Article on HIV/AIDS Stigma on Al Jazeera

US Latinos struggle with HIV stigma

Chicago, United States – Maria Mejia grew up in an abusive household, so at the age of 13 she ran away from home and joined a gang in search of a sense of family. Soon after, she began dating the leader of the gang, a drug user, who infected her with HIV.

Mejia estimates she was infected between 1988 or 1989, when she was about 15 or 16 years old. She says she was diagnosed by sheer coincidence. Tired of the gang life, she decided to move back home and then joined the Job Corps in Kentucky, which required routine medical tests. A week before her 18th birthday, a doctor incorrectly informed that she had AIDS when she was, in fact, HIV-positive.

Distraught and confused, Mejia says she moved back home to Miami to die. Her mother, whom she describes as an “ultraconservative Catholic Latina”, told her, “We’re going to put this in God’s hands”, and asked her not to tell anyone in the family. Even though her mother’s shame was hurtful, Mejia said she was only trying to protect her.

Please continue reading on Al Jazeera.

Article on Diabetes, NBC Latino

Latino advocates combat diabetes: “In order to save ourselves, work to be done”

by Erika L. Sanchez, @ErikaLSanchez
5:00 am on 09/12/2013

Christina Elizabeth Rodriguez began blogging about living with diabetes in 2010. “It helped me find a community that would understand what I was going through,” she says.
Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was only seven-years-old, felt the need to share her experiences with other Latinos who suffer from the disease. “I don’t have it. I live with it,” she says.

“There were so many people of Latino descent – that had nowhere to turn to,” she says. “It’s about not having resources, not having education. We need the community to start educating themselves and want to be educated. In order to save ourselves, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

RELATED: NYC diabetes program offers personalized treatment with heart
Hispanic/Latino Americans, African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islander Americans are at particularly high risk for type 2 diabetes.

According to the Office of Minority Health, Mexican Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. They also have higher rates of end-stage renal disease, caused by diabetes, and they are 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also found that the disease is more prevalent in women– of the 25.6 million adults with diabetes in the United States in 2010, 12.6 million were women.

The rates are showing no signs of slowing down. A 2012 study released by research affiliates with the American Diabetes Association found that the number of Latino children and youth under 20 years of age diagnosed with diabetes is rapidly growing, faster than any other ethnic group in the U.S

Estela Barraza, director of Power1K Kids Program in Arizona, is working to prevent diabetes in Latino children. During the 12 week program she has developed, a group of overweight fourth and fifth graders are taught how to increase their physical activity, cook healthy meals, and make better choices. Because the program is centered on the entire family, parents are also required to attend.

Barraza believes that there are few diabetes interventions focused on Hispanic populations. “One of my biggest passions as been exercise,” she says. “My degree in Kinesiology has made me aware of the disparities and how exercise can prevent it.” In addition to her work at Power1K, Barraza is currently working with researchers on a study called Every Little Step Counts, a community-based diabetes prevention program for obese Latino youth.

Por tu Familia, a Latino-focused program from the American Diabetes Association, is also committed to preventing diabetes through community-based activities. “The goal is to get rid of all misconceptions,” says Alexandra Santana, manager of Por tu Familia in Chicago.

During many of their events throughout the city, members of the community have the opportunity to ask doctors and other medical professionals any questions they might have about the disease. All of their activities are free and they often offer glucose and cholesterol screenings. They will be holding 10 events this month in celebration of Hispanic Heritage month.

Por Tu Familia also trains doctors, nurses, and anyone interested in promoting diabetes prevention and awareness to educate their patients or communities about the disease through their Promotores program. According to Santana, all the the training materials have been evaluated and approved by endocrinologists and doctors and are available in both languages.
“We’re celebrating that we are one of the key markets in the U.S.,” she says. “We want to continue improving and reaching out to more people.”

Article on CPS Closures, NBC Latino

Chicago school teachers fear for their students

by Erika L. Sánchez
1:10 am on 05/12/2013

Maria Trejo, Elev8 director at Ames Middle School in Chicago, says that her school, which was recently in danger of becoming a military school, will not be closed or made a welcoming school. Ames boundaries, however, will be reconfigured for the upcoming school year. This change will increase their enrollment by 300-500 students.

