Noches of Nurturing for Latinos With AIDS

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For one night a month, Martin Salas forgets about all of the doctor's appointments, hospital stays, medication and pain he has endured in his 10-year battle against AIDS.

On those Friday evenings, he heads to a church auditorium in Santa Ana for Noches de Feria (Fair Nights), a celebration of food and games inspired by the state fairs popular throughout Mexico.

Yet this Noches de Feria is different from the traditional ones of Salas' native country: It's a social gathering for Spanish-speaking people who have AIDS or the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the disease.

Salas, a boyish-looking 32-year-old from Garden Grove, often walks into the auditorium feeling weary from his ongoing illness, but he's soon cheered by the sight of families playing games, chatting in Spanish and eating Mexican food.

Here, there is no talk of AIDS or doctors.

"I was dying when I began doing this," Salas said. "My health has improved 100% since I started coming. I've gotten my life back again."

Noches de Feria was started two years ago by the AIDS Services Foundation Orange County in Irvine as a unique way to help Spanish-speaking people overcome the isolation often experienced by those who have the virus. At Noches de Feria, they feel at home.

"The main focus for them is to be disease-free at least for one night a month," said Raul Ramirez, an Anaheim resident and AIDS Services volunteer who created the program. "They go to the doctor every day. We wanted to distract them from that routine. They can invite their friends and families to Noches de Feria, and they don't have to tell them they have HIV. It's a safe haven for them."

As of December, Latinos accounted for 33% of the estimated 14,725 Los Angeles County residents living with AIDS and 29% of the estimated 2,345 Orange County people living with AIDS and according to both counties' Health Care Agencies. Many Latinos who are infected keep it a secret because they're afraid they'll be shunned by their peers, Ramirez said.

"It's very sensitive. [The Latino community] is very family- and religion-oriented. People with HIV and AIDS are afraid to say what they have," he said.

Fairs Are Promoted as Family Socials

That's why there is no talk of AIDS during Noches de Feria, and why fliers announcing the fairs promote them as monthly Friday night family socials, without mentioning they are sponsored by AIDS Services.

Organizers do not disclose the fair's location or time in the media because they're afraid those attending might be harassed.

Some AIDS Services clients are so worried that others will discover they have the virus, they tell their fair guests that the program is organized by the church where the event takes place.

"They're afraid of being rejected," said Salas, an AIDS Services volunteer who helps run the fair.

In Los Angeles County, the Bienestar (Wellness) program has also instigated social activities designed to help HIV-positive Latinos find support and "a second familia," according to Oscar dela O, director of the East Los Angeles-based organization.

Bienestar, which promotes the health of the Latino community by addressing the HIV epidemic, holds weekly social activities at its six centers in Pomona, Long Beach, Hollywood, San Fernando and a youth center and headquarters in East Los Angeles.

"All of our programming celebrates our culture. In prevention [of HIV] and delivery of services, you have to take our identity into consideration," said de la O. "The notion of familia is extremely important and needs to be incorporated."

Events Are Designed for Friends, Family

Bienestar stages dances, poetry readings, arts and crafts sessions, talent shows, family dinners and other recreational events designed to bring together families, friends and HIV-positive clients.

"Many people don't see the value of social events. They see them as just another party," said de la O. "We see it as one more step that helps people find the support they need."

Noches de Feria attracts 100 to 150 people a night. About 40 who attend have HIV or AIDS.

Many parents bring their kids, and to Salas the energy of the children playing darts, bouncing balls and enjoying other games is infectious.

There's a steady buzz of excitement as adults and children play loteria, a game similar to bingo except instead of letters the cards have pictures of la rosa, el sol, el toro and other colorful images. Guests fill up their cards with plastic poker chips when images are announced over a megaphone. Winners shout when their cards fill up with chips; that means a trip up to the stage to pick a prize.

Ramirez, a supervisor of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases programs for the County of Orange Health Department in Santa Ana, got the idea for Noches de Feria several years ago. Since 1992 he has worked with Latinos who are HIV-positive.

"I saw a big need in our community. Back then, they had no support group," he said. "I started meeting with them in somebody's garage."

Social Aspect Followed Latino Support Group

With the success of the support group, Ramirez felt participants also needed a social event, the kind already offered through AIDS Services for clients and their friends but tailored to Latinos.

"One night, while I was watching TV, I saw a fair and decided, 'We could do this,' " said Ramirez, 35, who attended fairs when he was a boy in Monterrey, Mexico.

He started Noches de Feria on the $100 a month he received from AIDS Services. After attendance to the fairs more than doubled, AIDS Services increased the figure to $300.

"We barely make it," Ramirez said.

About $100 to $150 of the budget goes to buy food. Volunteer Maria Delgado of Tustin uses the money to serve up a homemade Mexican dinner that some say is directly responsible for increasing attendance at Noches de Feria.

A petite woman with curly dark hair, Delgado guides the other volunteers in the kitchen, turning out tostadas and other authentic fare just as her mother had taught her in Mexico. On the Friday of the fair, she takes the day off from work to shop for food, visiting markets to seek out the best deals and plead with grocers for special discounts on behalf of Noches.

"All of my vacation time is spent on Noches," said Delgado, who works as a housekeeping director for a senior community in Dana Point.

With the rest of the money, volunteers buy small prizes for the loteria. Most prizes tend to be practical--cakes of Ivory soap, a box of Cheerios, body lotion, cologne.

Winners can pick a trinket or try their luck at the dart board for a bigger item, such as a Disneyland sweat shirt.

About 15 to 20 people volunteer to assist in the games and the kitchen. Several have HIV or have lost people close to them to AIDS.

Dave Merino of Anaheim Hills, a staff worker at the AIDS Services food pantry that supplies food to needy clients, volunteers for kitchen duty at Noches. Four years ago his brother died of AIDS, and the counselors at AIDS Services helped him get through his grief.

"I do it in memory of my brother," said Merino, as he helped load up paper plates with tostadas.

Volunteer Jaime Marquez, a 37-year-old Orange resident and administrative assistant with the County of Orange Mental Health Department, helps run the loteria while his mother, Elena, works in the kitchen.

"I like the interaction with the clients. Some of them don't have another form of socializing," Marquez said.

Many clients don't want to talk about AIDS at all. Others engage in quiet conversations about the disease.

"They know they're not the only ones going through this battle," Marquez said.

Eduardo Chavez, 33, tries not to miss a fair night even when his struggle with AIDS leaves him feeling weary. The Huntington Beach resident usually sits at a long table with others in his AIDS Services support group for people with HIV.

"Everyone from my group is infected. Many haven't broken the news to anyone, and that's why we're so close. I get a lot of support from them. Usually we talk about medication. Tonight it's social."

Two members of his group who used to attend Noches have died of AIDS.

Alejandro Bulnez, a marriage, family and child counselor with AIDS Services and a Latino mental health worker, said Noches works better than therapy at lifting the spirits of AIDS patients.

"It normalizes life to see people playing games and having fun," he said. "Everyone thinks as soon as you get AIDS, you die. Here, you can't tell who's sick."

People who aren't HIV-positive also benefit from Noches de Feria. For many, the free fair nights are their only entertainment.

"Some are low-income people who can't afford to eat out or go to a movie," Salas said.

Organizers hope more HIV-positive people come to the fair.

"I wish I had time to recruit more clients. A lot of them want to come, but they don't want anyone to know" they have HIV, Ramirez said. He tries to assure them that, at Noches, no one has to know:

"This is just a place to have fun."

To become a volunteer for Noches de Feria or to get more information, call the AIDS Services Foundation at (949) 253-1500.

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