Just after the lecture covered the four ways that HIV is most commonly passed person-to-person, but before it veered into a demonstration of how to use male and female condoms, Yolanda Ruiz credited the class she’s been attending with improving her understanding of HIV/AIDS and ultimately of making her life safer.
Ruiz was one of 10 women and six men in a Thursday evening session of Programa Comadres y Compadres at the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Neighborhood House in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood.
Taught by Judy Ojeda, a program manager at the center, and two other women, the class seeks to stem the growing rate of HIV exposure and AIDS cases in Minnesota’s Latino community, and to educate.
Latinos make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for 18 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases nationally in 2005, according to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Latino women were nearly five times more likely to have AIDS than non-Latino white women, the survey said.
“Health education has been an area the Neighborhood House has been working on in the last few years,” said Janeth Guerro de Patino, director of family life programs at the center. She added that having a bilingual and bicultural staff at the Neighborhood House makes it almost uniquely qualified to handle such tasks. The three-session classes are paid for by public and private grants.
Along with prevention, the education effort of the program is intended to shed light on AIDS, which has been quietly hidden in the dark corners of the community. “We never talk about this in our community,” is a constant refrain Ojeda says she hears all the time from class participants.
Two big reasons are because of the persistent stereotype that only homosexuals get AIDS and homosexuality is less accepted in the Latino community.
Similar to those in the African-American community, Latino homosexuals have been slower to “out” themselves, fearing community opprobrium. There’s a greater tendency of male homosexuals in the African-American community, for example, to masquerade as being straight by having sex with men and women – living on the down-low – it’s called, thus spreading the virus ever more rapidly.
“We have it on the down-low in the Latino community, too,” Ojeda says. She noted that such stereotyping is part of the reason that the program’s creators decided to give it such a non-descript name as Comadres y Compadres, a familiar term that loosely translates god-mother and god-father – one who cares for another.
The remedy the Neighborhood House applies is nuts-and-bolts seminar that gives participants the straight-on facts about HIV and AIDS.
The program is made up of three, two-hour sessions that run Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, all delivered in Spanish. Classes are held in a meeting room of the Neighborhood House, whose mission is the same as it was more than 125 years ago when it started: to welcome new arrivals to this country and to ease their integration to the society. These days the center still runs English language classes, a food shelf and a rental assistance referrals as well.
More than 119 people have come to the classes since they started in February.
The first session is a frontal assault on all the myths that HIV/AIDS have spawned. Ojeda tells participants that despite what they have heard a person cannot get AIDS from hugging, kissing or holding the hand of someone with AIDS. And that HIV/AIDS is an equal-opportunity terror, potentially striking anyone who absorbs the semen, vaginal fluid, blood or breast milk of an infected person.
“We want to clarify what is truth and what is myths,” Ojeda says.
The second session covers barriers to prevention, such as low self-esteem, which can keep a person from negotiating safe-sex practices, and cultural factors, such as someone’s interpretation of how their religion requires them to act.
The third session goes over safe-sex practices, including a demonstration of male and female condoms and other materials specifically designed oral sex.
It’s in that final session, all in Spanish, where the discussion yields to the universal language of giggles as the condom and wooden phalluses are brought out and the class is asked to try putting one on.
It’s also the time that Ojeda invites people who feel they want to have a private discussion about HIV/AIDS and prevention to call or come by later. The program also does outreach to the community by having a volunteer call community residents, asking them to attend the sessions. Those who complete the three-session class are given a $30 gift card to Target.
After the demonstrations and practice and giggling is over, there is, hopefully, new knowledge. Ruiz, an Salvadoran immigrant who has two children and has been in the U.S. 10 years, says it was all worthwhile.
“Before I came to this country, I only knew about AIDS,” she said through a translator. “But I didn’t know how to protect myself.”
Gregory A. Patterson can be reached at GregPatterson1@gmail.com