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HIV-prevention project targets Latino immigrants

Building communities in an adopted country

A NEW HOME. Ricardo Gomont (from left), Drew Delaware, Gerardo Betancourt, Nathan Doidge and Jason Novelli of the Centre for Spanish Speaking Peoples Credit: Jenna Wakani

A series of programs sponsored by the AIDS Community Action Program (ACAP) is combining prevention education and art for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking immigrants in the gay community.

The Wellesley branch of the Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples (CSSP) began shooting at various venues in the village in mid-July for a film and photography project aimed at promoting safer sex and healthy relationships among men who have sex with men.

CSSP outreach worker Gerardo Betancourt says the goal of the Prevention is Fun, Prevention is Hot project is two-fold: to help Spanish-speaking immigrants gain their footing and learn about the dynamics of the Toronto gay scene while staying safe in the process.

“It can be very hard to integrate into a new country and a new social setting at the same time, especially if you’re not out,” says Betancourt. “I mean, there’s no manual for How to be Gay a Church and Wellesley for Dummies.”

Because of its multicultural appeal the city of Toronto has attracted a large number of Spanish-American residents. According to Statistics Canada 10.8 percent of the 1.1 million immigrants who arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2006 came from Central and South America and the Caribbean. Mexico and Colombia were the largest source countries. Close to half of newcomers end up settling in the GTA.

The influx presents some unique challenges for the CSSP, which has run HIV/AIDS prevention programs for the past 13 years. Sexuality is a taboo subject in some Latino countries due to cultural and religious influences, which can make discussions about things like condom use difficult for both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

Homophobia is also an issue for many, leading some married men to have relationships on the down-low – the so-called “non gay-identified” men who have sex with men.
“Many men come to [the Village] to have fun and then return to their wives and that can be a bridge for infection,” especially when combined with infrequent condom use, Betancourt says.

The CSSP received $75,000 from the public health agency of Canada AIDS Community Action Program for three projects including a photonovella, a wellness fair and a theatre project.

A photo shoot, featuring volunteers of various nationalities, will be used to produce a fotonovela, a comic illustrated with photographs in a style similar to Spanish language soap operas, or telenovelas. Both are popular genres in Latin American countries.

Titled Guys Like Us, the gay-themed storyline follows a trio of characters as they adjust to life in Canada while dealing with various challenges: sex, domestic violence, homophobia and discrimination, among others.
Readers will be able to follow the story, available in English and Spanish, through the print story and online at the centre’s website, which will contain bonus materials and film footage.

Betancourt expects the final cut of Guys Like Us, will be launched in March 2009. It will be distributed to various bars, clubs and community centres in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood, he says.

Actor Miguel Cubillos, who came to Canada from Colombia in 2004, says he was motivated to get involved because of his experiences adapting to his new home.

“There are two opposite reactions,” he recounts of his discovery of the gay village. “One is like being in a wonderland and the other is like being lost, where you don’t know where to go or who to talk to.”

He adds that gay immigrants often have to perform a juggling act of fitting into Canadian society, their own cultural group and queer communities, all of which can exert opposing pressures about social norms and conduct.
Betancourt agrees and says he hopes the medium will be as effective at educating people as it is at entertaining them.

“Rather than writing a pamphlet with information, a fotonovela will give people a chance to identify with the characters and their situations and therefore have a greater impact…. In that way, I think art and prevention are somewhat linked together.”