Living La Vida SIDA

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!"

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."

Schadoff distributed the spots along with other shorts about AIDS to Cable Positive members, which is just about every major service in the country. Almost all of them rejected the PSA with the word "maricon" as too harsh. But on World AIDS Day in December 2000, Grupo Vida's spot with the teen-agers aired on, among other channels, MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Lifetime and the Sci-Fi Network, as well as Spanish-language outfits such as Telemundo and Galavision.

It was an impressive national debut for a fledgling Dallas organization. Grupo Vida still awaits its 501c(3) status; the IRS has sent Partida a letter to inform him that approval of the application to be a nonprofit organization is pending, which delays the interest of current potential donors. Right now, the group operates--and Joseluis is living--on a month-to-month basis, with a combination of his savings, free-lance production manager jobs, a mortgaged home in Arlington and donations from large corporations, small independent businesses and the odd free dinner or gift from a board member. At the moment, he has no assistant or coordinator: He plans all the events himself, although Cindy Benavides from Strategic Events was on board to plan last April's Grupo Vida fund-raiser/awards show at the Renaissance Hotel and, she notes, will take a more active role in the future. After expenses, the fund-raiser managed to come up with only $2,000 toward repaying the director of the PSAs for his efforts; Schadoff confirms that Cable Positive won't release them again for World AIDS Day this year until that debt is cleared.

After trying hard to find contributors to his cause, Partida says that only about half of Latino-owned businesses will return phone calls. In dollar amounts and assistance, he's been given more by ostensibly Anglo ventures like American Airlines and Subaru than from Latino-identified businesses. He's been a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for more than five years now, but the relationship changed somewhat after Partida's goals did.

"I went from profit to nonprofit," he says with a laugh. "I went from making money to asking for money. A lot of people are skeptical. They think I'll go away. And someone pulled me aside privately and was honest--he said he was worried about having his business' name associated with AIDS."

Partida campaigned the Chamber of Commerce to lend support to the Grupo Vida fund-raiser, but they wouldn't buy a table or send a representative. He pursued, at the very least, some extra publicity about the event faxed to its members. Mauricio Navarro, who does public relations for the Chamber and is its education director, replied that announcements would only be made for official Hispanic Chamber of Commerce events. Partida responded with a letter saying that faxes and press releases were circulated for non-Chamber galas like the Stand and Deliver Awards and Laughing Latinas. When contacted, Navarro insists that no one thought faxes from the Hispanic Chamber would benefit an event that already had conspicuous ads in Latino publications like Valiente and Hispanic Journal, and that, in fact, Partida was allowed to distribute fliers about Grupo Vida at a Chamber breakfast honoring Henry Cisneros. "We support Joseluis' ambitions," Navarro says, "and look forward to working with him more productively in the future."

Partida seems skittish and contradictory about using the words "gay" or "lesbian" when describing the mission of Grupo Vida. He says he doesn't consider his media group to be either exclusively gay or concerned with AIDS. It is, he says, "primarily a Latino organization. We're a broadcast organization that wants to reach as many Spanish-speaking people as possible." On the other hand, he says, "We want to educate heterosexual Latinos and Latinas before the larger gay community. They need to acknowledge there are friends and family who're sick and who may be gay."

The threat that Joseluis Partida is trying to warn the Hispanic population of is palpable. Earlier this year, Dallas got a wake-up smack across the face to that effect--a report issued in February ranked it the highest among seven national cities in HIV-positive men under 30, beating out New York and Los Angeles. The two-phase study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and carried out locally by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Between 1994 and 2000, more than a thousand men in Dallas between the ages of 15 and 29 completed a questionnaire about their sexual behavior and agreed to take an HIV test. The men who participated self-identified along the spectrum of sexual orientation--some said they were gay, some bisexual, and some insisted they were straight but sometimes had sex with other men. Eighteen percent of the overall Dallas group tested positive. Among those who'd seroconverted (i.e., became HIV-positive), 11 percent were Anglo, 32 percent were African-American, and 19 percent were Latino.

Jesus Geliga, community health promotions manager at the Resource Center of Dallas, works with a staff that targets the city's Latino community. He suggests that the number of men who claim they're heterosexual but still indulge in gay sex may be higher among Latinos than Anglos. In Latin countries, there are long-entrenched terms for men who have sex with men but want nothing to do with the socially despised stigma of homosexuality. In Mexico, they call themselves "mayate."

"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.

"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.

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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