Street Vendors Spread Word About AIDS

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amid the clumps of cilantro and sacks of tortillas in street vendor Javier Barajas' truck is a stack of AIDS information in Spanish, ready for distribution at the right moment.

Barajas is the president of Southern California Street Vendors Assn., which has been helping the county's AIDS education program reach Latinos who often fall through the cracks of traditional efforts.

"Many of these people come from Mexico and other countries in Latin America. A lot of times they don't go to the clinic because they don't speak the language and are afraid," he said. "This (the information distribution)is a good thing."

On and off for the past six months, street vendors in Anaheim and Santa Ana have passed out more than 6,000 pamphlets and information sheets. Educating their customers about AIDS is an odd twist in the saga of Anaheim's street vendors, who have fended off the City Council's attempts to restrict the way they do business. Some Anaheim residents have complained that the vendors are a nuisance and create litter and traffic problems.

Abe Sanchez, project supervisor of the county Health Care Agency's AIDS Community Education Project, thought that involving the vendors in the program would help boost their morale and image, along with getting needed information to often-neglected communities.

"I try to make them feel like messengers, like they're helping," Sanchez explained.

At one point, Sanchez said, he gave the vendors condoms to distribute but has since put that program on hold since some in the community questioned whether it was appropriate.

When Sanchez first began the pamphlet-distribution program, he held educational seminars to teach the vendors about the disease and make them conversant with the information they were distributing.

"They're not just handing out the material. They've gone through a massive education where we try to make them as knowledgeable as possible (about the disease)," he said.

After that, it's up to the vendors to use their own discretion to determine who should be given the free booklets.

"How old are you," Barajas asked a boy in Spanish who stopped by his truck to buy a soda one recent afternoon.

"Thirteen," the boy answered.

"Can you read Spanish?" Barajas asked.

"Yes," the boy replied.

"Here, read this," said Barajas, handing the boy the booklet.

Everyone who is given the material seems interested in it, the vendors say. A group of teen-age boys smirk and giggle as they accept pamphlets, but they also slip them in their back pockets. Mothers nod in acknowledgement and take the information home with their groceries.

"I'm sure a lot of people know about it; they watch the news in Spanish and it talks a lot about AIDS," said John Haroz, 17, who was visiting friends in the Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood near Disneyland. "But by having it here, the vendors could give it to poor people, maybe people who don't have a TV or don't know about clinics."

Sanchez said that many recent immigrants who live in the areas served by the vendors don't know about local health-care systems or where they can go for information.

"People are fearful to get information," Sanchez said. "They're trying to make a buck, to make ends meet. To have a little luxury. Like to go out and get information on a disease is probably one of the last things they'll do."

Others in Anaheim's Latino community welcome the county's efforts but wonder whether the program is enough.

"The problem is not just distributing things like this, it's educating the community," said Father Mario Rebamontan, pastor of St. Anthony Claret Catholic Church.

Pearl Jemison-Smith, head of the AIDS Coalition to Identify Orange County Needs, agreed that vendors' efforts are commendable, but she said that handing out the information is only a first step toward informing people about AIDS.

"Giving people language- and cultural-sensitive information is difficult," she said. "Obviously, it's not the best way (to inform communities), but it's one way--and it's a beginning."

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