POZ Exclusives : Yolanda Rodriguez-Escobar: Bridging the Gap for Mexican-American Women - by Lauren Tuck

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December 14, 2010

Yolanda Rodriguez-Escobar: Bridging the Gap for Mexican-American Women

by Lauren Tuck

Following years of studying and working—all while raising a family—Yolanda Rodriguez-Escobar recently completed her PhD in social work at the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently a teacher, but previously she founded and held the executive director position at Mujeres Unidas Contra el SIDA in San Antonio. Rodriguez-Escobar tells us the ins and outs of her inspiring work.

How did you initially get into HIV work?

I’ve been in the field of HIV for about 22 years. I started as a frontline social worker, and it quickly became my passion. I’ve worked in areas from pediatric AIDS all the way to adult patients, but my specialization is definitely Latinas and HIV. That’s what my dissertation was on—coping strategies among Mexican-American women living with HIV. 

Can you divulge some specifics on your dissertation?

I was looking at what was unique to [the Mexican-American female] population in terms of their coping strategies. My hypothesis, and what I found over the years working with the women, is that they are very resilient and they have a lot of strength if they find a supportive network either with their biological or extended family. In many cases, the women had no families [except for] the organization I founded in 1994, Mujeres Unidas Contra el SIDA (Women United Against AIDS).

The other finding that was really striking was their strong affiliation with faith and spirituality, and so I think that is definitely something that is unique. Of course it was a small sample, and I would like to compare it with another group such as African-American women living with HIV and see if there are any similarities or differences.

Can you tell me more about Mujeres?

I was a county hospital social worker working with many patients back in the early ’90s, and one of the challenges I had was there was never enough time to serve all of the people that needed help. So I decided to start a support group and discovered that there were no bilingual, bicultural support groups specifically for women. I decided the group needed to be for both women living with HIV but also other women whose lives were affected by HIV either through their partner’s diagnosis, their brother’s, their son’s, etc.

Probably a year and a half into its existence, a member of the group, Lucia, found herself very sick, and we knew that she was gong to die. We [wanted] to help her get back home to Honduras. Lucia was a very strong woman and came to this country seeking a better life for her children. She left two children in Honduras and then gave birth to one in the United States. Well, little did she know, she was infected with HIV and so her son is also HIV positive. (He’s still living, he’s 19 years old.) When Lucia found herself with the decision that now is the time I want to go back to die, it was really just too late. So the women said, Why don’t we have a fund-raiser so Lucia’s family could come to her? We sold plates of enchiladas and rice and beans. It was an incredible effort where the women came together and they organized themselves. The women quickly responded, and that really was the pivotal moment for the support group to evolve into an organization. Because it was the women that said, If we can do this in a 24-hour period, what more can we do?

What are some programs at Mujeres?

I think the language barrier is a big factor in access to services and deterring people from even getting tested, so we developed an intervention called Platica (platica in English means talk). We found that information wasn’t reaching parts of the Latino community, [especially] the women that were high risk, so we took the information to them. We would set up a Platica. A Platica consisted of six women; one was the hostess and she would invite us into her own home, and we would just talk, not just HIV but other important issues that are related to raising your children, teen pregnancy and other topics, but the main one was HIV/AIDS.

Another intervention looked at how to break down barriers with mothers and daughters. How can we effect change with this generation of mothers and daughters, and how can we get mothers to talk to their daughters from an early age about HIV, STDs and domestic violence? We had a retreat called Hablas Conmigo (talk with me) to give them education, strengthen them, and give them that extra boost in being able to form a healthy relationship to impact how they would communicate about certain issues like HIV.   

With a grant from CHAMP we took on sex education in high schools to try and make it more comprehensive instead of an abstinence-only curriculum. So we made a campaign, and we had a town hall meeting in San Antonio where the teen pregnancy rate as well as STD rate is the highest. And it was successful.

How have you been able to juggle all this throughout the years?

I also involve my family in the work that I do. My children were exposed to the work and the activism that I’ve been involved in, which I think has had an incredible impact on them. Sometimes my kids would write their term papers in school on HIV/AIDS. They grew up around it, so I think it made it easier. My husband, even my parents were advocates. I remember my mother telling me a story once—she was at her Bunko club with these little old ladies that were being really homophobic and saying things like, “Oh those gay guys that get HIV,” and my mother quickly responded, “It’s not just gay men that get HIV,” and she educated them at her Bunko club. Again, I think it just spills over when someone does this kind of work. You can’t help but involve those people around you, and I think that’s what helped me juggle everything around me.

Search: Yolanda Rodriguez-Escobar, Mexican-American Women, San Antonio, Texas, Mujeres Unidas Contra el SIDA,

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