Latinas and HIV/AIDS - 30 Years Later

Sep 20, 2011, 12:00 PM, Posted by Zayda Rivera

Zayda Rivera is a multicultural communications strategist for LAGRANT COMMUNICATIONS working on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This year marks an anniversary for the United States, and one that doesn’t call for celebration. The HIV/AIDS epidemic reaches its 30th year in this country and sadly, the problem persists. While there have been some breakthroughs in medicine and long term care for people living with HIV and AIDS over the past three decades, the stigmas associated with the disease are still deeply embedded in our cultural fabric. In addition, the numbers of those infected continue to rise and according to some individuals who work with people living with HIV and AIDS, awareness is decreasing.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about HIV and AIDS. I get tested annually and I’m fully aware of what it takes to put yourself at risk for infection. But I was not aware of the astonishing number of Latinas who are infected and either living with or killed by HIV and AIDS. In fact, AIDS is the 5th leading cause of death for Latinas, aged 25 to 44, which is exactly my age group.

Friday, September 9th was my wake up call when I moderated a roundtable discussion about Latinas and HIV/AIDS for TheBody.com called “What’s gender got to do with it?” The panel was made up of three strong women who work hard to breakdown the stigmas and bring awareness to the Latino community and beyond about the real people living with this disease.

One of those women was Susan Rodriguez, president and founding director for the Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research and Treatment (SMART). Susan was recognized for her work when she received the 2010 Community Health Leader Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Susan is also HIV positive.

“As a woman living with HIV for almost 20 years, it has impacted my life and my work,” Susan said during the panel discussion. “At SMART, we provide treatment education and support for women living with or affected by HIV and AIDS.”

Along with the other two panelists— Bianca Lopez, community coordinator for Connect to Protect Bronx Coalition, and Maria Mejia, a blogger for TheBody.com—Susan opened my eyes to some of the realities Latinas face when infected by HIV and AIDS.

“When women come through our doors, whether they're Latina or African American, White, or whatever, they come at a very vulnerable time. They're shattered and their lives have been shattered. And it's the stigma and isolation that hasn't really been addressed,” Susan revealed. “I know what I went through. I just couldn't talk to anybody, not even a mental health professional because it felt like every bad thing that ever happened to me [in] my entire life was now hitting me full-force. I can relate, so when these women come through our doors, they are bringing their baggage. And we don't ask them to leave it the door.”

Click here to read part 1 of “What’s gender got to do with it?”

Click here to visit TheBody.com’s HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Latinos.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.