Being Latina and Naïve about HIV/AIDS
I remember the first time I heard the word AIDS, right down to where and what I was doing: Mexicali, Baja – Mexico, pumping gas and still remember the paperboy screaming “Rock Hudson dies of AIDS, read all about it.” It only caught my attention because he was so loud, the only thing I knew about Hudson is that he was married to Liz Taylor. My friends and I were heading out to hang out with some guys and frankly we did not care. I still remember us talking about how we didn’t have to worry about that AIDS, because we were not white, gay or American “that only happens to those gay gringos!” we told each other and we were off.
I continue life as usual, never again did I became concerned about HIV and yet I continued to put myself at risk. I had unprotected sex with as many guys I could and rarely used condoms. You see, I only used them around those days of the month when I thought I could get pregnant or if I didn’t know the guy that good. How foolish. I don’t beat myself for that. I was not educated around HIV, the media in Mexico only talked about it when someone famous died from it and it was usually someone who was gay. It did not apply to me.
Speed forward to 1995: I worked as a cocktail waitress in Los Angeles; I still practiced unsafe behavior, partied like the 20 something I was and had very few cares in life, until I got pregnant and shortly after became ill. I was losing weight, threw up all day everyday and had mild fevers everyday. I went to the hospital and was told I had pneumonia, and was given an inhaler, and was sent home. I continue to lose weight; even though I was pregnant I could not gain a pound. Finally I was too sick to be on my own two feet. I went to the hospital and immediately was admitted. I stayed there for a week and at the end was told what was wrong: it was about 6 in the morning, my physician came into the room, I was half asleep when I heard ‘aids’, I saw my entire life go before me, I remember every person I had had sex with…it was the end.
But then my doctor pulled me back to reality. It was not HIV, it was what I heard, I had TB. How could I confuse HIV with TB? But there it was: I was free from HIV, she was explaining the testing they had done and what I had tested positive for. My life would never be the same.
In 1997, I was working at a free clinic and met the first woman who told me had HIV, she had only two sexual partners and became infected by the second one – how could this be? I had basically been through the mud and was clean, it seemed unfair. I needed to do something, I needed to educate other woman like me, and other woman who never thought it could happen to them, because they only had one man and in fact had not slept with more than two in their lives.
I became educated, received training to do HIV counseling and testing, and another journey began, I relocated to a rural area in Arizona, specifically Yuma, because I knew that the woman that lived there knew less about HIV than I did. I knew that the men who left them behind to work the fields, were having sex with sex workers and other men and sadly bringing home HIV.
In the time since, I have worked the front lines reaching and educating young and adult women on HIV/AIDS. I have seen some who receive the information with such delight, are happy that someone takes the time to educate and empower them, provides the tools for them to be safe and tells them it’s okay to trust their partners, but that they need to talk about their fears and HIV. I have also witness how some of the younger woman are hesitant about the information, believe that if they are monogamous they are not at risk. Let me repeat that: if THEY, are monogamous. It’s frustrating how many young ladies I have spoken to say they are not at risk because she is not having sex with anyone else, but has no idea if her partner is having sex outside of the relationship; she wants to believe that youth is the magical word. I understand; I was there too. I tell them my journey and how it’s possible to be confident and that no condom means any sex, no matter how much you care for that person. Being young is beautiful; being young is dangerous as well.
I continue on this journey of education and empowerment. There is no day that goes by that I don’t speak about HIV, and I take every opportunity to remove the myth that just because you are a Latina you can not be confident and take the charge. Women make men macho, so it is women who can take back that power and decide when and how they are going to have sex. We still have a long journey ahead, in our rural community the need is great, the resources are scarce, and the information is not being given at the schools, so with diligence we can continue to convert naïve Latinas into empowered Latinas!
HIV Outreach Director
Back To The Basics Please
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gabriela Leon was born in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora Mexico. She has 15 years experienced working with underserved communities in all areas of public health. She is currently works as a case manager for a mental health organization in Yuma, Arizona. Her background and experience includes being the Service Provider Network Coordinator for HIV Policy and External Affairs at AltaMed Health Services were she was instrumental in the coordination of services, addressing service needs and barriers to accessing HIV services in the East Los Angeles area. She has spent the last 13 years working in the HIV arena and is skilled in program development, innovative outreach strategies, community organization, public speaking, program and financial management, as well as coordination and delivery of services; which includes school based education on sexual health and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
As a public health educator, she worked with the migrant farm worker population, specializing in teaching about infections diseases. Ms. Leon volunteers as a Health Educator for the Peruvian Amazon Health Care Cooperative Project, whose mission is to bring affordable health care to those who reside in the Amazon Jungle in Peru. Ms. Leon holds licenses and certifications as a HIV Counselor, HIV Tester, and HIV Trainer of Trainers (Spanish-language curriculum) from the states of Arizona and California, the American Red Cross, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She received her license as a Medical Assistant from the United Education Institute, Los Angeles and is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Science degree in Human Services which she will receive in the fall of 2010. She currently resides in Yuma, Arizona.