March 16, 2010
Guillermo Chacon: Leading the Latino Commission on AIDS
by Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr.
Guillermo Chacon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA), is at the helm of an organization in transition. After serving for years as vice president of LCOA, Chacon became its leader after the death of LCOA's former president Dennis deLeon in 2009.
How did you get involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy?
In 1988, I worked for a community-based organization in San Francisco directing their community development initiatives. One of the best volunteers at the agency told me, "I'm not going to come any longer." I asked why, and he said, "I have AIDS." His name was Wilfredo, a young Salvadorian kid, and it really pushed me to act.
We began to do more education [in the Latino community], and a year later the agency received an award [for] educating the community on HIV and helping in other health issues.
Wilfredo decided to return to El Salvador and contribute to the gay community in the country. Unfortunately, Wilfredo passed away due to AIDS complications, but I made a promise to him that I would challenge myself and also challenge the people around me.
How did you get involved with the Latino Commission on AIDS?
A lot of people don't know this, but I worked for the [LCOA] founding executive director, Sandra Estepa. I left because my contract was up, but then in 1995 I bumped into Dennis deLeon. He asked to meet. I went to see him, and he said immediately, "I want you to work for me."
We began a unique partnership. We complemented each other. I admired him since day one for his passion, something that is still in my heart and my soul. Every day was different working with Dennis.
How has the organization coped with Dennis's death last year?
Dennis was bigger than life. Since Dennis took over in late 1994, we were able to build a local and an international organization.
The best way we can cope with his loss is to continue his legacy of working with Latinos and other communities affected by this epidemic.
What are the challenges facing your organization?
Number one is to honor the Dennis deLeon legacy. We are going through the most difficult economic crisis in modern times in the United States. There are going to be less services, cuts at the state level, reductions at the federal level.
Number two is to maintain our focus on honoring people living with HIV and AIDS. The Latino Commission on AIDS believes strongly that the people living with this epidemic have to be part of the center of setting any agenda.
Number three is all of the implications that we will have with or without health care reform. How do you respond to the new changes that will be implemented at the federal level in terms of Ryan White, Medicaid, Medicare?
Other challenges include how we respond to big events like the 2010 Census, HIV among Latinos in Washington, DC, and the AIDS crisis in Puerto Rico.
What are the challenges facing Latinos in fighting the virus?
There is still a denial in our community. It's easy to avoid tough issues, especially issues that challenge your belief system or your comfort level.
We need to begin with our own families, challenge the level of homophobia, discrimination or stigma we have against communities affected [by HIV/AIDS]. After we acknowledge that, we can begin to take specific actions.
We need to build our community, to learn how to advocate for ourselves and to engage in decision-making bodies that set priorities.
We need to enhance our research agenda, but we also need the partnership of the media as a whole to impact behavior norms and values. Within the next 10 years, I hope that we will have better health outcomes.
Can you speak about your experience being a straight ally?
People sometimes will say, "Oh, Guillermo is a nice gay man." I take it as a compliment. Then some people will say, "He is one of the most willing straight men to connect with different people."
When I started to work [at LCOA], my parents started to ask me a lot of questions. My mom is a great cook, so I told a whole bunch of friends, a lot of people living with AIDS, to have dinner at my house.
At the end of the dinner, I told my mom and my dad so-and-so is living with HIV. I saw their reaction. They put a human face [to the disease]. A nice person they just had a great meal with is going through a difficult situation, living with HIV/AIDS.
Everything has to start with your own family and with you as an individual. I don't like when people try to challenge others [without being] willing to challenge themselves.
What do you enjoy the most now in your current role as LCOA president?
The best thing is trying to save lives. I can tell you a lot of stories, but that for me gives me a level of satisfaction that I feel fantastic about.
The second thing is getting people to understand that we can work together on different situations that people may think is impossible. It is always worth it to try.
Go to latinoaids.org for more information.
Photo credit: bleacher + everard
Search: Latino Commission on AIDS, LCOA, Guillermo Chacon
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