The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Journalism students tackle HIV/AIDS

It was already dark as their vehicles lurched past sleeping dogs along the rutted, trash-strewn dirt road 10 miles south of Tijuana toward the AIDS hospice known as Casa Hogar.

As part of a multimedia project in CSUN’s Spanish language journalism program, nine students along with journalism professor Jos? Luis Benavides and department chair Kent Kirkton spent four days in April documenting the AIDS problem in the Latino community and in particular, the residents of this run-down facility that exists in stark contrast to the modern face of a nearby maquiladora, one of the giant manufacturing enclaves along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The first person to greet the band of American journalists as they pulled up to the facility was hospice patient Maria Louise, a middle-aged woman with wandering light blue eyes whose focus seemed to be to obtain a cigarette from the visitors, said Hernan Alonso Yanez, 23, a junior in the journalism department.

“She was scary looking,” Yanez said, adding that all the students tried to remain professional in the face of such overwhelming poverty and suffering.

“It was touching, but I didn’t cry,” he said, noting that many of his fellow students couldn’t keep from crying even while conducting interviews.

The students would often have pep talks in an effort to keep up their journalistic standards because they sensed they were getting too close to their subjects, Yanez said.

He said they had to wear anti-bacterial masks while interviewing patients in an isolation area. One of these patients, a painter and community leader, later died, Yanez said.

The print portion of this project, titled “Relatos Contra el Silencio: El SIDA in la Comunidad Latina,” or “Stories Against the Silence: AIDS in the Latin Community,” is a 48-page Spanish language publication that documents not only the students’ experiences, but outlines the growing problem of AIDS in the Latin community on both sides of the border.

The HIV/AIDS problem is growing because of the nature of the Latin culture, Yanez said. There is no education about AIDS, he said, because there is a belief in the Latin community that talking about sex is taboo.

But he said this had never been a problem for him.

“Both my parents have (doctoral degrees),” he said.

Another student who was part of the project, journalism major Adolfo Flores, 20, agreed, adding that Latinos who are most at risk for exposure to the disease are often devoutly religious who see their faith as barriers to frank sexual discussions.

“We don’t talk about sex,” he said. “We don’t talk about protection. It’s taboo.”

Kirkton said he hoped the project would open up a much-needed discussion about AIDS in the Latino community and added that this destructive reticence was the reason for the project’s title: Stories Against Silence.

Both Yanez and Flores, along with Benavides and Kirkton, agreed that HIV/AIDS is a problem that transcends the U.S.-Mexico border.

Flores described one part of the cultural mechanism that fosters an increase in HIV infection in Mexico, saying that husbands who routinely cross the border into California for work might become infected through unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner and carry it back to their wives when they return home.

Kirkton described his understanding of the scope of the problem that stems, in part, from the fact that Tijuana is more of a twin city to San Diego and Los Angeles than a metropolitan area in a different country.

Epidemiologists from different cities in Southern California have no way of tracking HIV-infected people who move beyond their particular areas, and certainly have no way of tracking them between Mexico and the U.S., he said.

He said approximately 35 percent of the patients at Casa Hogar are HIV positive convicts who’ve been released from California’s jails and prisons, but who aren’t U.S. citizens.

“They’re bused to Mexico and given a phone number to the general hospital there that refers them to the hospice,” he said.

Benavides, who was the driving force behind the students’ project, said he wanted to do it because of the changing face of journalism.

“I don’t have to follow the rules already established on how to teach journalism,” he said, adding that this makes sense because today’s technologies are fueling changes in journalism that are moving faster than they are in academia, which has traditionally been stuck in the status quo.

Benavides said he wanted to do a multimedia project in which students weren’t influenced by preconceived notions.

Students will often approach a story with a good idea of what their sources will say, he said.

“They choose an anecdote and get a quote to back it up and it becomes really formulaic – mechanical,” he said.

“Nothing can prepare you to see people in the terminal stages of AIDS,” Benavides said. “That’s pretty hard to take.”

He is very pleased with the outcome of the project, saying he believes its various components have a good chance of winning prizes at different competitions.

It’s going to have to be translated into English for entry into the more socially responsible competitions, like the Robert F. Kennedy Award, he said.

Benavides said he was surprised at how open, friendly and forthcoming the patients at Casa Hogar were, noting they had every right to be bitter and angry at their circumstances, but weren’t.

Benevides agrees that progress in solving the HIV/AIDS problem in the Latin community is thwarted by cultural beliefs.

The Latino culture is macho, he said, adding that extramarital sex is seen as okay because it’s considered a macho thing.

“Many in Latin cultures don’t even consider a man having sex with another man gay behavior. It’s just having sex with men,” he said.

KPFK radio producer Ruben Tapia aired the broadcast portions of the project on May 31, and was thrilled with the quality of the finished product.

His show, “Nuestra Voz,” airs from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and includes a portion for listeners to call in and voice their opinions and comments.

He said the fact that so many people called in from Mission Viejo to Santa Barbara with positive feedback was a testament to the success of the students’ project.

Tapia, who has produced KPFK’s “Enfoque Latino” for more than 20 years, is impressed with the positive influence Benavides has had on the Spanish-speaking journalism students at CSUN. Before Benavides’ arrival, most of the students didn’t read newspapers and 90 percent of them wanted to do sports and entertainment, but now they seem to be interested in more socially responsible journalism, he said.

“The way Benavides has put together the program is really inspiring,” Tapia said.

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