The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., approximately 20% (over 220,000) are Hispanics/Latinos. Since 2003, the Latino Commission on AIDS, with the help of the Hispanic Federation, has designated October 15 as National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD), sponsoring events and activities to promote HIV prevention and awareness among the Latino community.
Earlier this year, Miss Universe 2013, Gabriela Isler, was named the 2014 “La Madrina” (Godmother) of the Latino Commission on AIDS. As Madrina, an honor that has been bestowed upon many past Miss Universe title holders, Gabriela helps the Commission promote and deliver its message of HIV prevention and education. Gabriela spoke to amfAR about HIV/AIDS in the Latino community, her thoughts on how to stop its spread, and why ending the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV is crucial to ending the epidemic.
Miss Universe 2013, Gabriela Isler, addresses the audience at amfAR’s Capitol Hill Conference in April 2014.
It is estimated that Latinos account for over 20% of new HIV infections in the United States, despite making up only 16% of the population. Why do you think infection rates are so high?
There are cultural factors at play. Latinos are very proud of their culture and this is a positive thing. There is a strong emphasis on family and community that I believe is really amazing. Yet, traditional gender roles are still often rigidly followed. I think this affects the risk of HIV infection among Latinos. Latin culture can hinder individuals form seeking the services they need because stepping outside of these cultural norms means opening yourself up to stigma and discrimination.
What do you think can be done to combat the spread of HIV among the Latino community?
We need to do a better job of raising AIDS awareness and educating the Latino community about HIV/AIDS by making information more accessible. We can do this by supporting Spanish-language outreach programs that engage people in their own neighborhoods. We can also do more to make quality (and confidential) prevention, testing, and care services readily available to those in need. People shouldn’t be afraid to seek help that could save their lives out of fear of discrimination. The stigma that surrounds HIV is so strong that it can paralyze people. We need to do more to end the stigma…and that starts with education.
One of your primary goals is helping reduce HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination through education. Why is this issue so important to you?
I’ve done a great deal of traveling in the last year as part of my Miss Universe duties. During this time, I’ve met a lot of people and family members affected by HIV and I’ve listened to their stories. And do you know what? The majority of the stories share the same themes. Stigma. Discrimination. Lack of education.
I remember hearing a story about a child who was bullied at school because her mother had HIV. Other kids refused to come to her house because they thought they’d get infected just by being there or sharing her food. Stories like this have taught me that in many ways we have to get back to basics. We need to do a better job of educating our children. And we need to do more to end the stigma of HIV. In fact, you cannot separate the two because stigma is usually the result of lack of education on the topic.
Growing up in Venezuela, I would hear students in school refer to people infected with HIV as “sidosos.” This is a derogatory and hurtful term. And hearing that word, it made people panic. My friends and I were not educated about HIV, so in the absence of knowledge, cruelty emerged. Ignorance can be a powerful thing, which is why it is so important to speak out against it.
It’s my job as an ambassador to HIV/AIDS organizations to help break the silence and lift the stigma around this disease and those living with it.
The theme of this year’s National Latino AIDS Awareness Day is “To End AIDS, Commit to Act,” emphasizing the importance of being committed to knowing the facts, getting tested, and getting into care if infected. To get involved or for more information, visit the following:
The Latino Commission on AIDS
The Hispanic Federation
National Latino AIDS Awareness Day
National HIV and STD Testing Resources