Para Nuestra Cultura (For Our Culture)
October 15th marks the end and beginning of two significant Latino events. The date concludes the end of Latino Heritage Month, a month used to promote cultural awareness to the rest of our fellow Americans. What this date is more importantly known for is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. There aren’t any major celebrations associated with this event but it doesn’t imply that this day is any less important than the festivities of the month prior. If anything, National Latino AIDS Awareness Day is a symbolic reference that purposely takes place at the end of Latino Heritage Month. It should serve to us, Latinos, as a reminder that regardless of our religious beliefs, political views, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic background, HIV/AIDS is affecting millions of Latinos around the world.
I speak of this through personal experience. My uncle passed away from AIDS after contracting HIV at its peak in the late 1980s. Since the time of his death, I’ve been sharing his story and how his death has affected me to countless people. His stories and experiences have driven me to dig deeper into the public policy aspect that affects million of HIV/AIDS patients in the U.S and how it can be more effective to those with the disease. However, speaking out about my personal experience of HIV/AIDS to other Latinos, like me, has been challenging for several reasons.
Many in the Latino community still believe HIV/AIDS is a “gay” disease. But many heterosexuals also died from HIV/AIDS when the disease first spread. The famous salsa singer Hector Lavoe committed suicide one he discovered he had acquired the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from sharing drug needles. The thing to take from this is that HIV/AIDS has never been a “gay” disease since its inception in the late 1970’s.
Being gay in the Latino community is typically met with social stigma. As a result, many men who have sex with other men (MSM) feel uncomfortable and ashamed to get tested. However, Latinos have the second highest development of new HIV infections among men and women, right behind African Americans. This statistic speaks to the entire Latino community, regardless of our stereotypical gender roles. Machismo is a cultural term that infiltrates the lives of Latino males from the moment we are born. It is a term that upholds the importance of males as head of the house, having children, and working hard to provide the household income. Many Latinos who “come out” to their families increase their chances of being disowned, looked down upon by other family members, kicked out of their homes, and/or living in the streets without a place to call home, cultural risks that dissuade MSM from coming out. HIV infection rates increase as MSM continue to have sex without getting tested and without knowing their HIV status. This is also how the disease is transmitted to women who are unaware of their partner’s sexual activity. Brushing all stereotypes and generalizations aside, HIV/AIDS will continue to exist and coming to accept this disease is challenging for many Latinos.
These are just some of many reasons why HIV/AIDS is increasing in the Latino community, why my uncle could not disclose his HIV status earlier to his family, and why it is important to recognize that this disease does not discriminate against anyone, including Latinos.
October 15 is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. On this day, I ask that all Latinos push all gender roles and stereotypes about gay males aside. HIV/AIDS will still exist no matter what roles and expectations we are expected to live up to. Our biggest conquer over this disease is if we acknowledge and accept its increasing presence among Latinos. Millions of people have died from this disease, millions more are currently infected. Latinos are already seen in high statistical ratings for other diseases in this country. HIV/AIDS should not be one of them.
“I’m a person living with AIDS and I’ll be living with AIDS until I take my last breath”
-Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American television star from “The Real World: San Francisco” who battled with HIV/AIDS