AIDS Epidemic Mobilizes Latino Activists


A new book by a health sociologist and educator considers how gay, bisexual and transgender Latino activists and volunteers have been transformed by the AIDS epidemic.

In Compañeros: Latino Activists in the Face of AIDS (University of Illinois Press, 2011), Jesus Ramirez-Valles, professor of community health sciences, writes about the life histories of GBT Latinos who come together to fight racism and homophobia, and in the process change themselves.

Compañeros tells us what it’s like to be an activist, a volunteer, and get involved in community affairs,” says Ramirez-Valles.

“The book is about Latino gay men and transgender individuals, but it speaks to the broader idea of getting involved in the community—not only to change major social forces that shape our lives, but to change ourselves, to connect with others, and in the process become better individuals and better citizens,” he said.

As a public health researcher, Ramirez-Valles has studied gender and race in health promotion and HIV/AIDS and substance abuse prevention in the United States and Latin America.

“The voices of Latino gay men in the AIDS epidemic have not been heard, and in many instances have been distorted. I felt a responsibility to share them with a larger audience,” says Ramirez-Valles, who produced a documentary, funded by the National Institutes of Health, featuring individuals in his book.

The book and film are based on scientific research related to discrimination and stigma and the consequences of these behaviors on GBT Latinos.

In the late 1990s, Ramirez-Valles became interested in how HIV/AIDS patients transformed their lives by becoming activists — from protesting against the inaction of the federal government to volunteering in the neighborhood to distribute food and take care of patients.

He soon realized there were positive effects on self esteem, decreased depression and improved health outcomes associated with volunteerism and activism, and he began writing about the subjective experiences of these individuals, or compañeros.

Ramirez-Valles said he hopes the book will change negative attitudes about HIV/AIDS, particularly in the heterosexual community, and that readers will find inspiration in the personal stories.

“Unlike other works, Compañeros succeeds in allowing the activists to speak for themselves and shares with readers an intimate connection to their lives, thoughts, and emotions,” says Rafael Diaz, author of Latino Gay Men and HIV: Culture, Sexuality, and Risk Behavior, in writing about the book. “The life stories of gay men and transgender women are movingly presented with both passion and clarity, giving a feeling of great respect and admiration for a group who heroically turns oppression into a source of resilience and strength, as well as a solidarity seldom seen in contemporary social movements.”

This story was written for UIC News by Sherri McGinnis-González, associate director of the UIC News Bureau.

Listen to a podcast interview with researcher Jesus Ramirez-Valles.

Read about Ramirez-Valles's research conducted from 2001 to 2008.