Family Drama

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A Los Angeles health clinic launches a telenovela about a Fictional Latino family at risk to encourage HIV testing
by Larry Buhl

Los Angeles-based AltaMed Health Services’ Universal HIV Testing Initiative had a dilemma. It needed to promote routine HIV screening among all adults, adolescents, and pregnant women and encourage more Latino clients to get tested. Their new outreach effort had several mandates: educate the clinics’ mostly Latino population about how HIV is spread; encourage universal HIV testing for everyone fifteen and older; erase the stigma around HIV and HIV testing; underscore the fact that any age, race, or sexual orientation could be at risk; and be entertaining, and not too overtly educational or preachy.

The last directive was the toughest. People can be wary of preachy, educational videos, and are likely to tune out messages they believe aren’t for them, or tell them what they should be doing. And Latinos, AltaMed acknowledges, can be especially wary of talking to strangers about their own sexual practices and the risks that might be associated with them.

But the creators of AltaMed’s awareness campaign had a way to break out of the box to reach their target population: telenovelas, the dramatic (sometimes highly melodramatic) TV series that are well-liked by many U.S. Latinos.

“Nearly all Latino Americans know telenovelas, and that’s why we used that format for the campaign,” said Natalie Sanchez, HIV Prevention Manager at AltaMed.

Sanchez and Hilda Sandoval, a program manager for AltaMed’s HIV Unit created Sin Vergüenza, a four-episode Web series that features a fictional Latino family affected by HIV. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave AltaMed a $385,000 grant to hire a professional writer, director, and bilingual actors for the four seven-minute episodes. The producers shot each one twice—once in Spanish and once in English—to be able to reach the maximum number of people.

“The series relates to the stories that we hear every day here at the clinic from patients who are HIV-infected,” says Sandoval. “This Web-based telenovela focuses on one family unit but it really ties into some of the issues that no one really wants to talk about.”

Sin Vergüenza can be translated as either “shameless” or “not ashamed,” and is used in both interpretations at different points in the series, according to the director, Paco Farias.

“People have asked us, why be overly dramatic about the subject matter,” Farias says. “Because telenovelas are a format that the Latino community here find familiar. So what better way to present uncomfortable topics than in a format people are comfortable with?”

Sin Vergüenza captures the fictional Salazar family of East Los Angeles, and through the plot line reinforces the message that anyone can be at risk of HIV. It also emphasizes that sex outside of marriage, and outside of traditional heterosexual pairings, is an everyday reality. Risky sexual behaviors will lead to the HIV infection of one family member by the end of the series.

Early in episode one, viewers might assume that the HIV-positive character might be the gay Salazar son, Enrique, a law student who kisses his lover, a young medical intern, in the kitchen of the family restaurant, within full view of the silently disapproving dad.

Within a few minutes, it’s clear that the mother, Adrianna Salazar, could be at risk because her husband, Cesar, may be cheating on her.

But not even the grandmother of the Salazar family is safe. She tells the family she’s about to head to the senior center for a bingo game, but they tease her about getting “lucky” with a dashing older man she has a crush on. She’s been out of the dating scene for a long time, and might not be aware of the risks associated with unprotected sex.

Safer sex messages are woven into the storyline without being didactic. For example, the daughter, Christina, believing that her dad is on his way to see his mistress, slips a condom into his coat pocket. He finds it and tosses it out before he leaves.
“We worked closely with the writer, Kelsey Thomas, to make sure the series was entertaining and suspenseful, but still respectful of the subject matter we wanted to get across, and accurate about HIV,” Sanchez tells A&U.

“A lot of these topics, like HIV and even sex, are not discussed at length in Latino culture,” J.M. Longoria III, the actor playing Enrique, tells A&U. “Projects like this come at an important time for Latinos, because we’re the fastest growing population in the U.S. right now, and we need to continue to educate ourselves and grow.”

Farias agrees. “In my family, if there was something that was slightly scandalous or taboo, the topic just wasn’t talked about in the hope that it would just go away,” he tells A&U. “That’s the problem and why we’re disproportionately affected. Because of the culture of silence.”

“There was a lot of discussion about whether to shoot this in English or Spanish, because I was afraid, with only a four-day shoot, that there wouldn’t be enough time,” Farias continues. “But AltaMed wanted both English and Spanish, so I decided we needed actors who were strong in both languages. For the harder, more emotional stuff, it was impressive watching them put themselves through a draining scene in English, then flip a switch and do it entirely in Spanish.”

Actress Eliana Alexander says that as she was preparing for the role of the mother, she thought of one of her closest friends, actor and singer Michael Viber, who died of AIDS-related complications in the early 1990s. “Back then there wasn’t the awareness or the drugs, and it was really hard for me when I learned of his infection. It opened my eyes to how easy it is to become infected.”

As soon as Alexander read the script for Sin Vergüenza, she knew it was something special, she tells A&U.

“It’s a pioneering approach, because we don’t just shove medical terminology down people’s throats. We let the audience identify with the characters and care about them. Maybe it will leave an emotional impact and encourage viewers to tell others how easy it is, and how important it is, to get tested.”

The need for Latinos to confront difficult topics like HIV is especially important, because they experience a disproportionate number of infections in the U.S. In 2009, the HIV infection rate among Latinos was almost three times as high as that of whites, according to the CDC. Among Latinas, the disparity is even worse. Their infection rate is nearly four times as high as that of white women.

According to the CDC, nearly 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection and one in five is unaware of their infection. Sin Vergüenza creators Sanchez and Sandoval say they believe a high percentage of those who are unaware of their status are Latinos.

The first episode was launched on November 30, in anticipation of World AIDS Day, and the second on December 17. The next two parts of Sin Vergüenza will be released on January 7 and January 22. They can be viewed on AltaMed’s YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/healthsvcs, and on the Web sites of Telemundo and Univision, the two main networks serving Latinos in the U.S. Viewers can choose whether to view an episode in Spanish or English.

Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. His young adult novel, The Genius of Little Things, debuted this month. His comic mystery novel, We’re Here to Help, will be available later in 2013.

January 2013

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