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?'"
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."
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.
A honey-skinned Chicano in jeans and a sport coat, who'd shown up not knowing the event was in Spanish, tries to keep up with Connick's PowerPoint presentation, but mostly gazes out the window. After about thirty minutes, he excuses himself and disappears into the park.
Cheesman Park has been a hot zone for AIDS outreach since the '80s, when the disease developed from a shadowy phenomenon to an all-out epidemic. Beginning in 1983, the all-volunteer Colorado AIDS Project flourished as a grassroots campaign to prevent infection and support those living with the virus. In the field, CAP activists distributed both condoms and information to at-risk groups, primarily gay men. Capitol Hill has always been at the heart of the effort.
To date, more than 5,000 people have died from AIDS in Colorado. But there has been reason, at times, to believe that the state was turning a corner on the epidemic. In 1987, there were 586 cases of new HIV infection reported, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Planning's HIV Surveillance Program. By 1999, that number had plunged to 212 new infections. And as new drugs rendered AIDS a livable condition, death rates showed promising declines as well.
The news was better for some than others. Activists stressed that AIDS does not discriminate between white, black, brown, gay or straight; everyone was at risk. But white people have overwhelmingly enjoyed the most notable reductions. African-Americans currently account for nearly 20 percent of Colorado's new cases, though they represent less than 4 percent of the population. Hispanics, who claim about 13 percent of the population, account for 20 percent. The death rate from AIDS among African-Americans is still three times that of whites; AIDS is twice as likely to kill Hispanics as Caucasians.
"It's discouraging for us, because we're seeing a second generation of many of the same problems that we had twenty years ago," says Terry Tiller-Taylor, STD/HIV section chief of Coloradans Working Together to Fight HIV, a planning committee that determines the state's yearly program for HIV prevention. "HIV/AIDS is as much of an issue now as it ever was. It's just shifted to a different population."
But while data from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment indicates that African-Americans are slowly chipping away at their numbers, the rates of HIV infection in the Latino community have gone in retrograde, leaping by 30 percent over the past five years. Statistically, Latinos are less likely to access services, or to be tested in the first place. And by the time many enter the public health-care system, they're already in the throes of the full-blown AIDS virus -- very sick, but at a loss, or unwilling, to explain how they got that way.
"Latinos have a lot of reasons why they don't trust the system," says Maria Lopez, who does case management and client advocacy through Servicios de la Raza, a northwest Denver community organization that helps Spanish-speaking men and women navigate life in the United States. "I have one client who wouldn't get tested for HIV because she thought the doctors would call INS on her. But what keeps many of them from getting tested is that they don't want to have to deal with it. It's less the fear of the illness than the fear of having to tell people. There's a tremendous fear of being disconnected from their families or communities if they admit how they got it.
"I had a client who swore he got it from a cut on his hand; another said it was from some brown thing on the sink in the bathroom," Lopez adds. "Even when it's obvious to both of us, some of the men just won't acknowledge that they've had sex with another man. It's just not something that is talked about or accepted in the culture."
That refusal is putting many women at risk. Although they accounted for only 2 percent of cases in the first wave of HIV in the '80s, women have seen their rates double since 1990. And nearly 40 percent of them report contracting the virus through heterosexual sex with their husbands or boyfriends, presumably men who have sex with other men but who deny being gay (see story).
It's hard to protect people who don't realize they may be in danger. Language, a lack of education, and cultural barriers such as religion and homophobia can create a formidable trifecta of risk to Latinos, especially gay and bisexual men from rural areas in northern Mexico who arrive with a vague awareness of HIV or AIDS.
"I feel like I'm reliving the '80s all over again," says Jorge del Mazo, who directs the Colorado Aids Project's prevention program. "The services to this community are still in their infancy. HIV will continue to be a massive problem if we don't address some of the misinformation, fear and machismo that is preventing us from reaching this community.
"We are a community in denial," adds del Mazo. "We haven't made a dent in changing norms to support the epidemic. You're talking about thousands of years of believing certain things. Those cultural beliefs are embedded. But unless we affect social norms, we could be facing a catastrophe."
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.
"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."
