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.

"Basically, they consider themselves to be 'the men' in the relationship," Geliga says, referring to partners who are anally insertive or on the receptive end of oral sex. "And even if a Latino man does call himself 'gay,' it's often still easier for him to discuss behaviors that make him look masculine."

In the pamphlets and presentations that the Resource Center of Dallas supplies Hispanics, Geliga notes, "We have to be careful to base the information on behaviors not identities. And we use language that's deliberately less explicit about sexual practices than when we're targeting presumably Anglo gay men; there's a lot of shame about sex period in Hispanic culture. In fact, many of these men have wives or girlfriends. We also include the 'and women' as a little guilt trip, to remind them that they're exposing someone else to this."

Once a man or a woman tests positive, and if they lack insurance or are jobless or poor, they often wind up at AIDS Arms, the lead entity and gateway organization of a network that encompasses most of the city's research and treatment organizations. Fernie Sanchez, case management supervisor there, notes that the number of Hispanic women with children who require their services has increased noticeably in the last few years. Sometimes it's because of prostitution, but often they have straight-identified husbands or boyfriends who trick with men on the side.

Jesus Geliga of the Resource Center of Dallas says AIDS information targeting Latino men must be based on behaviors not identities.
Jesus Geliga of the Resource Center of Dallas says AIDS information targeting Latino men must be based on behaviors not identities.

"There's a situation that we see," Sanchez describes, "where the husband will claim that the wife has infected him, that she's been 'whoring around.' They both know that he's the one who infected her, but the women won't acknowledge this. They stay silent."

Sanchez can check off a whole list of aggravating factors particular to the Latino community as far as HIV infection and education go: a language barrier for many Hispanics; the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which is both anti-gay and anti-condom and often still affects traditionally spiritual Latino families; and one phenomenon that virtually everyone interviewed for this story cited--"machismo." Its importance can increase exponentially when you factor in poverty and inadequate education. If those forces combine to make you feel less than a person, you might need to feel like even more of a man to compensate.

"The African-American community is much more mobilized [on AIDS issues]," Sanchez notes. "They've even made some inroads into getting acknowledgment from their pulpits. The Catholic Church has not helped us there. For us, it's still taboo."

Don Maison is president and CEO of AIDS Services of Dallas, which provides housing to poor people with HIV and AIDS. He says he has heard Hispanic activists speak of the problems of machismo while trying to spread information about the disease but notes that another phenomenon--he calls it "Puritanism"--influences Anglo politicians and community leaders whose decisions eventually affect ethnic minorities. When Maison heard that Dallas ranked No. 1 in HIV infections in the national CDC study this past February, and that they were disproportionately young men of color, he fired off an angry letter to The Dallas Morning News. It contained a reminder of the rancorous debate waged in the Dallas County Commissioners Court in 1995. Jim Jackson and Mike Cantrell railed against "homosexuals and drug addicts" in voting to scuttle federal funding that would help distribute condoms and needle sterilization kits throughout Dallas County, especially in gay and ethnic neighborhoods. A compromise was eventually reached sans the sterilization kits, but the well-publicized furor in the end hobbled efforts by intimidated health workers, Maison insists.

In minority populations, "we are now reaping the fruits of the Anglo Puritans' decisions on the Commissioners Courts," Maison says grimly.

Last year at the start of Grupo Vida and its AIDS awareness campaign, Joseluis Partida was interviewed by a local TV news affiliate about his efforts in the name of Arturo. The piece turned somewhat sensational, however, as it focused inordinately on the fact that Partida's parents begat three gay sons, including Joseluis and Arturo. As far as Joseluis Partida goes, he said his mother caught him in the basement fooling around with a male friend when they were adolescents, called him an animal and never spoke about it again until he came out to her as an adult.

He's estranged from his father, who divorced his mother and has had little contact with the family. While growing up and watching the relationship between his father and his uncles, Partida says, he learned that he had to "walk like a man and talk like a man." He dated young women frequently during and after high school. He says he was sexually active with these girls and went out of his way to let Latino male friends know this. But he was having sex with men secretly--and some of the behaviors were unsafe. "At first I called myself straight, and then bisexual," Partida remembers. "I thought, 'I'm not gay; I hate that word.'"

You certainly don't have to be Hispanic to move through this rocky stage of self-acceptance. But common experiences aren't always observed in what Partida calls "the business of AIDS." He claims Grupo Vida's reception among some of the larger gay and AIDS organizations of Dallas has been as bad as that of mainstream Latinos.

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