The South is home to the Civil Rights movement, which paved the way for liberty and justice in this country. When we think about the work of Martin Luther King Jr., we think of peaceful demonstrations and the courage to be heard in a sea of racism and abjection. This movement had its roots in centuries-long efforts to resist oppression stemming from racism and to eradicate the institution of slavery. It should come as no surprise that HIV advocates in the South continue to honor this legacy and are mindful of the fact that people paved the way for social justice today.
The demographics of the South are changing, but racism still persists. A July 2019 report from Pew Research Center showed that the Latinx population in the southern states has increased 33% since 2008, the largest growth of any region. Yet, with the exception of Florida and Texas, Latinx people in the deep southern states are rarely discussed. Because of this, Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA) developed "Latinos in the Deep South" (now called Latinos in the South), a project to help understand the issues facing Latinx people in the South and develop advocacy strategies to address those issues.
This program is a coalition made up of key figures in the HIV/AIDS movement as well as local Latinx leaders coming together to address specific needs in their communities. In July, Latinos in the South organized an encuentro (a Spanish word for meeting or gathering) in Atlanta to tackle the rise of HIV rates among the Latinx community, as well as other important topics that affect LGBT people.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV rates among Latinx men who have sex with men have increased by 13% in the past few years, one of the highest rates of increase among any group. Another CDC study from 2016 noted that if current trends continue, "half of black gay men and a quarter of Latino gay men are projected to be diagnosed with HIV within their lifetime." Although many medical providers and advocates speculate that anti-immigration rhetoric is a cause for this rise, little research has been done to corroborate those conclusions.
However, Latinos in the South published a community assessment for Southern Latinx LGBT people, based on a survey of 231 people from Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
"There have been community assessments on LGBT folks," shares Joaquín Carcaño, director of community organizing at LCOA. "But we hadn't done an assessment on LGBT Latinx folks in the South. We wanted the survey to begin this conversation; this was the first step."
The assessment found that poverty, a lack of culturally competent health care providers, lack of access to care, and un- and underemployment are all factors that drive the HIV epidemic among Latinx people in the South. The report also found differences in access to care among Latinx people born in the U.S. and those who were born outside of the country.
After analyzing the results of the survey, the next step was organizing an encuentro, which was an opportunity to present the findings to Latinx leaders in the South, and to begin the conversation around HIV in the South and how it impacts LGBT Latinx people.
"We are going to dig deeper and publish more information," shares Carcaño. "This was the goal of the encuentro, to connect people and lay out the ground work."
Over 90 people attended the encuentro, traveling from all across the region to share strategies and collaborate with one another. The gathering took place July 17 to 19 and started with a meet-and-greet, hosted by sponsors supporting LCOA. The following day, LCOA facilitated a series of workshops on what organizations are doing to address HIV and other problems that affect community members.
These gatherings are a great opportunity for people to meet and learn from one another, especially for younger activists who are mentored by people doing this work for years. Humberto Orozco, board president of Latino LinQ in Atlanta, recognizes that addressing HIV in Latinx southern communities will take the more coordinated efforts that the encuentro is trying to foster. "I enjoy how we are able to network and find allies who can share their knowledge."
He is doing that work locally. Orozco recently took a leadership role with Latino LinQ, which was founded in 2015 by a group of people in Atlanta who saw a need to serve their communities. "Sometimes the work can feel isolating," shares Orozco. "When we have these conferences, I feel the love and support from others doing this work in their hometown."