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An Intimate Lesson on AIDS : Latinas Learn of Risks, Prevention in Candid, Back-Yard Gatherings


ANAHEIM — Amid the playful squeals of neighborhood children, a dozen women put aside their evening chores and carried kitchen chairs to the grass courtyard of their apartment complex to hear a neighbor talk about AIDS, intimacy and their bodies.

The women, Latinas of all ages, picked up condoms displayed on a folding table, and some asked shyly how they are used. All of them listened intently while group leader Connie Rodriguez explained to them in Spanish how to examine their breasts for early signs of cancer. And some nodded quietly when she described relationships plagued by poor communication.

The platica, or talk, was one of four open-air sessions last week in the Jeffrey-Lynne area of Anaheim to educate women about HIV and other health issues. Sponsored by the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana, the program also encourages women to speak openly with their children and husbands on such topics.

"We realize that to address HIV and AIDS in a vacuum without addressing the issues of power and sex negotiation will not work," said Irene Martinez, executive director of the Delhi center. "How do you bring up the issue when in your culture, in your community, you never talk about sex and sexuality?"

Rodriguez, a 50-year-old homemaker who lives in the Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood, organized the evening meetings. "Some husbands don't let their wives go out to the community centers," she said. "What I'm trying to do is go to their own back yard."

Rodriguez is one of 17 female volunteers who graduated two weeks ago from a Delhi Community Center program that aims to reach 1,000 Latinas across Orange County in the next year. The program, funded by a grant from the State Office of AIDS, is one of only a few to target the Latino community, local health officials said.

Getting the word out is vital. Of the 3,388 AIDS cases reported in Orange County through June this year, 207 of the patients were women. Of those, 58 were Latina, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Those numbers reflect an alarming increase over the years. In 1989, for example, 13% of Orange County women afflicted with AIDS were Latina. That compares to more than 28% of the cases reported so far this year.

"We definitely need to continue programs for the Latino population in general," said Ron Taylor, STD/HIV Services program manager for the Orange County Health Care Agency. "Men and women show the increase."

The Delhi program, he said, may be the only one working specifically with Latinas.

Talks cover how a person contracts the virus that causes AIDS, how to prevent it and how to broach the subject with a partner, including how to say no to unsafe sex. They also offer information about mammograms, which detect breast cancer, and Pap smears, which can discover cervical cancer.

"I learned a lot of things about sexual relations that I didn't know," said Yolanda Mendez, 28, one of the platica participants. "Before this class, I didn't know anything. I thought you could get AIDS by eating from the same spoon or from a kiss. But now I see that it's not so. Now I can go and tell my friends what I learned."

Some of the hourlong sessions also touch on another sensitive issue: domestic violence.

"Sometimes, the woman feels she has to have sex because, if she doesn't, her husband might hit her or become very angry," said Leticia Leon, a Delhi Community Center activist who coordinates the program. She spoke to the neighborhood group at its final session last week.

"Many men are accustomed to hit their wives in front of strangers to show that he's macho, that he's in control," she told them. "I don't know if any of you have experiences with these situations I have described, but they are very common."

Rodriguez, who organized the talks equipped with little more than a borrowed table, a binder full of Spanish-language medical pamphlets and the condoms used in her demonstrations, said any piece of information passed along might benefit another woman.

Rodriguez admits that she knew little about AIDS or the other subjects she now teaches until she attended a women's rap session held by activist Leon last year. What she heard that day so moved her, she said, that she joined 16 other women who signed up for training and made the commitment to carry the message into their respective neighborhoods.

The educadoras range in age from 22 to 55 and include women from Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and Brazil, Leon said.

Rodriguez was the first to launch her programs, Leon said. Other women plan to hold workshops soon in elementary schools in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, at a Santa Ana medical clinic, and in as many Latino neighborhoods as they can reach.

At Thursday's final Jeffrey-Lynne meeting, Leon handed out certificates and bonus eyeliner to the women, who lingered to share tacos and sodas while they chatted about what they had learned. Some said their husbands hadn't been enthusiastic about the program.

Participant Mendez, for example, said her husband wanted her to sit with him while he ate his dinner each night. But after she agreed to prepare his food early and explained to him that the information might be important for the health of both of them, he relented.

"It's a very delicate subject," Mendez said.

The intimate setting of Rodriguez' sessions provide the only frank advice some of the women have ever received about sexually transmitted diseases.

The program "helps us ask for information, for counseling," said Margarita Mendez, 52, who is pregnant with twins and also has 13 grandchildren. "Now we know what to be careful of, how to guard against infection.

"Many times we don't know where to go for advice," said Mendez, a native of Mexico. "We come from a country far away, and we are alone. We don't know where to turn." Without Rodriguez, she said, "we wouldn't have learned any of this."

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