A Voice For the Afflicted

A play - Portrait of Ten Women - gives voice to Latina women with HIV/AIDS

By Rosalba Ruiz - The Orange County Register
Published on LatinoLA: May 20, 2008

A Voice For the Afflicted

As HIV infection rates rise among women, "Portrait of Ten Women" explores how Latinas deal with the disease.

Rosa is a young social worker who educates the community about AIDS prevention. She knows that no one is immune, not even her. She was diagnosed with the disease at the same time she got her pregnancy test results.

Celia is a typical grandmother who cooks for her family and cares for her grandchildren. She's also an old-fashioned woman who put up with her husband's unfaithfulness for many years, but who recently left him. She became infected with the HIV virus through him, and now, like Rosa has developed AIDS.

We meet Rosa and Celia on stage, as characters on a play, but they represent the thousands of real women who live with AIDS in this country, and the hundreds who live with AIDS in this county.

In "Portrait of Ten Women," by Fanny Garcia, ten Latinas share their stories of learning to live with HIV and AIDS, from feeling despair and facing society's disdain, to dealing with the prospect of death.

The play is a production of Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, an Orange County non-profit troupe that seeks to create awareness about important social issues through the visual and performing arts.

Plays about health issues, ranging from Alzheimer's disease to AIDS, are becoming more popular as groups seek new ways to tell familiar stories.

"When I read the script, I knew I was going to make a difference," says actress Ingrid Marquez about her decision to take this project on as her directorial debut. "For me that's what my art is all about. I had been entrusted with an important message I had to share."

Nationally, the proportion of AIDS diagnoses among women has increased since the beginning of the epidemic, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The latest figures indicate that women represented 26 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in 2005, compared to 11 percent of the new cases reported in 1990.

There has been an approximate 100 percent increase in female cases from 2000 to 2007 handled by the AIDS Services Foundation of Orange County, according to Doug Vogel, the agency's spokesman.

Hilda Alford, 57, of Orange is turning her diagnosis into a stage production.

She contracted the disease from her male partner with whom she had lived for six years. How her partner contracted the disease remains a mystery. Alford said he never discussed how he became infected. In January, he took that secret to his grave.

Alford and her friends decided to do what they could to halt the AIDS epidemic: They wrote and produced a play. They are now seeking a venue to show it.

"We're All God's Children" is about men who classify themselves as heterosexuals but who also sometimes have sex with men, thus raising their risk of contracting the disease.

Women of color are especially affected by the disease. In 2005, black and Hispanic women represented 24 percent of all U.S. women, but women in these 2 groups accounted for 82 percent of the estimated total of AIDS diagnoses for women that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Orange County, over 1,600 people live with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and about 3,662 live with the disease. About 15 percent of those who are HIV positive in O.C. are women.

Andrea Arguello-Coulson, a program manager with AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, says that about 47 percent of their approximately 1,500 clients are Latino, and over a quarter of them are women. She attributes rising infection rates among women, especially Latino women, to lack of education.

"We come from a culture of silence. We don't talk about sex or about the disease," she says. "Women, we're the mothers, and we contribute to the problem by not talking about it."

Since the gay population knows that they're at risk, they take care of themselves, she says, so she works to make sure the Latino community understands that anyone who is sexually active is at risk.

"This is a disease that's 100 percent preventable," she says.

But the message of "Portrait of Ten Women" goes beyond prevention. It's about understanding, says director Ingrid Marquez.

To prepare for the play, Marquez spoke to social workers and HIV/AIDS patients and says she learned that the disease is not the biggest problem Latinas deal with, that it is the shame they feel when they find out that is more destructive.

"In our culture, you know that guilt is a major factor," she says. "A lot of women don't share this. It's like a wound on top of a wound."

During a recent rehearsal, Celia is on the spotlight as she tells the audience about her marriage; the tone of her monologue is not somber. Marquez listens quietly but once in a while laughs at some of the lines that reveal Celia's upbeat personality.

"A woman is a woman in all walks of life. They're beautiful, alive, vibrant, they just happen to be HIV positive," she says about the characters in the show. "I feel that through our play we can show that what we really need is to be compassionate and open. There are uplifting moments. This is a play of hope."

About Rosalba Ruiz - The Orange County Register:
Portrait of Ten Women by Fanny Garcia, Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, 310 W. 5th Street (2nd Floor) Santa Ana, CA 92701, May 9 - June 7, 2008, For Reservations please call (714) 540-1157, www.myspace.com/boft

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