June 28, 2018 at 12:13 pm PDT | by Karen Ocamb
HIV/AIDS: The other U.S.-Mexican border crisis

Paola Ramos talking with Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka ‘dragtivist’ Beatrix LeStrange (Photo courtesy VICE)

The Trump administration’s unplanned “zero tolerance” family-separation immigration policy has created a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border. But while the focus is rightly on reuniting mothers with their children stripped away by government agents, there is a whole population of people desperately in need of help, many seeking asylum, who are largely being ignored: immigrants with HIV/AIDS.

Roxanna Hernandez, for instance, was a 33-year-old transgender immigrant with AIDS fleeing violence in her home country. After she turned herself in to ICE in San Diego last May seeking help, she was shuffled from detention in Texas to a correctional facility in New Mexico until she died alone on May 25. 

“Because (Roxanna) was trying to get a better life, and because she was running away from the violence she experienced in Honduras, she came to the U.S. to find death. The system is the one that killed her,” Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition, told a gathering in Los Angeles. “ICE separates us when we disclose that we are HIV+ and trans. That is what they did to Roxanna—they isolated her to let her die.”

But, as out journalist/activist Paola Ramos explains in a new digital series on VICE.com, border towns such as Brownsville, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley have a crisis of their own—a surging HIV epidemic in the Latino community.

“Brownsville is 90 percent Latino,” Ramos says. “Immigrants know what they’re stepping into. One thing they do not know is that in Brownsville, in this entire region, there is a huge HIV epidemic, particularly among the Latino community.”

Citing CDC statistics, Ramos notes that while HIV infections declined 5% in the US from 2011 to 2015, rates for Latino MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men) ages 13 and older increased 13.4%. And HIV is a crisis in the Rio Grande Valley: 85 percent of people who contract HIV are Latino; 75 percent of new cases are male, according to the Valley AIDS Council.

Why? Ramos asks in the first episode of her VICE series exploring the Latin-X movement. She turns to Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka Beatrix LeStrange, a local LGBT organizer, HIV/AIDS educator and “dragtivist” who started “Drag Out HIV!” in 2017 to fight the oppressive stigma surrounding HIV in the Catholic-heavy region. Texas is an “abstinence-only” state that fails to teach HIV/AIDS and sex education.

Colon-Uvalles and his organization are also helping immigrants during the border crisis.

These activists “are so brave. They’ve gone through so much and they’ve seen so much pain but now is when they’re shining the most in these moments of crisis, when people need them. This is when they’re stepping up and Joe is helping these immigrant communities,” Ramos tells the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. “I was so proud to have met him. That’s the hope that I have now—that there are people like Joe down there right now helping other people.”

In May 2017, Ramos, the former deputy director of Hispanic Media for Hillary for America, was honored in Hollywood by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Her Fueling the Frontlines Award was presented by her father, Jorge Ramos, the acclaimed Univision News anchor and journalist who famously stood up to presidential candidate Donald Trump and was forcefully removed from Trump’s news conference.

The younger Ramos has a similarly keen sensibility for fighting discrimination, sharing how Latinos are responding to the current humanitarian crisis.

“That’s when the Latino community comes together,” Ramos says. “Regardless of your status, regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of what group you’re working with and for and whether you’re gay or not, people are coming together and that’s something you’re seeing in the protests, you’re seeing in the way these incredible groups have organized. And that speaks to the Latin-X movement. It’s just these young Latinos that are trying to make change. And that’s exactly what you’re seeing right now in a moment of crisis,” she says.

Refreshingly humble for a millennial familiar with fame, Ramos says she’s had the privilege of meeting many incredible people, including Bamby Salcedo when she visited the Trans Wellness Center.

“If you want to talk about courageous Latinas and incredible stories, it’s them. On a personal level, to me they are one of the bravest human beings I’ve met,” she says. “Within our community, there are still stigmas and discrimination against our own people.” 

Ramos hopes the digital VICE series will galvanize activism. “How do I get young Latinas to care and to be educated and to understand what’s at stake for our community?” she asks. “Right now, it’s through content. It’s through opening people’s eyes through these stories—to have content on their screens, on TV, on their cells that looks like them and telling stories about them. To me, as a millennial, that is the first step that has been missing in this space. Content that looks like you, that’s uplifting voices like yours.”

But content is not enough. “You have to do something about it,” Ramos says. “You have to take action. My hope is, with everything happening with this administration, people understand that you need to vote in the midterms, you need to show up at that rally. It’s all tied to action. You’re not only seeing that there’s an HIV crisis, you’re also seeing what people are doing about it. Tying content to action is key to me.”

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