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.

Last April at the awards ceremony and fund-raiser in the Renaissance Hotel, Miguel Gomez of the U.S. Surgeon General's office declared that it was the largest gathering of Latinos to discuss HIV/AIDS issues he'd ever seen. There were writers present from the city's two largest newspapers, The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Observer, but none from the Dallas Voice, the official gay community publication. (Partida acknowledges that a Voice advertising representative attended, and some pro-bono ad space was donated after he hectored them; but editorial coverage was limited to a listing.)

As well, he says that the Resource Center of Dallas has pretty much ignored his efforts thus far, and that at one point, two volunteers at the Center who began to work with Partida were asked to choose between the two groups. He refuses to chalk this up to racism and says it is, to a degree, understandable: "A lot of people want to play Mother Teresa for a day and then drop it. They're not sure if I'm serious about it. But I was naïve; I thought I'd step out and everybody would embrace me."

Jesus Geliga at the Resource Center responds that he has no knowledge of anyone being asked to choose between the two organizations and doesn't believe that the Center would put volunteers--as long as they were fulfilling their work commitment--in such a position.

Another Latino who works at a prominent AIDS agency says of Partida, "His intentions are good. I just wish he'd have more input from the gay and lesbian community. He should do more needs assessment. People ask, 'If I join the group, what will it do for me and the community?'"

Fernie Sanchez of AIDS Arms confirms he's heard numerous complaints from some important AIDS workers. They say that Partida only wants to finish his celebrity documentary. Or they sigh wearily at the prospect of competing against another group for funds. Sanchez also says some of them are angry that Partida refuses to identify Grupo Vida as a gay organization. He dismisses all of it.

"There's a lot of crap out there that can make you lose your focus," Sanchez says. "Joseluis is the first to admit he's new at this. They don't understand that he's trying to start a media group. He is, for the most part, looking for money within the broadcast industry, using his own contacts. But I see Grupo Vida as the missing link in what we're all trying to do. Any AIDS worker will tell you we have to change our message to fit minority cultures."

While waiting for Grupo Vida's 501(c)3 status to be decided within the next five months, Joseluis Partida concentrates on two upcoming projects. The most immediate is the October 7 Texas Latin Pride & Health Fair on Sunday at Annette Strauss Artist Square, coordinated by Strategic Marketing's Cindy Benavides and to include live music, food vendors, health agencies and pharmaceutical companies that will educate about HIV- and non-HIV-related health conditions. Then there's the documentary, whose completed segments with Paul Rodriguez and Edward James Olmos currently comprise 18 minutes of footage. Partida eventually wants it to be a two-hour docudrama, with actors in fictionalized scenarios and real Latinos discussing the impact of AIDS on their lives. So far, Partida has not found a Hispanic family willing to cooperate.

He's also taken steps to try to make himself and Grupo Vida more legitimate in the larger AIDS community; he's joined the HIV/SIDA Coalition, a group of leaders from the various AIDS agencies who meet monthly to discuss a growing health problem among communities of color. Dallas agencies such as AIDS Arms, AIDS Services of Dallas and AIDS Interfaith Network have given implicit approval and/or outright support to Grupo Vida. According to Fernie Sanchez and many others interviewed for this story, they all have to break another Latino tradition--silence within families and communities--to slow the spread of HIV.

"We know that Hispanic men have always had sex with other Hispanic men," Sanchez says. "But we don't want to talk about it, much less about what's safe and unsafe. All the cultural stuff is a hindrance to our health. That's what Grupo Vida is addressing."

Joseluis himself seems to be of two minds about what he calls "the segregated approach" to fighting AIDS. On the one hand, he insists that it would be better if people of all races considered themselves to be on the same team with the same goals in mind: stopping new HIV infections and prolonging the lives of those infected. On the other hand, his focus on the Latino community can't be diluted, especially keeping in mind the most recent federal Census reports about the explosive growth of the U.S. Hispanic population. He sums up his fight simply: "There aren't enough messages out there in proportion to our numbers."

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