective. People need that feeling of safety and community."

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