Trejo says that safety is everyone’s number one concern. “Now that the list is out, parents are very concerned because the kids will have to be transported through gang territories,” she says. A newly formed organization called The Logan Square School Facilities Council (LSSFC), Trejo adds, is also pressuring CPS to come up with a safe passage plan.

When Chicago Public Schools made the very controversial decision this past March to close 54 public schools, many pointed out that black and Latino students would be the hardest hit. Nine out of ten students potentially affected by school closings this year are black and eight of the schools that are scheduled to be closed and incorporated into other schools have over 20 percent Latino enrollment.

Chicago Public Schools has argued the schools that are being closed have been losing students as a result of the population changes in the city. Last month, it also also announced that it will be investing $155 million in welcoming schools to provide children with the resources they need. Despite the justifications, the announcements of the closures were initially met with protests and boycotts throughout Chicago.

The most recent school hearings, however, have been sparsely attended. Community leaders believe that some people are simply burned out at this point. The list of schools being closed will not be official until May 22nd, but many parents, community organizers, and school officials are already preparing for the upcoming changes.

Chicago Public Schools has announced that that each welcoming school will have a dedicated safety plan tailored for its specific needs. They’ve partnered with CPD to make sure each plan  considers neighborhood conditions, the distance between schools, and an analysis of other safety risks such as busy streets and intersections. They will also provide individual support strategy plans based on the distinct needs of students, families and communities.

RELATED: Chicago’s decision to close 54 schools elicits strong reactions

Cristina Carreto, Family and Community Engagement Manager for Pilsen and Little Village, also says safety is at the top of everyone’s list. “We’re working hard with CPD [Chicago Police Department] to make sure the transition runs smoothly,” she says.

Carreto says that the elementary schools in her predominately Latino neighborhoods– Cardenas and Castellanos– will be the welcoming schools while nearby Paderewski, located in a predominately African American community, will likely be closing. “I think their concern is the integration of students with a different background,” she says. “We want to start building these relationships with each other. We want to build that gradually.” Carreto says that they are also beginning to plan bullying and culture workshops. They are also considering summer picnics, carnivals, tours for students and parents, and setting up pen pals between the three schools. But they hesitate to implement any measures until the school closure is certain.

RELATED: 54 Chicago schools to close, opponents say minority students will be affected the most

Student transitions and safety are not the only concern. Trejo believes that the added distance between home and school will prevent many parents from becoming engaged in their children’s education, especially because most are busy working parents.

Alivette Alicea, who has two of her five children at Ames, says she’s hopeful about the changes.

“We have the faith that it’s going to be good for us because we’re underutilized,” she says. She’s also glad that the principal is having an open house and tours for students and parents. “That’s awesome because not all of the other schools do that. If we could bring more parents to get involved, it would be great for students.”

Article on Immigration Reform, NBC Latino

It’s the million dollar question, the one many are afraid to ask when it comes to immigration reform. What will happen at the border once the bill actually passes? Some fear that granting a path towards residency will create a mass flow of people trying to enter the country illegally

The Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant think tank, published an article claiming the United States’ southwest border has seen a 500 percent  increase in border apprehensions. According to the United States Border Patrol Statistics, however, the total apprehensions between 2011 and 2012 only increased by 7.2 percent.

“If they do pass legislation, it’s a very long process. It’s not falling in line with the fears,” says Jose D. Villalobos, political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. Villalobos says this kind of coverage of the border is new, though the idea of immigration reform is not. “After Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, there hasn’t been any news coverage of anything becoming unstable,” he says.

Linda Bosniak, professor of law at Rutgers University, says it’s hard to believe that anyone’s behavior would be affected by the passing of the immigration bill. “Any legalization will require a person to show they’ve been here for a couple of years,” Bosniak says. She points out this was the case in the 1986 amnesty, which required applicants to have resided in the United States since 1982. This stipulation made one-third of the undocumented population automatically ineligible.

According to the Associated Press, an anonymous aide claims that the bipartisan immigration bill would bar anyone who arrived in the U.S. after Dec. 31, 2011 from applying for legal status and ultimately citizenship. It would also require applicants to have a clean criminal record and show enough employment or financial stability that they’re likely to stay off welfare. These conditions could exclude hundreds of thousands of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“This is a one-time deal. This is not a rolling amnesty or legalization,” Bosniak says. “The concern is that undocumented immigrants will want to cross the border, but it’s been 27 years since the last amnesty. Back in 1986, opponents were making the same arguments that people are making today. The rates did increase in the 90s, but that was a function of many factors. There was no indication that the prospect of amnesty would play any part of it.”

