August 1, 2011
East Los Angeles-based Bienestar, or "well-being" in Spanish, champions HIV prevention and health awareness for LGBT Latinos. Sabores, "or flavors" in Spanish, is Bienestar's two-decade-old youth arm focused on those ages 18-24.
Reflecting the diversity within the LGBT community, Sabores operates in all but one of Bienestar's nine offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside counties. The primarily federally funded Sabores approaches HIV prevention via boosting participants' self-esteem and sense of community, and by circulating educational materials.
"If you don't value yourself, you're not going to respect your own body," said Sabores participant Alex Aldana, 24. Aldana, was so desperate for interaction with others like himself that he traveled 100 miles weekly for three months to attend the Sabores meetings in Pomona. Aldana, who credits Sabores with keeping him HIV-negative, became a facilitator and brought the program to Coachella, its first Riverside County location.
Victor Sanchez, Bienestar's youth services director, maintains the program is essential in Inland areas where there are no other LGBT services focused on Latino youth. Bienestar next plans to offer meetings for youths ages 14-17.
"There needs to be a support system that addresses feelings of isolation and loneliness, and [gay youths] need to be educated about their own sexuality, maintaining their health, and the importance of educating their families," said Sanchez.
According to Sabores Pomona facilitator Erick De La Torre, 21, the program offers a substance-free haven to those who may be seeking consolation from substance abuse, which in turn can lead to unsafe sex. And, although group discussions surround safer sex, HIV and STD prevention, healthy relationships, and substance abuse, they are tempered with social events like beach trips and movies.
"It's a safe zone," said San Bernardino Sabores participant Felipe Contreras, 20. "No one judges us for our orientation or how we dress."