El Puente, the Southside community human rights organization, hosted its fourth annual Latino AIDS Awareness Day last Monday night, an evening of performance art honoring those stricken with a disease that disproportionately affects the Latino community.
Held at El Puente’s S. 4th Street headquarters, the event was presented by Teatro El Puente. Formerly known as the AIDS drama project, the company originated in 1987 as an interactive theater company promoting AIDS education. Since then, it has expanded to encompass all social justice issues, particularly those most relevant to young people.
The company is a prime example of how El Puente uses the arts as a vehicle to promote education and social justice.
“Anybody can come in and talk, but a lot of times young people feel they’re being talked at rather than engaged. Theater is a good way to speak to them,” said Dominic Colon, the company’s theater director.
Colon said that theater and the arts enable an open, honest discussion of sensitive issues like AIDS.
“Even 25 years after the epidemic started, there’s still a stigma attached to AIDS. But the more we talk about it openly, the less of a stigma there is. And the more people start talking about it, the numbers are going to drop,” he said.
While only around 14 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, Latinos account for 19 percent of AIDS cases. In New York City, 29 percent of people living with AIDS are Latino. A recent health report revealed that Latino and African-American women account for 40 percent of new cases of HIV and AIDS in the city.
The program – performed in front of a packed house – included Tony Award nominee Robin de Jesus of the critically acclaimed musical In the Heights.
Also on the program were Quad Divino, a Bronx-based dance troupe; Fascious, an acclaimed Newyorican slam poet; P-Star, a talented 14-year-old female rapper from the Bronx; and the dance company of Anthony Rodriguez, who is known to many for his extensive work with Madonna.
One of the most moving pieces came from Teatro El Puente’s own Jordan Figueroa, who recited a poem about his experiences with his mother, who died of AIDS in 2005.
“This shows that you don’t even have to have AIDS in order for it to affect you. The bottom line is that in our community, it’s reality,” Figueroa said.
Teatro El Puente itself staged a performance about a young woman who learns she has been infected by her incarcerated boyfriend.
Summing up the message of the piece, Colon – who himself has had considerable commercial success as an actor – said: “Regardless of how in love you may think you are, you never know what you’re partner’s doing, so you always have to be careful.”
Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s executive director, said the evening reflected El Puente’s mission to “create spaces where our community can come together to talk about the important issues facing it.
“An evening like this is young people being able to raise, in a very powerful way, issues that have an impact on their future.”