Latino Activists in the Face of AIDS
by Jesus Ramirez-Valles
University of Illinois Press
Reviewed by Nancy Ellegate
Compañeros explores the lives of Latino HIV activists and records their stories and perspectives. It is a group whose experience is not well-known, and this is a valuable portrait. The subjects of the work are gay and bisexual men and male-to-female transgenders. They come from a variety of class backgrounds in Latin America and the United States, and all currently live in the San Francisco or Chicago areas. The book deals with their lives as men who do not conform to gender expectations, as Latinos in the United States, and as volunteer or professional HIV activists, and, in some cases, as people living with HIV. Jesus Ramirez-Valles discusses these topics and illustrates them with informants’ comments. At the beginning of the book, we learn its author is writing about people very much like himself. As a young man in Mexico, Ramirez-Valles had a group of friends who helped him learn what it meant to live as a gay man. With these friends, he began grass-roots efforts to assist and educate men during the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Ramirez-Valles is a professor of community health sciences, and this book references academic terminology. However, this material is not overwhelming and a reader more interested in the voices of the compañeros can easily skip over items mainly of academic import, such as sociological definitions of stigma or Paulo Freire’s notion of critical consciousness. To the author’s credit, those interested, if unfamiliar with such scholarly concepts, will find his descriptions brief and lucid.
While a number of themes emerge, Ramirez-Valles is conscientious in not forcing uncomplicated insights, but in presenting variety and contradiction. Yet, the importance of friends and supporters in dealing with homophobia and illness and in coming to activism is clear. On a more conceptual level, Ramirez-Valles ends the work by offering an intriguing notion of “compañerismo” as an alternative to the current stagnation he sees in the HIV and gay movements.
Nancy Ellegate is a sometime book reviewer for A&U.