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National Hispanic Heritage Month: So Many Firsts For Hispanics but Lets End AIDS Epidemic

In Observation of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day

During my college tenure the United States had its first Hispanic Surgeon General, who also happened to be the first woman to ever hold that position.  Unfortunately, I was so immersed in my studies and overall college experience that I did not notice nor did I identify with Dr. Antonia Coello Novello.  Thankfully, I did not let that on when I met her in 2007 where I was part of an expert Hispanic panel on HIV/AIDS that she moderated. She was quite a character and everyone seemed quite taken by her. I truly wished I had experienced her time in office.


Oftentimes, we don’t notice when historical events are occurring because we are busy living it, and the significance only becomes apparent later. For someone like myself in college, the self-descriptor and identification as Hispanic was not one that I necessarily used with any frequency. Thus, those Hispanics that reached new heights or became Historical firsts were not on my radar, at least not as Hispanics. Did you know that the first Hispanic astronaut was Franklin Chang-Diaz who flew on a total of seven space-shuttle missions starting in 1986?  I have to tell you I most definitely did not know about him and his accomplishment. In my defense, I was really young and the Bronx was coming down from its burning phase and there was a distinct lack of a bigger picture at that time.


A century before I was born, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, was the first Hispanic to write and publish a novel in English in the United States.  Appropriately enough, it was called Who Would Have Thought It?  Indeed. I had no idea.


Thankfully, some visionary Presidents put in motion a way for Hispanics to focus at least once a year on their history. Hispanic Heritage Week was approved by President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988 on the approval of Public Law 100-402.  Thus, National Hispanic Heritage Month is the period from September 15 to October 15 in the United States, when people recognize the contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to the United States and celebrate the group’s heritage and culture.  As a further history lesson, it is worth noting that September 15 was chosen as the starting point for the month-long celebration because it is the anniversary of independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. They all declared independence in 1821.


When National Hispanic Heritage month was declared in 1988, that was two years after the release of a special Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on “AIDS Among Blacks and Hispanics,” that found that Hispanics/Latinos have an overall AIDS rate nearly 3.5 times higher than whites.  It was startling news and a study finding that would unfortunately remain the norm for the next two decades.


October 15, the last day of Hispanic Heritage month, commemorates National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. This year, in 2012, we are observing the ten year anniversary of such a sobering day.  Awareness days serve as a way to mobilize communities. In this case, it is meant to raise awareness in Latino communities nationwide. Latino communities are the largest and most quickly growing ethnic group in the United States. Hispanics are now 16.4% of those in the United States according to the 20120 census, yet they are 20% of the new HIV cases.


For many Americans, Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American HIV-positive gay man, who appeared on the cast of MTV’s popular show “The Real World” in 1994 was the first Hispanic HIV positive person they knew. He publicly disclosed his status and died later that same year at the age of 22.  That same year, visionary community leader and former NY City Human Rights Commissioner (under Mayor Dinkins) Dennis DeLeon helped found the Latino Commission

on AIDS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Latino community.  That same year, AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25-44; and remained so through 1995.   Yet, many Hispanics were unaware of these major events in the Latino community and these many firsts.

In the HIV/AIDS field there are many who are shouting that we are nearing the end of the road for HIV/AIDS and that we will be able to reach an AIDS-free generation in the near future.  But we still have much work to do until that point. We must still raise awareness of HIV and encourage individuals to get tested and to seek care.   With the launch of the In-Home HIV Test by Oraquick (yes, an over the counter HIV test), there is now a new tool to destigmatize HIV testing.


Luiz Walter Alvarez, was the first Hispanic to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968, for discoveries about subatomic particles. Later, he and his son proposed the now-accepted theory that the mass dinosaur extinction was caused by a meteor impact.  Wow! That is so intense and so cool, and I didn’t know about that either. There is much to learn about our rich history and there is much that we can do for our community. In order to see that last HIV diagnosis and indeed reach the goal of an AIDS-free generation let’s get up, let’s get tested and lets help each other get the care that is needed.


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