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2 min

A family of newcomers

Latino men's program fights isolation & high HIV-infection rates

“I was one of them. I understand their issues, their tears, their sweat, their concerns,” says Gerardo Betancourt, community educator for the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples and facilitator of Mano en Mano, a program for newcomer immigrant Latino men about HIV prevention and gay life in Toronto.

Betancourt, who arrived in Canada nine years ago from Mexico, says at first he washed dishes to get by and learned English by reading the Metro newspaper on the subway. Now working on his master’s degree in adult education and community development at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Betancourt recalls the days when “I didn’t know how to move around in the community. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have access to services. I didn’t know how to act or what to expect in bars.”

Mano en Mano, which means Hand in Hand, is “a reflection of the necessities I needed when first arriving at Church and Wellesley,” says Betancourt.

Developed by Betancourt with Barry Adam of the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN) and based on a San Francisco project called Hermanos de Sol y Luna, Mano en Mano began as a pilot project in September 2008. It’s since secured a year’s funding of $75,000 from Ontario’s AIDS Community Action Plan, as well as support from community and government agencies including OHTN, the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the provincial Ministry of Health’s AIDS Bureau.

On Sep 28 the program completed its second cycle, graduating 10 men who range in age from their mid-20s to 50s and are from countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay and Colombia.

“Fuck whomever you want but take care of yourself, love yourself, be careful,” graduate Herberth Menendez, an HIV-positive man from Mexico who has been in Canada for two and half years, told his peers at the last session. “Five minutes of heat is not worth it. Be careful, it’s very hard to live with HIV. You don’t realize your mistake until it’s on top of you. Love yourself, take care of yourself, value yourself.”

“I now have a family; all of you in this room,” said Juan Carlos, a 24-year-old from Mexico who arrived in Canada last spring. “You all helped me. I’m not alone anymore.”

The program, which begins with one eight-hour session followed weekly by four two-hour sessions, is primarily a discussion group where participants talk about their experiences with immigration, relationships, HIV/AIDS, the gaybourhood, public sex and isolation. Facilitated by Betancourt and ACT’s Miguel Cubillos, the group also reenacts scenes from the educational fotonovella Guys Like You — another project of Betancourt’s through the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples, released earlier this year — to explore some the difficult encounters that newcomer Latino men can face in the queer scene, such as first-time visits to the bathhouse, struggling with sexual identity, coming out and abusive relationships.

“We learned that newcomers make lots of errors as a result of being vulnerable and some have contracted HIV during this process. This brings much suffering,” says Betancourt, citing a 2008 study by Toronto Public Health that found that gay male newcomers from Mexico had the highest HIV-infection rate after Canadian-born citizens. “This shows that Latinos are very vulnerable here in Toronto in terms of contracting HIV.”

By building friendship and support networks Betancourt says the program is helping to alleviate that isolation and vulnerability. “We try to create a family here.”