In 2002, with money from the Centers for Disease Control, the state health department approved a three-year grant for the development of El Futuro, a community center that would provide HIV prevention and outreach, mental-health services, HIV testing and a non-threatening group dynamic for gay and bisexual Latino men. The grant seeded the center with an annual budget of nearly $125,000 -- enough for two full-time employees and a smattering of contract workers.
The money was minimal, but it was a start -- and a near miracle, considering that this year, Colorado cut funding for HIV prevention programs by 12 percent. Medina has bolstered the center's coffers through fundraising -- his team generated almost $2,000 during this year's AIDS Walk -- and the kindness of friends and strangers. The center works with about a dozen volunteers and has received donations from across the state.
"In Colorado's history, the gay population of color has never received this much attention," Medina says. "The grant was something that was in process for a long time, and it took the efforts of a lot of dedicated people to bring it about. We told them we could prove that this thing could work, and now we have to prove it: This center is something that is needed in Denver, Colorado, right now."
Now it is up to Medina to make sure the community gets the message.
Freddie Krueger is serving strong cocktails to the crowd at Broadway's, a gay dive bar where a Halloween party is just starting to find some drunken forward momentum. A few groups on the dance floor -- women and men in pairs of two -- are shakin' to "Turn the Beat Around," spun by a phantom DJ. The peripatetic disco beat makes ice pulse in empty glasses abandoned on tables all around the room.
Justin McCarthy scans the scene, looking for fresh meat. The crowd is mostly older, mostly white; some men at the bar are more interested in the Red Sox game playing silently on TV ("Johnny Damon, come to Daddy!" says one guy, whose friend makes catcalls at the screen) than in the action on the floor. Finally, McCarthy spots a guy he wants to talk to: a beefy, brown-skinned man, his silk shirt opened to the middle of his hairy chest. At 22, McCarthy is trim and adorable, with bright, shiny dark eyes, fine-boned cheeks and a closely shaved head hidden beneath a baseball cap. As he approaches, the man's eyes light up a little.
McCarthy reaches into his bag and produces lube, condoms and fliers like a gay Mary Poppins. The guy takes some of each, then stops to examine an invitation for an El Futuro orientation.
"Will you come?" McCarthy says coyly.
"I don't know," the guy responds. "I'll see what my friend says. I never heard of this before. It sounds a little weird."
As an outreach worker for El Futuro, McCarthy visits clubs, bars, parks and other places where gay men congregate, looking for Latinos who might be open to learning more about the place. He is seeking out a group that doesn't always want to be found -- and isn't always in the mood, or frame of mind, to listen. He prefers to approach individuals or couples. Large groups intimidate him: At a bar like this, people are out to have a good time, not think about a downer like HIV.
"I don't just go up to them and say, 'You! You should get tested for HIV!'" McCarthy says. "I try to sell them on El Futuro in a general way. Like, 't's a cool place to come and hang out and meet people. And, hey, everybody could use some counseling.'
"The drunker and drunker people get, the harder it is to talk to them," he adds. "And I have to be careful sometimes. Some guys can get the wrong idea if you come up to them waving a condom."
Still, McCarthy does better in gay bars -- where everyone is, at least for the night, open about their sexuality -- than in parks. In the years that he's been doing outreach (as a teenager, he worked with young people through the health-awareness program the Phoenix Project), he's developed a sense of whom to approach and whom to leave alone. "Some people will look at the flier and say, 'What? That's not for me. This place isn't for me. I'm not gay,'" he says. "They can get really offended. But it's like, 'Well, excuse me, but you are cruising Cheesman Park.'"
The next Thursday, one of the guys McCarthy met at Broadway's shows up for orientation at El Futuro. In the room, he and six other men chat while they fill out forms, including a seventeen-page questionnaire about their sexual habits, a rather intrusive piece of paperwork required by the state. On page four, they're asked to enumerate the number of times they have, for example, had "insertive anal intercourse with ejaculation." "You fuck him; you cum up his ass," it clarifies.
Medina knows the paperwork can scare people off, so he creates a diversion, a "let's get to know each other" game that starts with a simple question: "If you could come back in another life, would you come back gay or straight?"
