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Facing Their Fears

The Latino Men's Group Is Helping Its Members Modify Risky Sexual Behavior and Reach Out In an Ethnic Group That Is Still Reluctant to Acknowledge AIDS

May 20, 1997|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The future of AIDS education programs may well look like the Latino Men's Group, which meets Monday and Tuesday nights at The Wall/Las Memorias, just off Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles.

At a typical meeting, about 30 men faced each other in a circle, confronting some of their worst fears.

Previously, those fears sent many into bouts of unsafe, anonymous sex. Instead, the men at the meeting facilitated by Richard Zaldivar, the 44-year-old executive director of the city-funded agency, confronted their fears, one at a time.

What makes the Latino Men's Group stand out is not only that it has helped its members modify risky sexual behavior, but that it is reaching out in an ethnic group still reluctant to acknowledge AIDS.

Only 54% of Latinos have access to the new protease inhibitor drug therapies--the lowest of any ethnic or racial group, said Mark Senak, director of policy and planning at Aids Project Los Angeles. By contrast, 74% of whites have access to the new therapies.

Latinos also scored "the lowest amount of knowledge of combination therapy," with six times more Latinos than whites having "no knowledge of protease inhibitors," said Senak.

In addition, Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services' HIV Epidemiology Program, said that cultural differences hold back discussions about safer sex. Among those barriers, he said, are "unopened discussions of sexuality, including discussions on the use of condoms. This is largely due to religious beliefs."

This lack of discussion is intensified by social pressures to marry and the "often closeted nature of homosexuality in that population," Kerndt said. Thus, many HIV-positive men married because of social pressures, engaging in unsafe sex on the side, he said.

Rafael Gonzalez, director of civic education for the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, concurs.

"Many Latinos still feel uneasy around AIDS. We don't want to talk about sexuality because this is considered disrespectful, taboo . . . But in denying this reality, we are killing ourselves."

During a recent meeting of the three-year-old Latino Men's Group, words such as condoms, safer sex, drug therapies" and the like were barely mentioned. Instead, the group focused on more complex notions, such as whether, for many gays, contracting HIV is a way of standing out from the crowd and gaining a sense of identity.

The meeting opened with the men reading aloud an article by Toronto activist Ian Young from the May issue of 'Art & Understanding. Citing the work of a psychologist specializing in HIV-negative men, Young proposed that the uninfected gay man has lost his sense of identity. He lives amid the epidemic "like a dying man," Young wrote, "disoriented, piecemeal and with no assumption of a future."

By contrast, theorized Young, HIV "is identified with . . . homosexual intimacy." The result "is a powerful draw toward seroconversion. The uninfected men . . . repeatedly express the view that HIV-positives live richer, more complex, more authentic lives.'

Zaldivar asks the group: Do some men get infected as a way of gaining identity? And is there a healthier way to get identity?

Her asks 27-year-old Larry Castruita how a gay man relates to his mother who feels uncomfortable with his sexual orientation. What is his obligation to her, and what is his obligation to himself?

Castruita has just invited his mother to a Mother's Day dinner sponsored by the group.

"My mother's very overprotective," he said. "She even checks whether I've washed my hands when I go to the restroom.

"She also thinks gay behavior is not normal, that it's a perversion. She wants me to have sex" with a female friend. "I feel very hurt, like I can't be my true self in my family.

"A few weeks ago, I gave her an ultimatum. I told her she needs to accept the whole package, deal with my whole life. Enough of the denial. That includes letting my little brothers and sister know."

And as part of that acknowledgment, Castruita insisted that his mother go to the dinner and meet his friends from the group. "She didn't want to deal with it," he said.

Homero del Pino, 25, of Silver Lake, volunteers that, "Unless I bring home grandchildren, I'll never win mom's approval. Once I realized I would not get her approval, it was so freeing. I was still annoyed at her, but it was freeing."

Another member of the group,

who identified himself as Carlos, studied to become a priest but gave it up. Now Zaldivar urges him, "You need to take a stand on who you are. Do you know who you are?"

Carlos doesn't answer.

"Are you a pervert?" Zaldivar

asked, bringing up each homophobic stereotype for a

reality check. "Are you a non-caring person?"

Still no answer.

"Are you a dirty person? Do you steal? Do you rob? Who are you?"

Carlos barely acknowledged the questions.

Finally, Zaldivar asked him, "Does God love you?"

"I think so," came back the answer.

"You think so?" Zaldivar echoed.

"Yes," Carlos said. "God loves me."

His face is pale.

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