My breath quickened as I walked to the front of the class. Armed with foam drawings of bacteria and white bloods cells, I intended to demonstrate how HIV attacks the immune system to a group of forty giggling thirteen-year-olds. I had practiced my “charla,” full of new Spanish vocabulary, to my family and to my friends, but never to a group of that size. As soon as I began to tape white blood cells to my student volunteer, however, I realized that my high school experience had perfectly prepared me for such an exercise. I spoke in front of my peers as a member of student government. I studied HIV/AIDS in Health and Biology. I took Spanish classes for four years.
Why should I be nervous?
The students didn’t snicker when I confused “los viruses” with “los virus” or dropped a foam bacterium, but rather listened attentively, laughing at my jokes and asking questions. I left the classroom with a newfound confidence. More importantly, having discerned from their questions that they had never been taught the topics I’d discussed, I saw that I had the opportunity to enact change in my community just by explaining how to use a condom or that sharing needles could transmit HIV. It was a powerful realization.
Since that first presentation I’ve given charlas on HIV/AID to Delia’s (another fellow’s) youth group and to my own dance group in La Abundancia, as well as to patients in the waiting room of the health clinic in which I work. Speaking in front of my dance group was especially nerve wracking, as it is composed of my closest friends here. It was also the most rewarding, as I see their rough tattoos and hear them whisper about “The Virgin’s Club,” a local brothel, during the dance practice: their risk of contracting HIV is real.
I view charlas on HIV/AIDS as especially important for the empowerment of young women. The transmission rate of HIV in the province in which I live is the third highest in Ecuador, and women are disproportionately at risk. Not only are women more likely than men to contract HIV if they have heterosexual sex with a positive partner, but they often don’t know they are at risk; married women who’ve contracted the virus from their husbands are the fastest growing demographic of new HIV cases.
When I sat writing an essay on Como Agua Para Chocolate or spoke during school assemblies, I had no idea that the abilities I cultivated would have a direct application in my bridge year, nor to a pressing global epidemic. I now wonder how my experiences here will apply to college and beyond. Perhaps I’ll be pulled up to dance in a salsa bar, or asked to cook a plantain. More importantly, I hope that I’ll able to look at Latin American culture, especially in regards to health and sexuality, with a newly focused lens.