In a brightly lit room in New York City’s South Bronx, 15 men and women start laughing hysterically. What’s so funny? They’ve just been ordered to unroll condoms over colored dildos. “People still don’t know how to use condoms correctly,” says Norma Cancel, 51, one of three HIV positive staff members who teach basic HIV education workshops. This tutorial is taught in “Promoting HIV Prevention,” the first of eight workshops available at United Bronx Parents (UBP). More than 20,000 people live with HIV in the Bronx, and recent studies show that HIV positive people in the borough are three times more likely to die from AIDS than residents elsewhere in New York City.
But when most of these workshop participants showed up at UBP, they weren’t asking for advice on how to use a condom—or anything else about HIV. They were recruited from other UBP programs, such as Bilingual Literacy or Homeless Hot Meals, and some were rustled up from the streets. Cancel says UBP’s goal is to flood the South Bronx with messages about “changing [risky] behaviors and communicating with their partners.” She adds, “The entire community is in denial, and they don’t have the right info.”
Founded in a storefront in 1965 by Evelina Lopez Antonetty, a Puerto Rican activist, UBP expanded to meet the predominantly black and Latino community’s mounting needs when the crack and HIV epidemic exploded in the ’80s. Today, armed with a bilingual staff in seven buildings, they provide such innovative programs as residential drug treatment for mothers and their children and housing for AIDS orphans and their grandparents. Since Lopez’s death, in 1984, her daughter, Lorraine Montenegro, has taken over to continue her mother’s legacy of not letting anyone leave empty-handed. And that’s whether they’re holding a condom—or a new lease on life.