A study analyzing the long-term impact of the 1986 amnesty also found there was a decline in the number of border apprehensions in the fourteen years after it was enacted.

Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, professor of economics at San Diego State University, believes the circumstances have completely changed since the previous amnesty. She points out that in the 1980s, the Mexican economy was suffering while the U.S. was expanding and growing.

Not only have the economic conditions changed, Amuendo-Dorantes says that the U.S-Mexico border has also undergone a dramatic transformation in the last 27 years, which would discourage people from trying to cross the border illegally. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. government spends more on its immigration enforcement than on all other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined. In 2012 it spent nearly $18 billion dollars on border security.

“The border enforcement today isn’t the same as in 1986. It’s increased exponentially, especially after 9/11. Every person who is captured is prosecuted. Back in 1986, it was a capture and release policy. The consequences are tough– if you make it. The risk of losing your life is significant. Even if you make it through the border, you live in fear.”

Though some fear that immigration reform will encourage undocumented immigrants to break the law, some experts believe that immigration would actually reduce crime. Scott Baker, a doctoral candidate at Stanford Department of Economics, believes that immigration reform could reduce crime nationwide by as many as 50,000 fewer crimes per year. In studying  the effects of the 1986 amnesty, Baker found that drops in crime of approximately 1-4 percent were associated with one percent of the population being legalized. In examining the labor market and employment data, he concluded that crime could be attributed to greater job market opportunities among those legalized by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Bosniak believes that those against immigration are more concerned will allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country after breaking the law than they are fearful of an influx of people at the border. “I think opponents are unhappy with the prospect of people to be rewarded for violating the rules,” she says. “It’s the notion that legalization would function as a reward for ‘bad behavior’.”

Article on Afro-Latinos, NBC Latino

Afro-Latinos are making waves in art, music, literature and cuisine.

Celebrating Afro-Latinos who inspire us through art

by Erika L. Sánchez
2:56 pm on 02/21/2013

Eva Ayllón

“I always liked to sing, but I didn’t know I was going to end up as a singer,” Ayllón says. She first thought she’d become a nurse, but changed her mind when she was in her teens. Nevertheless, Ayllón still liked the idea of healing people, and decided to do this through her singing.

Ayllón began performing in Peruvian nightclubs in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, she was producing and collaborating with established Peruvian groups. In 2003, she received two Latin Grammy nominations in the “Best Folk Album” category, and in 2008 she sold out Carnegie Hall.

She says that the most difficult point in her career was when she had to perform when she was still distraught over the death of her mother. “I think we artists are like little clowns. We have to have a great temperament and great attitude during adverse situations like death.”

Because of this perseverance, her music has made an impact on people all over the world. She says that some fans have even approached her after concerts to tell her that her music saved their lives. “Some people said they were going to commit suicide, but listened to one of my songs and felt revived,” she says.

“This isn’t vanity for me. I was born singing.”

Junot Diaz

“I discovered my love for books when I immigrated to the United States. I loved books to death,” says Dominican American writer Junot Diaz.

But success didn’t come easy for Diaz, who before establishing his writing career, worked in a steel mill, washed dishes, pumped gas, and delivered pool tables. “For a Dominican kid from New Jersey, it was an unusual and impractical dream,” he says.

Despite the obstacles, the idea of becoming a writer was something he wouldn’t let go of even though, he says, “there was no sign that it was going to get better.”

And his persistence paid off. Diaz is the author of “Drown”; ”The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and “This Is How You Lose Her,” a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He has won numerous other awards and is currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Part of being a young artist is being true to your dream. I don’t think I would give advice to young writers of color, but I will give advice to young people of color with a dream: there is nothing in the world that makes the dream easy except the love of the practice. I had to constantly rekindle my love of reading and find ways to honor that love.”


