Living La Vida SIDA

After his younger brother died of AIDS, Joseluis Partida dedicated his life to warning people about the disease. But the politics of being gay and Hispanic made it tougher than he ever imagined.

On a table inside the offices of the Latino media organization Grupo Vida, a modest shrine with candles is dedicated to a man named Arturo Partida. Two photos of Arturo stand next to each other. On the left side, he's a teen-ager in a tuxedo who resembles a shaggy-haired Matthew Broderick; on the right, he's in a baseball cap standing beside a Christmas tree, the skin drawn tightly around his face until the outlines of his skull have become apparent.

"My brother looked like an old man when he died," Joseluis Partida says. "Toward the end, he even spent some time on the streets. My family finally said, 'Come home.' He was proud--the more he pushed for acceptance, the more they pushed him away. But he wanted his family back. He got what he wanted before he died."

Partida's brother died at 35 from complications of AIDS (called SIDA in the Latino community) in January 2000. Arturo's flamboyant gayness had met with cold resistance from most of his family and many of his peers; he left home and legally changed his name to the Anglified Sterling Davis to symbolize his disgust, which Joseluis characterizes as "To hell with Latino culture!"

Joseluis Partida is the film and TV production manager who founded the AIDS media organization Grupo Vida.
Photos by Mark Graham
Joseluis Partida is the film and TV production manager who founded the AIDS media organization Grupo Vida.

It was a gesture powerful enough for Partida, 40, to use the new protest name and not his brother's birth name to christen an award given for the first time this year; Rafael Fantauzzi of American Airlines, who secured $15,000 for the start-up of Grupo Vida, was the recipient. Partida, an openly gay film and TV production manager, founded the organization to fight both the disease and the stigma that had afflicted his brother--it's dedicated to creating radio and TV spots as well as public events that target the Dallas and national Latino community. He feels he's got his hands full trying to melt the glacier of silence that covers HIV and homosexuality in the larger Hispanic population.

That's far from his only challenge. When he began to form Grupo Vida, "I had no experience in the AIDS field," Partida admits, and the rigors of nonprofit fund raising were a mystery to him as well. He readily confesses that he's stumbled some during his on-the-job training, and his newness on the scene has been met with suspicion and lack of support from some longtime Dallas crusaders against the disease. With Grupo Vida essentially a one-man show, you hope that Partida can garner the experience and the cooperation to help deal with a frightening reality--according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, at the end of 1999, more than 20 percent of people living with AIDS in the United States were of Latino heritage. All signs grimly suggest that those numbers will continue to rise unless educators get very culturally specific about their message--a mission to which Joseluis Partida says he is now devoted.

Spending time at the hospice where his brother finally passed away was Joseluis' first experience watching AIDS treatment. Restless and wanting to apply his grief to productive ends, Partida the production manager decided to use his professional experience to create public service announcements aimed at Latin Americans nationally. He drew up plans for a campaign called "Mi Hijo, Mi Hija, Mi Amor (My Son, My Daughter, My Love)" that would eventually develop into the larger nonprofit Grupo Vida, the venture that now consumes his life.

It was not the first reinvention for Partida, notes his longtime friend and collaborator, Miriam San Martin. Her Miami-based 13th Floor Productions is the official production company of record for Grupo Vida and its campaign. When San Martin met Partida, he was owner of Luis Luis, a catering company that supplied food to the workers on her commercials, movies and music videos. She was impressed with the outgoing way he dealt with vendors, crews and clients. He eventually sold Luis Luis and became a production manager on her shoots as well as a close friend.

San Martin worked alongside him during the slow death of his brother. The pair flew back and forth between various Texas cities and Los Angeles, and she recalls how Partida was both drawn toward and away from his family as Arturo deteriorated. The traveling demands of his job necessitated the latter, but as Partida began to talk about wanting to create public service announcements (PSAs), San Martin helped him develop concepts and put together a budget for that project as well as the documentary with testimonials from Latino celebrities that he envisioned. The last one is a work-in-progress that they've given a two-year completion time, although during his work jaunts to Los Angeles, Partida has already shot personal testimony about AIDS, homosexuality and tolerance from Edward James Olmos, Paul Rodriguez and stand-up comic Marga Gomez.

Development of the PSAs, however, proceeded rapidly--Partida contacted Nancy Schadoff at Cable Positive, the national industry association that in part provides grants to AIDS groups to produce informational spots. She secured $50,000 for them, and Joseluis went about asking folks for favors.

"Everybody knows who I am" in the Texas TV industry, Partida says, somewhat facetiously. "I've fed them all."

Between his connections and Schadoff's support at Cable Positive, Grupo Vida eventually earned more than $100,000 worth of vendors' equipment and services on loan. A private investor gave $40,000; Eastman Kodak donated $9,000 worth of free film. Two PSAs were filmed in Spanish first and then in English. One featured Hispanic teen-agers in a car, a young man and woman petting very heavily but pausing to uncomfortably broach the topic of condoms. The other one was rougher stuff--an obviously ill young Latino man sitting weakly down to the dinner table with his anguished but stone-silent family, only to have his disgusted father rise to depart and mumble one word in Spanish: "Maricon"--roughly translated, "faggot."

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