How the streets of Los Angeles prepared me to work with Latinos in the Deep South

“Character is the result of a system of stereotyped principals”     -David Hume

In June 1993 I was hired for a part time job with a carefully selected group of teens at a community health center in California’s San Fernando Valley. The program accepted a small group of youth and taught them how to educate their peers in various areas of sexual health. At the time I thought of this program as a fun way to spend my time with fun people while making a few extra bucks.  My closest buddy in the group was Rigoberto, a fourth generation Mexican American from the San Fernando Valley. He was also in a gang.  The same gang his parents and grandparents were a part of before him.  Rigoberto confided in me that his uncle was sick with AIDS (he actually referred to it as “full blown AIDS”) but only his closest family members knew. Rigoberto participated in our group to learn how he could help others in his life understand what his uncle was going through and how to avoid the same pitfalls.  While Rigoberto went through almost all of the 60-hour training, he missed the graduation because he had been arrested the night before after getting into a street fight.  When I spoke to him afterward, he explained that he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Somehow this was the reason for many of his missed opportunities and he seemed to accept this for what it is.

Although much of what we learned that summer was based on how people get HIV and the body’s biological response to the virus, what really stuck with me was the context of risk.  Despite being a third generation gang member, Rigoberto was a good kid.  His intentions were to help his community understand that there is more to life than what they see before their eyes.  However, his circumstances shaped his actions.  Understanding this relationship between circumstances and action has shaped the way I perceive community health.  The risk that Rigoberto had for violence has many parallels with how HIV transmission occurs.  Rigoberto was stigmatized for his neck tattoos, long and baggie Dickie cut-offs and oversized white T-shirt (it was the 90’s).  Attire that LAPD might have described as belonging to the usual suspects.  My understanding of behavioral science has helped me articulate why Rigoberto’s story served as a catalyst for my 20 years (and counting) in the field.  I cut my teeth in community health for the first 14 years in the varied and disparate neighborhoods of Los Angeles.  I saw elements of Rigoberto’s story reoccur in many variations as a recruiter and interview counselor for Los Angeles County’s site of the Young Men’s Survey (Valleroy, et al., 2000).

I came to the Latinos in the Deep South program last year with two decades experience observing the various circumstances that lead people from all walks of life to negative health outcomes.  At the same time, I have seen how many protective factors in people’s lives, such as easy access to health care, can lead to optimal health.  This broad lens of community health informs my vision as Program Director.   Latinos in the Deep South envisions the highest standards of health for all people. Thus, our method for addressing health equity is based on supporting and strengthening communities.  Whether in Van Nuys, CA or Selma, AL, we identify leaders with many of the same qualities I recognized in Rigoberto and support them in their vision to improve their communities’ quality of life.


Photography: © Tom Adams

Written by: Erik Valera
Follow @LatinoDeepSouth

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