Sandra Andino

Sandra Andino was in her mid-20s when she decided to pursue photography. She first received her Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Puerto Rico, then moved to move to Philadelphia to attend graduate school at Temple University. During this time, she started to meet other artists. “I realized it was my calling,” she says.

Though her family always encouraged her to be creative, they didn’t think she should pursue photography as a career. “Making a career out of making art wasn’t something my family understood.”

She has now shown her work at several galleries and has served as an arts administrator in agencies such as Taller Puertorriqueño, WHYY-TV, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Bed-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and others.

For a long time, Andino said she had a 9 to 5 job and practiced her art on the side, but she recently decided to dedicate herself to her photography full time.

“Despite what others might say, stay focused, centered, and positive,” she says. “If you give it value, then others will.”

Nilton Borges, Jr.

Chef Nilton Borges Jr. grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother. “I always had an affinity for food,” he says.

And though he was passionate about cooking, Borges didn’t decide to become a chef at first. “Growing up in Brazil and being black, there was always that image that you have to have a position with more status.” Borges attended medical school in Brazil, but when he was 20, however, he decided to move to New York to look for other options.

His first job in New York was as a bathroom attendant at a music venue, but eventually, Borges ended up in kitchens. “I started as a dishwasher and working in kitchens for free,” he says. After working in restaurants for eight years, he decided to go culinary school.

Borges is now the executive chef at Amali, a Greek restaurant “dedicated to supporting sustainable farming, viniculture and design,” which has won many awards including New and Notable Newcomer in Wine & Spirits Magazine, 2012, and Diner’s Choice Mediterranean Restaurant, Tri-State Area, 2012

“I’ve been blessed with the people I work with and the place where I work,” Borges says. “I’m successful by doing what I intended to do.”

He believes that to succeed in the culinary world, you should always focus on your skills. “Always try to move to places where you can learn. Never follow the money,” he says.

Latino Muslims article, Common Ground News Service

by Erika L. Sánchez

11 December 2012Washington, DC – Of Mexican heritage, Marta Khadija, president of LALMA, La Asociación Latino Musulmana de América (The Latino Muslim Association of America – LALMA), converted to Islam in 1983. She had been unhappy with her spiritual life and when she moved to the United States, her Muslim friends began sending her Islamic texts and she visited a mosque. Emotional and powerful, this experience gave her peace.

Another Latino American, writer, innovator and self-identified indigenous Muslim, Mark Gonzales, bases much of his work on the issue of identity. Gonzales, who is of Mexican and French Canadian descent and was raised Catholic, began to explore Islam after practicing Christianity in a very deep way. He says, “In that process, I realized I didn’t like the idea of a gate keeper.” At that time he was also working on restorative justice with families who were deported after 9/11. He began building relationships with people practicing Islam and converted.

America has always been recognised for its diversity, and is seen as a country composed of minorities who intersect with one another on a regular basis.

As a result, the steadily growing number of Latino Muslims in the United States is inevitable. According to Reuters, 2.6 million people practice Islam, one of the fastest growing religions in our country, and Hispanics, another rapidly growing group, currently comprise 17 per cent of the total US population. Of course these two populations would eventually begin to intersect, and what may at first feel like an uncommon link, seems almost natural.

When asked about her Mexican family’s reaction to her conversion, Khadija says, “My mother thought I had joined some sort of cult.” But she soon came around after speaking to her priest who reassured her that her daughter was on the right path. Khadija says she generally doesn’t feel judged by other Latinos and that she is able to live with both identities without any challenges. She thinks that part of it may be because she is still very connected to her Mexican roots and doesn’t cover her hair. “I kept my culture,” she says. “I didn’t adopt any dress from the Middle East.” Her organisation, LALMA, also maintains a good relationship with the Catholic Church in Los Angeles.

Gonzales’s experience is similar. “Specifically, my work is about reshaping people’s idea of identity,” he says. And as a poet and scholar, he travels around the world to spread his message. When asked about navigating the Latino Muslim identity he says that identity only becomes a problem when his heritage and spirituality don’t fit other people’s expectations.

There are no definitive statistics on the number of Latino Muslims in the United States, but estimates range from 100,000 to 200,000, depending on the organisation. Attorney and chaplain, Wilfredo Amr Ruiz says that his organisation, the American Muslim Association of North America, has seen an exponential increase in requests for Spanish language Qur’ans in the last 10 years. They also receive hundreds of requests for Islamic texts from prisons every week, indicating that some converts come from the prison system.

