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Vida/SIDA May Close
by Roberto Sanabria
2004-06-01

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The only AIDS education and outreach program based in Chicago's Puerto Rican community is slated to close its doors in a few weeks. Due to funding cuts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Vida/SIDA, absent a miracle, will distribute its last condoms, lay off its staff, unplug its computers, and turn off the lights. [And Greater Chicago Committee, serving African-Americans, may also close due to funding cuts.]

To be sure, Vida/SIDA is not the only AIDS program to suffer the fiscal pinch. The federal government's reprioritization, however, is disconcerting in that proven and effective grassroots responses to the AIDS pandemic are fast becoming extinct.

'The AIDS crisis is not going away in this community,' said Johnny Colon, Program Director of Vida/SIDA. 'In fact, among Latinos in Chicago, Puerto Ricans are the hardest hit. The CDC couldn't have picked a worse time or a worse target!' Colon added that he was scrambling to secure a skeleton staff for the months ahead. 'A few said they'd stay on as volunteers ... at least until they find other jobs. In the meantime, I'll be shaking every tree ... seeing if I can shake loose some untapped funding.'

Vida/SIDA was born in 1987, when Puerto Rican community activists cobbled together a few resources and opened a storefront on West Division St. This first stage in the program's evolution was a free, alternative health clinic run entirely by volunteer staff. In those years, it served hundreds of HIV+ residents of West Town / Humboldt Park and of other communities. The clinic provided services as varied as nutritional counseling, acupuncture, chiropractic care and tai chi.

In subsequent years, Vida/SIDA grew and adapted its mission to embrace education and prevention strategies among the fastest growing HIV+ populations—Latina women and sexually active young people. Moreover, it broadened its scope and provided education and services with respect to other sexually transmitted diseases.

Throughout most of the first decade of the AIDS crisis, prevention strategies fell short in communities of color. While impressive organization and action politics took place in Boy's Town, other areas of the city lagged far behind. Although exported to several communities, intervention models based on gay-Anglo sensibilities were meaningless in places such as West Town. Vida/SIDA was one of the first community-based expressions of 'one size does not fit all' problem solving. The strategies were designed by Latinos and nuanced for a Latino community.

That idea continues. 'The approach and the language you use for a middle class, gay White man is not the same approach you would use with a 17-year-old Puerto Rican gang member. That has nothing to do with a difference in intelligence; it has everything to do with culture, identity, and comfort.' said Colon. 'If you don't establish a connection ... some empathy, you're not going far.'

Leonilda Calderon, a teenager when she began working as a peer educator with Vida/SIDA, illustrates the point with an anecdote. 'I've been working here for about 10 years, now. I can't tell you how many homes I've been in talking about HIV. Last week, I was in Humboldt Park passing out information, some condoms, and dental dams. I saw these two white guys ... I think they were Mormons—they had on ties and were riding bikes. They stopped and talked to these two Puerto Rican women—in their 30s maybe their 40s. The ladies smiled, but you could just tell they weren't having it. After a while, we went up to them and started talking in Spanish. I swear, before you know it, we're in one of their livingrooms, drinking coffee, looking at family photos, and having great conversations about their daughters' risks, their own sex lives, and all the community resources around here that they don't know about. You know, it's not just because we spoke Spanish we got in their door; it's that we have the same realities—the same culture. We understand a lot of things the same way. You know?'

Following up on his earlier metaphor, Colon added, 'The tree I'm shaking now is the Ballets de San Juan—That's the official Ballet Company of Puerto Rico. They're being brought to New York for a special performance in honor of their 50th anniversary. They performed here before and loved it, but out of nowhere they called us and said they'd be willing to come back after New York and perform for free!—if we paid the airfare. We've already got the whole thing set up at Clemente's H.S. auditorium. If we could sell out both performances, we just might be able to keep this work going until the next round of major grant disbursements. I'm telling you, if we can pull this off, the community will have dodged a bullet, it'll be something.'

The Ballets de San Juan will perform on June 18, at Clemente H.S. Auditorium located at 1147 N. Western Ave. Congressman Luís Gutiérrez will host the reception. Call (773) 278-6737.

Ornelas-Quintero to Leave LLEG"

Martín Ornelas-Quintero, LLEG"—the National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organization—executive director since 1996, has announced his resignation effective July 31, when his contract expires this year. LLEG"'s board of directors has begun a national search for his replacement.


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