AIDS and the Hispanic Community: Social Stigmas Hurt Those Most In Need of Help

Yolanda Perdomo- A van from the free clinic is parked outside of Humadaop, a Hispanic substance abuse program off West 25th in Cleveland. The van's there every morning from 9 until noon, where it sits and waits for people, mostly Latinos, to stop by and exchange their used syringes for new ones, as well as pick up bleach kits to sterilize their needles. Two men in their twenties walk up to the van, dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. Their heads are lowered as they listen to the free clinic workers explain how the needle exchange works.

As the two drive away, Jose Soto says he'll see many more drug addicts before the day's over. Soto's been with the free clinic for two years, and he himself is a recovering drug addict. He says in the Hispanic community, there's a giant stigma attached to having an addiction, hurting those who are trying to get better.

Jose Soto- In the Latino community, what I see is they still think that it is willpower. Oh, you don't have any willpower. Guess what, they don't. They need to go somewhere and get that willpower with something else.

YP- Jose Luis knows what Soto is talking about. He's spent years trying to kick his heroin and cocaine habit on his own, before seeking outside help. The thin 33-year-old didn't want to reveal his last name, or where he lived. He was born in Puerto Rico, and has been in Cleveland for 5 years. He's been battling a drug addiction on and off since the age of 17. Jose Luis says he took drugs to ease the pain of his problems at home, specifically his parents' divorce.

Jose Luis- The last time tried to go without drugs was nine months. I just finished a program at Casa Alma (House of Hope). I was there for 40 days. I was fine, going to meetings. I was fine. But there was something inside of me that I couldn't let go. And that made me relapse.

YP- It was the death of his brother that made him go into a downward spiral. Jose Luis says he knew he was HIV-positive back in '96, but that didn't stop him from continuing to use drugs. But now he feels that he has something to look forward to. He's got a girlfriend, and they plan to marry. Jose Luis started methadone treatments two weeks ago, and says he's been clean ever since. While he's optimistic about his future, Jose Luis admits that he can't make specific promises to anyone, including himself.

JL- I never say this will be it for me, you know? Because I can only go one day at a time. Today I'm using drugs. I don't know about tomorrow. I could relapse. But I need more help. I need more help.

YP- For Luz, her battle with AIDS began when her husband infected her 9 years ago. Her husband eventually died from the disease. Luz, not her real name, has long light brown hair, her hazel eyes are bloodshot, as if she had been crying. Luz went through bouts of depression and even suffered family alienation. The 44-year-old New Jersey native says she was shunned by her former physician, and, even worse, by her own father.

Luz- My father's reaction is that, like we have that "orgullo," pride. And that I've messed up his pride - and it hurts.

Since I had a bad marriage anyway, 20 years of abuse. He says that I could have gotten out of it. And done more to prevent myself from getting the disease.

When I want to kiss him or hug him, he turns away - it's like the family is divided because of this. He's 80 years old, what can I expect, you know. But I try.

YP- Luz is finding some support through counseling at Humadaop. But while there are several outreach facilities like Casa Alma and Humadaop that serve the Spanish speaking community, more are needed. The number of AIDS cases among Latinos is on the rise in Cleveland, according to Luis Manuel Santiago. He's currently working on his PHD at Case Western Reserve University is on the national faculty for the Hispanic HIV program for the Red Cross. Santiago argues that the Hispanic community needs to come together to support those who are ill and need of assistance.

Luis Manuel Santiago- We have a tradition that we're not really unified here in Cleveland. The Hispanic community's programs, the different programs that we have. And we forget that everything that happens in the street, and everything that happens in the alleys, it belongs to their communities. Its not particular to that street. We need to unify ourselves, have a meeting with leaders. Everything. We have to put aside differences and capitalize on will bring us together.

YP- Jose Luis agrees. He says his battle with drug addiction and AIDS is far from over. And hopes others will understand his plight before judging him.

JL- Don't turn your back on us, because this is a sickness that can affect anyone. Black, white, any race - today it's us, but tomorrow, who knows who could be addicted. And don't discriminate against us. We're all the same.

YP- While Jose Luis works at his problems one day at a time, Luz is planning on finishing accounting courses at Cuyahoga Community College. She wants to someday work for Humadopt to help other Latinos who are HIV-positive as a way of paying back the people who helped her when she had no where else to turn. Yolanda Perdomo, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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