Not a homogenous group, Latinos find Islam in myriad ways. Some convert as a result of romantic relationships. Others want to reconnect with religion or are academically interested. For Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, it was curiosity that led him to Islam. He was looking to reconnect to religion when he saw an Islamic centre being built in San Juan, Puerto Rico and decided to explore.

Ruiz says that some Latinos initially reject Islam because of the unfavourable images formed by the media, but some come to find that they share many of the same moral values as Muslims. He also points out that some Latinos with a connection to Spain are attracted to the religion because of the long history of Muslims in Spain.

Latino Muslims like Gonzales, Ruiz and Khadija are creating a unique American identity. “Islam is a religion that, at its core, has to be culturally relevant to those who practice it,” Gonzales says. “Latinos are forming a culturally relevant form of Islam.” As Americans, we need to make space in our minds for these new communities.

Article on Charter Schools on NBC Latino

Charter schools: Closing or widening the education gap for Latinos?


by Erika L. Sánchez
5:00 am on 09/21/2012

With the recent Chicago Public Schools teachers strike, the issue of charter schools has become even more popular, particularly within the Latino community.

During the 7-day strike, a lot of parents were left scrambling to find alternatives for their children. According to the Brookings Institute, children from lower-income families have limited options when schools shut down. Juan Rangel, CEO of the United Neighborhood Associationtold Reuters, the UNO Charter School Network took in 30 new students during the strike.

The numbers show Latinos are increasingly enrolling in charter schools, going from 20 percent of the charter school population in the 1999-2000 year to 26 percent in 2009-2010, according to George Washington University’s Face the Facts initiative

Educators like Omar Yanar, a charter school administrator and CEO and co-founder of a prospective charter school, thinks there is a lot of misinformation about charter schools cherry-picking students.

“A lot of those myths need to be dispelled,” he says. “Charter schools go to great extents to make sure we don’t expel students.”

He also emphasizes that some charter schools have even higher rates of special education students than some traditional schools.

Rather than failing underprivileged populations, he feels that charter schools are helping end the cycle of poverty.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” he says.

Yanar thinks charter schools are a great option for many Latinos parents because so many traditional schools are failing to provide the choice to go to college.  She believes with a high-performing charter school, kids get a chance at a quality education that will get them to college.

Marlene Orozco, a fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Academy, says her school provides families with an excellent alternative. Her school is located in San Jose, California, which is a predominately Mexican community. Part of what she loves about her job is the high level of parental involvement and community engagement. She says parents become leaders and advocates at Rocketship Academy.

She also points out that her school is not highly regimented and that they accept all students.

“We’re given a lot of what they call ‘reject” students,’ she says. “In the year and a half that I’ve worked there, we have not kicked anybody out.”

Orozco feels she’s part of a group of highly committed teachers that provide the community with an education that is equally competitive as affluent communities.

Educators like Orozco and Yanar feel that charter schools are enhancing the public school system by encouraging innovation and offering a choice that didn’t exist before.

Some educators, however, think that charter schools don’t cater to kids with the highest needs for the sake of their school performance.

Cary Weisgram, a teacher who worked in a Chicago public magnet school for 6 years says, “the problem is that instead of looking at marginalized populations, what they want is regular kids.”

Lillian Ortiz-Self, chair of commission of Hispanic affairs for the state of Washington, has similar criticism. She believes that many charter schools are not capable of working with migrant families, English Language Learners, and students in special education.

She also points out that many schools are literally inaccessible to many students because they don’t provide transportation. “We’ve got parents that are very hardworking that don’t have access to the system,” she says.

Some critics say that many charter schools are too strict in order to weed out problem students. In Chicago this past February, for instance, hundreds of parents protested against the Noble Street Charter Network’s use of fines to discipline students. Many parents felt this financially punished parents and didn’t stop bad behavior.

According to a 2010 investigation by Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ-Chicago, a higher percentage of students transfer out and are expelled from charter schools than from traditional schools. They found that one in 10 transfer out.

Many feel that these schools hurt the system and that traditional schools deserve the same attention and dedication.

“We should be fighting for all children,” says Ortiz-Self.