A Grim Prognosis

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

Still, Ramirez is heartened by what he sees as a slow erosion of the cultural barriers -- that gulch between the old and new worlds -- that have quelled meaningful dialogue about real-life risk. Through the activism of a new generation, he hopes to eventually slough off the belief that to be gay is somehow to be less of a Latino.

"Some of these young guys didn't have to go through what I went through when I was closeted. It's a nice breath of fresh air," Ramirez says. "A lot of young gay Latino men are very open, very focused on what they want to do with their lives. I wish I had been where they are when I was that age.

"We paved the way for them, and they recognize that," Ramirez says. "We give them some positive reinforcement, some role models. My generation didn't have that. The discussions that are created at El Futuro, I would have killed for that."

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

There's sleeting rain pouring down at dusk on Friday, and El Futuro has taken a morbid turn. Alfonso Maldonado, the center's project specialist, is making sugar skulls at a table just inside the door. In the main room, a fold-out table normally used to display pamphlets and sign-in sheets has been transformed into an elaborate shrine.

Today is National Latin American AIDS Awareness Day and the start of Día de los Muertos celebrations in the Latino world. Dangling from a display rack near the couches are handmade memorials to people whose lives have been claimed by the disease. On pieces of colored paper, affixed with stickers and photographs, loved ones remember their tíos, hermanos, amores.

The mood is festive though reverent as Chris Medina welcomes a handful of El Futuro members who've shown up for the event. Beyond the rituals and dedications, he knows that's a good way to get them in the door. Because it was a special night, Medina splurged, spending $100 of El Futuro's meager budget on snacks and drinks.

"We've always needed to be very creative in the way that we spend our money and the way that we reach out to people," Medina says. "Throwing away paper, paper clips and rubber bands is definitely not part of how we operate. And sometimes we'll trim on things that some people might consider luxuries but are really things that we need -- like art supplies, office equipment and HIV materials. Things like condoms: Condoms aren't cheap.

"But I've always said, 'If you serve food, they will come,'" he adds, fanning his hand toward the table full of goodies.

So far, getting people in the door hasn't been as much of a challenge as getting them to stay.

"The major obstacle, I think, is that men on the whole are not used to asking for help," Medina says. "They don't go to doctors when they have an ailment. They'll just wait until it goes away. They could be on their deathbed. So it becomes a challenge to help them in a way where maybe they don't even realize they're being helped."

But Medina's got to keep them coming back if El Futuro is to have a future. In the year that he's been open, the center has gained about 150 members, but in February, its grant from the state expires. He's in the process of applying for more money, and through La Voz y Furza, a consortium of health-based nonprofits that work with the Latino community, he's working to pool resources and find funding -- from the state, from the Centers for Disease Control, from private foundations. Since it opened, El Futuro has worked to distinguish itself from other groups doing work in the field of HIV. In Colorado, they run the gamut -- from huge nonprofits like the Colorado AIDS Project and the Empowerment Program to older, community-based organizations like Proyecto Nosotros, which works with Latinos living with HIV/AIDS, and Sisters of Color United for Education, a two-woman outreach organization that began in the '80s in the back of a car. Medina's challenge has been to prove El Futuro's value, even when it doesn't always turn up on paper.

"It can be challenging and disappointing at the same time, because you can look at the numbers, and they don't tell the full story of what goes in a program like this," Medina says. "Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not happening. When we send our reports in, that's all they see. They don't see the grassroots, they just see the numbers.

"Now that we have this space, I just hope we get the chance to really develop ourselves," he continues. "To show that this is something that really works, not something that needs to stay in the closet."

For Benigno Velasquez, El Futuro has provided a place where he can develop not only his knowledge, but his confidence and his friendships. Eventually, he says, he may even work up the courage to tell his family in Mexico that he's living with HIV. In the meantime, he's trying to get friends to come to the center, to see for themselves what it's all about -- and to make sure they're okay.

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