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The Art of Finding Answers

An exhibit of Latino works will help raise research funds for afflictions affecting Hispanics.

February 23, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It all started two years ago during a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, for the Day of the Dead holiday. Gloria Reyes and Laura Harvey were marveling at the Mexican folk art they had come to see--from the Indian pottery to the holiday's traditional sugar skulls--and they were wishing they could share it with people back in Los Angeles.

The two art enthusiasts also knew that doctors at USC's School of Medicine--where Reyes and Harvey are staffers--are always looking for research funding.

So they decided to try to bring a major Mexican art exhibit to L.A. in a way that would simultaneously raise money for the university.

Their idea has turned into a weeklong fund-raiser dubbed Art for Life, which begins Monday. Exhibits, sales and talks will take place at USC's medical facilities in Lincoln Heights and on its main campus (see schedule, E3).

The speakers will include artists such as famed painter and muralist Rodolfo Morales. University, high school and elementary school students and the general public are invited to meet the artists at free presentations.

The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has agreed to showcase its collection of Morales' work through the week. To close Art for Life--which the organizers hope to make an annual event--Morales will paint a work during a $200-per-person gala. The painting will be auctioned off at the end of the evening.

But Reyes says she and Harvey want the art show to offer something for everyone, so other items will be available for as little as $1. Hundreds of pieces will be for sale, from Morales' lithographs to the clay works of folk artist Dona Rosa to the woodcarvings of Jacobo Angeles Ojeda.

The organizers hope to raise $250,000 from the art sales to benefit the university's research of HIV, AIDS and diabetes--which, doctors say, afflict Latinos in Southern California at high rates.

"We are reaching out to the Hispanic community because these are two of [their] most devastating diseases," says Harvey, a hematology research nurse.

Reyes, the School of Medicine's division of hematology administrator, says producing the event--from requesting the art to getting the help of the Mexican Consulate in transporting it--has been more work than she expected.

But she says she also has discovered an encouraging subculture of Mexican art enthusiasts around the country. People from San Francisco to Boston have called since she announced the event six weeks ago, she says.

It was through this subculture that she found a chairman for the event: Dr. Richard Zapanta, a USC alumnus. "I said yes, by all means," says Zapanta, "knowing that it had to do with the Hispanic community in particular."

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"I know there probably won't be a cure for me," says Elisa Sanchez, a 45-year-old HIV patient working with Dr. Alexandra Levine in a national study that would benefit from the fund-raiser. "But I hope by being part of [the study], there will be a cure for [others] somewhere down the line."

As part of the event, Levine and Dr. Thomas Buchanan, a diabetes researcher, are being honored for their work, particularly with Latinos.

Levine is the medical director at USC's Norris Cancer Hospital and the chairwoman of the Women's Inter-agency HIV Study. The first-of-its-kind study began tracking 2,000 HIV-positive women five years ago here and in San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington to monitor how the virus affects women differently than men.

Centers for Disease Control statistics indicate that among women, African Americans and Latinas have the highest infection rates nationally, Levine says. Of the 2,000 women in her study, 56% are African American, 23% are Latino and 18% are white--percentages that match those of CDC.

Scientists don't know exactly why African American and Latina women are infected at higher rates, Levine says. The possibilities range from certain biological traits that perhaps make them more vulnerable, to socioeconomic factors that may expose them more readily to risky environments.

"That's one of the things we will try to find out," Levine says.

Of the genetic diseases, diabetes is the most common among Latinos, Buchanan says. In the nation's general population it affects one in 13 people. But the number is one in six for Latinos.

Indeed, at County-USC Medical Center, diabetes is the most common diagnosis for Latinos other than pregnancy and child birth, according to Buchanan.

Often, the patients are treated for advanced complications of the disease--such as amputations, blindness and kidney failure--because they never had regular medical checkups that might have detected it at more treatable stages.

As part of his research, Buchanan and his staff are tracking 264 Latinas who delivered babies at County-USC and had gestational diabetes (glucose levels high enough to cause symptoms in the fetus but not the mother) that later could lead to long-term diabetes.

The goal is to learn how to prevent long-term diabetes and to promote education in the Latino community, Buchanan said.

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