Her voice rising, grief etched into her young face, Angie turns to Rudy and cries out, "You don't understand; kids can get AIDS, too! My brother. . . ." She lowers her eyes and says softly, "My brother died of AIDS last year."
It is a dramatic moment in a play produced by the Teen Teatro AIDS Prevention Project, a division of Avance Human Services. The audience--teen-agers themselves--reacts with a mixture of tears, thoughtful silence and a few embarrassed snickers. But as the word gets out about AIDS, the teen-age actors are hearing a lot less laughter from their young audiences.
The play is entertaining all right, but its message--that even teen-agers are at risk of contracting AIDS--is deadly serious.
The young actors who play Angie, Rudy and other characters speak peer to peer about what has all too often been an unspeakable subject in the Latino teen-age community--AIDS. The actors are street-smart and cool. And they speak a language that communicates far better than any white-coated doctor lecturing with charts and graphs.
The facts about AIDS are sobering. Latinos make up 7% of the U.S. population but 14% of the nation's AIDS cases. In Orange County, the incidence of Latinos with AIDS is lower than the national average at 12.5% of all reported cases, but it rises to 18% in Los Angeles County.
Nationwide, 20% of women with AIDS are Latinas, and one in five teen-agers with AIDS is Latino. AIDS experts are particularly concerned that Latino youths are engaged in behavior that puts them at high risk for contracting the fatal disease.
Eve Rubell, administrative coordinator of the Avance AIDS Community Outreach Service, stated what most parents would rather not acknowledge: "Kids are having a lot of sex. They think monogamy is having just one partner for a month or two, then going on to another partner."
Rubell said a sizable majority of sexually active teen-agers do not use condoms, leaving them in peril of being infected by the AIDS virus.
"Right now the number of teens infected with AIDS is not that high," she said, "but so many are engaging in high-risk behavior that a sizable number could very well become ill in their early 20s."
Janet Martinez of AIDS Project Los Angeles said, "There's a lot of denial going on in the Latino community. People don't want to talk about sex so we have to come up with creative ways, through theater or education, to do whatever we can. The (Teen Teatro) performances are very therapeutic because they create awareness about the risks and provide the kids with the information they need."
If Angie's tragic story about her brother does not move the young audience watching the play, Rudy's probably will.
He is the cute guy who dates all the girls--and doesn't believe in using condoms or taking precautions. Or there is Christina, a drug user who has shot up with shared needles, another AIDS high-risk action. And then there is homeboy Joe, who thought it was macho to get a tattoo from a sleazy parlor. But now he, like the others, is scared.
Just to make sure Latino youths get the message, each teatro performance is conducted in English and Spanish. A bilingual question-and-answer session after each performance lets the audience ask the most personal and embarrassing questions and get direct, no-nonsense answers.
How effective the teatro is in changing teen-age attitudes toward AIDS is difficult to measure, but Rubell believes that the play hits home. "Before teens change their behavior, they have to believe they're at risk."
Rubell said the teatro emphasizes that "it does not matter whether you have sex with a man or woman, what matters is whether you practice 'safer sex.' Using condoms is safer than nothing at all, but it's not 100% safe. Abstinence would be safest . . . for preventing the AIDS virus transmission. But if you are going to have sex, use condoms."
The teatro program "has been pretty well accepted," she said. "Although some Catholic groups haven't wanted us to present it, others have. And there have been no negative reactions as far as I know."
Several weeks after a performance at Bancroft Junior High School in Hollywood, Principal Peggy Selma admitted, "I was a little apprehensive toward the end of the program with all the talk about condoms, but honestly, I have not heard any negative feedback--not from students, the Student Council, not even from parents."
Following one recent performance of "AIDS . . . I Want to Know," a 16-year-old-girl burst into tears. "One of my best friends got AIDS," she sobbed. "And when people found out he was sick, nobody would even talk to him. If they had seen what we saw today, then maybe he wouldn't have died alone."
Elizabeth Rodriguez, 18, who plays Christina in the play, said, "Many teens don't know very much about AIDS because their parents are strict and don't want them to know."