by Mary Castillo
The face of HIV and AIDS is not what most people think it is. White gay male has become black or Latina female. This Saturday, January 17th, Project Reina and AIDS Project Los Angeles will come together to defeat HIV/AIDS at RPM Fitness Studio.
The Center for Disease Control reported that women ages 13 to 26 account for 80% of new HIV cases in the United States (64% of all women living with HIV/AIDS are African Americans while 19% are white and 15% are Latina). AIDS is the leading cause for death in African American women between the ages of 25 and 34 years old, beating out heart disease and breast cancer.
When Actress Gina Ravera (The Closer and ER) first heard the numbers about the impact of HIV on black and Latina women – the San Francisco native is half Puerto Rican and black – her initial reaction was shock.
“I said, ‘oh my god that would’ve been me,'” she recalled. “I could’ve been a statistic.”
Determined to save the lives of these young women, Ravera organized and launched Project Reina, a 501c3 organization dedicated to reaching out with the message that they deserve to be cherished and adored. She has gathered her fellow actors Sydney Tamia Poitier (Knight Rider), Dania Ramirez (Heroes), Ana Ortiz (Ugly Betty), Teresa Randall (Randle and Girl 6), Lisa Vidal (Third Watch), and Angel Moore (ER) and made them Hermanas (sisters) in her cause.
[Editorial note: The author of this article is also a Project Reina hermana.]
“We function as big sisters giving young women information about life and sharing our experiences when we were their age,” she said. “It’s not just about AIDS prevention; it’s an acknowledgement that life is a gift and it’s your responsibility to do something with it.”
Getting the information to these girls is one of the biggest obstacles according to Dr. Rosa Solorio, assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
“There’s really a strong need for culturally specific interventions,” she said. “Latinas are just as likely to use family planning services as white girls but after they have been pregnant. This is a bigger issue than preventing pregnancy and these girls need a lot of education.”
Solorio pointed out that the major factors contributing to the female HIV epidemic are poverty (one in five Latinas and one of four African American women live in poverty), limited access to health care, substance abuse and high-risk sexual choices.
“We hear people say, ‘why can’t they just use condoms?’,” Solorio said. “Its much easier said than done.”
Many of the patients Solorio has seen are in relationships where the power difference tips in favor of the man, leaving women uncomfortable or afraid to require their partners to be tested and wear condoms.
But Ravera sees this fear akin to toying with death when 80% of female HIV patients contracted the virus from a high-risk heterosexual partner.
“When I was growing up the worst thing you could deal with was the shame,” she said. “Now you could die having sex with the wrong guy.”
Ravera’s vision for Project Reina is to be the bridge between the medical community and adolescent girls. In her experience in talking with young teens, many have heard their teachers or counselors talk to them about HIV and AIDS. But it’s the classic case of in one ear and out the other.
But by leveraging her celebrity to speak to these girls in a language they can understand and in a way that doesn’t patronize or instill fear in them, Ravera hopes that they will make decisions that will protect and cherish their bodies and their lives.
“We’re not male bashing and we’re not putting anybody down,” Ravera said. “The reason why we’re giving information to these young girls is that they can lead us to the end of the AIDS pandemic.”