Tailoring Messages to the U.S. Latinx Community

Code Switch
The president of the Latino Commission on AIDS talks about tailoring messages to U.S. Latinos
by Larry Buhl

In early September in Philadelphia, NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council) held the U.S. Conference on AIDS federal meeting, a joint event with three regions of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, as well as national leaders, advocates and community organizations. The goal was to determine ways of preventing the spread of HIV, viral hepatitis and STIs in LGBTQ communities of color.

One session, Hispanic/Latinx Call to Action, focused on threats to the health and well being of Hispanic and Latino communities, and on some solutions for reducing risks.
Guillermo Chacón, President of the Latino Commission on AIDS, was at the meeting. I asked him what he took away from the meeting and the conference.

Guillermo Chacón: The most important thing was, it was a joint effort to produce this two-day meeting. Two, it was acknowledged that we need to do a better job to get faith-based communities on our side to reduce stigma and the government has to be a better partner. Third issue, HIV/hepatitis C prevention needs more attention at all levels. I was happy that it was acknowledged throughout the meeting, the growing opioid crisis throughout the nation. We cannot ignore a public health crisis right in front of us.

Larry Buhl: What issues make Hispanic Americans more vulnerable to viral hepatitis and HIV?
The latest CDC data describe the epidemic as flat among all communities except among Latino men, MSM or gay, between eighteen and thirty. The reason is our community suffered double discrimination and high levels of stigma at all levels. There are institutional and structural barriers such as level of poverty. And language can be a major barrier to access healthcare.

How do Latinos face such things as discrimination and stigma?
It is by society in general and by the Latino community and media. It’s by faith-based organizations, by the education system. There is a structural barrier. When you are in isolation you will take risky behaviors. Family and faith-based [sites] are two places you go in moments of crisis. But if my family and my pastor reject me, what then? Many times young gay Hispanic men hear “you have to leave this house.”

How do you tailor messages to reach different populations?
We have a huge foreign-born population, especially major cities. Our messages must be tailored to Hispanic Latinos born in the U.S. but also face the reality of foreign-born [individuals].

If you are born in the U.S. it could be more generic and in English. Say I’m a gay man and born in Texas, and my Spanish is limited; I will have access to more information. I have to focus more on risk I might expose myself to HIV and STDs. For foreign-born people, we have to do an assessment to determine who we are talking about. In North Carolina, there is a huge number of foreign-born Mexicans, and also a huge number of immigrants from Honduras. So we need to do community mapping.

Can you describe community mapping?
The messaging has to be different depending on who you want to reach. New York will be a heavily Caribbean population with a growing Mexican population. In L.A. it will be mostly Mexican and Salvadoran but without ignoring the other populations. We also must engage health departments in the counties and cities and state for them to understand better who we are talking about. The CDC does the federal messaging. We need to educate them, too. And we need to know who is in the community.

And we need to engage the people in charge of infectious disease at city, county, and state levels. I need to engage people from the bureau of community services, to make sure people in that division understand who we are. And we have to engage faith-based institutions to help them understand that this is a health crisis.

How challenging is it to identify the audience and tailor the messages?
Very. Here’s an example of how it can go wrong. North Carolina was going to roll out a campaign to reach Hispanics. But most of the characters in the video were Puerto Rican and you could see on the video that it’s New York City. That would be a waste of public dollars.

Every city and county must do an assessment of who is out there and where they are from. We have the tools to prevent the spread of HIV. You need the right messenger and to motivate them. For messengers, peer-to-peer is the way to go. Young gay men talking to their peers will be more effective as long as they have the right message and information.

Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.