The men think about it for a second, look at each other. Seizing on the pause, Medina throws his hands in the air. "I would be gay!" he exclaims. "I like being gay. I have fun being gay. I am gay. And you know, I think the longer we go on, the easier it's going to get for our little brothers and sisters."
For the next hour and a half, Medina tells the guys about El Futuro. He describes it as a home, a rec room, an environment that's meant to be as casual and unstructured as possible. The men -- three Chicanos, two Mexicanos, one white guy -- share war stories, coming-out stories. One, a Denver native, reveals that he's never come out to his family even though he sees them every weekend.
"It's nice to be here to hang out and just listen to other people," he says. "I may look at it differently after having these discussions. Or I may decide I'm doing the right thing by not coming out. I don't want to be ostracized for three months or anything like that. But it's kind of like, by listening to other people's experience, you learn how to deal with your own."
By 8 p.m., the room radiates with that warm, buzzy feeling of people who are now a little bit closer than they were when the night began. One guy suggests holding a family night. They make plans for their next gathering. Medina offers one more question to the group: Is it easy or hard to be Latino and gay in Denver?
They all agree it's hard. And they all agree it's getting easier.
This is the kind of moment that Lorenzo Ramirez lives for.
"El Futuro is shaping up exactly the way we pictured it," says Ramirez, who has hosted the Grupa Palanca support group since it started in 1994.
"And it has so much more potential to take off in the future. It's a safe space, devoid of alcohol and everything else you see in places where gay men usually come together. We want to respect how they were brought up, to be conscious of who they are. There's no drama, which gay men are famous for creating."
Considered the most influential Latino HIV activist in Denver, Ramirez began dreaming of a place like El Futuro years ago. An artist and dancer from Wyoming, the son of Mexican-born parents, he was first drawn to Denver in the '70s by street-level political movements like the Crusade for Justice and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. In 1995, with some support from the Colorado Aids Project, Ramirez launched his own grassroots project through Servicios de la Raza, where he'd worked since the late '80s: It was an HIV outreach and prevention program called La Gente. La Gente marked the first time that anyone had launched an organized attack against the advance of HIV into the Latino community -- an idea that initially met with some resistance.
"Some of the straight Chicano men just didn't want to deal with it, to get into the homophobia," Ramirez says. "They said, 'There are others who will do it.' And it led to a lot of soul-searching.
"Finally they realized that gay men are part of our community," he adds, "and the question was: Do we embrace them or reject them? And if we reject them, what does that say about us?"
Ramirez himself was diagnosed with HIV in January 1993, a fact he kept from his friends and family for two years. At the time, TV ads warned communities of color about their high risk of contracting HIV, but up until that point, there were few messages that humanized the threat to brown people. It was still thought of as a gay problem, a white problem, a big-city problem. White folks had Rock Hudson. African-Americans had Magic Johnson. Within his community, Ramirez became the face of HIV. He spoke at schools, businesses and community centers, urging other Latinos to protect themselves.
"The closet is a very lonely place to be. There's sadness, isolation," he says. "When I came out about my status, I saw the power of that disclosure. What I was learning about the virus was helping me personally, and I wasn't afraid to get in front of people."
Ramirez has seen tremendous changes in both HIV and the gay community in Denver over the past two decades, and he agrees that while it's still hard to be gay in Denver, it's getting easier, especially for Chicanos. That's good news, of course, but it makes it all the more vital that a proactive HIV-prevention message get through. Rates of infection for young men of all races have gone up, accounting for 32 percent of new infections over the past five years.
"I lost 36 friends in the late '80s and early '90s," Ramirez says. "I think the younger guys haven't experienced that kind of cycle; the shock value isn't there to motivate them. They see the ads; the guys look so healthy and happy. People are letting their guard down. They say, 'Oh, if I get it, I'll just do the medications. Look at you.'"
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."
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.
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"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.
"I've told some of my friends to come to El Futuro to get tested, but I think they didn't want to find out," he says. "But even if they came here and they did turn up positive, then right away they would have support. Right away they'd be surrounded by this community of people who could help them.
"I tell them, 'Don't wait until you're dying and it's too late,'" he continues. "I say, 'Look at my case. I'm not selling anything to you. I just don't want you to go through the same thing that I went through. Listen to me.'"