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NPR: The Tavis Smiley Show ®

Interview: Dennis De Leon And Lupe Ontiveros Discuss The Work Of The Latino Commission On AIDS


May 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 NPR: The Tavis Smiley Show ®. All rights reserved.

HIV and AIDS remains at crisis levels in communities of color all across America. New findings issued specifically by the Latino Commission on AIDS reveals that HIV infections have increased in the Latino community by nearly 30 percent this year alone. These numbers are challenging leaders and activists to think about how to effectively educate its community on how to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS. The Latino Commission on AIDS is one organization that has been diligent creating prevention strategies. And joining us now to talk about methods and messages designed to thwart HIV and AIDS in Latino America, and the commission's upcoming fund-raising event, Cielo Latino, is Dennis de Leon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS. He joins us via phone.

Dennis, nice to have you on, sir.

Mr. DENNIS DE LEON (President, Latino Commission on AIDS): Thank you very much, Tavis.

SMILEY: And joining us here in the studio is acclaimed actress Lupe Ontiveros. Many of you have seen Lupe starring in films such as "As Good As It Gets" and the one I love, "Real Women Have Curves."

Lupe, nice to see you.

Ms. LUPE ONTIVEROS (Actress): Thank you.

SMILEY: Lupe, let me start with you. Why did you choose to become an advocate for this particular cause? I know how this works. When you become a well-known actress, people are always asking you to do a variety of things. For whatever reason, you have a passion about this particular project. Tell me why.

Ms. ONTIVEROS: Let me tell you, you don't have to be a celebrity to care, to get involved. All you have to do is just do it. I did it last year when I first met these folks in Cielo Latino. I was invited. And it's taken on from there and I've made a commitment to them for whatever it is that they request on this side of the world, on the West Coast. I used to be a social worker and issues have always been a part of my life. Film is only secondary. I think the human spirit, the human caring, comes first to me.

SMILEY: Dennis, let me ask you why this problem is so significant, so prevalent and growing, quite frankly, unfortunately, in the Latino community.

Mr. DE LEON: Well, essentially, we have two epidemics in the Latino community in the nation. In the Northeast and in Puerto Rico, the epidemic among Latinos is primarily driven by intravenous drug use and the sex partners, the women, who are partners of those intravenous drug users. But then when you leave the Northeast and Puerto Rico, and you go to the Southwest and to Chicago, the Midwest, it begins to become an epidemic among men who have sex with men, and we have a term for what's called `the lowdown' in the Latino community, (Spanish spoken). That refers to men who see themselves as heterosexual and oftentimes are married and have children and engage in sex with other men. So people, especially young people, have never known somebody with HIV, so it becomes an especial challenge, which is why we're putting our emphasis--we have our National Latino AIDS Awareness Day on October 15th. And Lupe is going to be announcing that, in partnership with Rosie Perez, during our benefit on May 26th, and the main message there is `Prevention is life.' So it isn't like becoming infected and just taking pills doesn't have an impact. They produce changes in your body, they produce risk to your heart. It's a very toxic regimen.

SMILEY: Lupe, you are being honored at this event this year. So, first of all, congratulations, I should say, on that.

Ms. ONTIVEROS: Why, thank you, thank you.

SMILEY: Second of all, this event, Cielo Latino, is really a call for people to open their eyes; open their eyes to what?

Ms. ONTIVEROS: That's a beautiful--in Espanol, it's (Spanish spoken).


Ms. ONTIVEROS: `Open your eyes.' It is a very, very definitive kind of statement and that is open your eyes, look beyond the denials as to why your uncle or what have you died. (Spanish spoken) also is an awareness to--how can I say--issue out the word to the community that there is an organization like this. I was talking to Dennis in New York recently and he told me that they have a program where they address different cultural areas of Latino backgrounds, you understand? And we thought we were all the same and yet we're different quite a bit. I had an experience with a woman who is gay and she wanted a child more than anything else in the world. She got involved with a man. She ended up with AIDS and no child.

SMILEY: Let me ask you how it is you think that people can--with all of the information, with all the awareness, with all the commercials, with all this out there about AIDS, how can people still be blind to what HIV-AIDS is?

Mr. DE LEON: I have this conversation with Debra Fraser-Howze, who's my partner in this area from the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and we ask ourselves that question. And then we remind ourselves: Look how long it's taken people to learn to use seat belts. It's taken decades. All these prevention measures take constant renewal, constant reinvention and reteaching for the next generation because sex...

SMILEY: Right.

Mr. DE LEON: ...and drug use are probably two of the activities where people are least rational.


Mr. DE LEON: And it's very hard to kind of inject that prevention behavior in that.


Mr. DE LEON: The real answer, ultimately, lies in the development of the vaccines. For as well as we have it in the United States, you know, over 50 percent of the Latino infections in this country are from Latinos born elsewhere. And in those countries there oftentimes are no treatments.


Mr. DE LEON: And the only solution that's going to really have an impact are the development of generic medications and the development of a vaccine.

SMILEY: It's been fascinating to have this conversation today specifically about the spread of HIV-AIDS in Latino America. And I, of course, have had this conversation any number of times about the spread of HIV-AIDS in black America and other communities across the country, specifically as it relates to women and children. And we will keep talking about it until there is a cure, but for now we thank Dennis and Lupe for the work that they are doing. Dennis de Leon is president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, and acclaimed actress and AIDS advocate Lupe Ontiveros is a proud voice for the organization.

Nice to have you both on the program.

Ms. ONTIVEROS: Thank you.

Mr. DE LEON: Thank you, Tavis.

SMILEY: For more information on the Latino Commission on AIDS auction, log on to our Web site at

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