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What began as a response to the HIV epidemic almost three decades ago, has evolved into an annual community-building event with focus on wellness for LGBTQ Latinos/as. This year’s Miss and Mr. Safe Latino pageant saw contestants competing in categories such as talent performances with sketches, traditional dances that transcend societal gender norms, and a fantasy-wear competition with dresses that went beyond imagination, but the health aspect was present throughout the entire evening and the main focus.

Rafael Velazquez—program director for Instituto Familiar de la Raza, the organization that created the Miss and Mr. Safe Latino 27 years ago—said that the pageant is meant to educate the Latino community in a fun and creative way about a subject that is often not talked about in the culture.

“Even though there have been incredible medical advances in regard to HIV treatment and care, Latinos and African-American Black communities continue to be disproportionately affected,” Velazquez said. “They continue to be the communities that are the most impacted by HIV [and] they continue to be the communities have not really had a decrease in terms of HIV rates.” He added that social cultural barriers, such as language and lack of representation within HIV organizations, have contributed to the problem.

In 2015, almost one-in-four new diagnoses of HIV infection in the United States were Latinos, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To tackle the problem and inform more people about the subject, Instituto Familiar de la Raza decided to deliver services in a different way from other organizations, by tailoring its outreach to better accommodate the Latino community, Velazquez said.

“I think it’s powerful to have someone who looks like you, who speaks your language, who perhaps has been through similar things say ‘Hey I’m here to support you, there are services for you and you’re worthy of these services,’” Velazquez said. “That’s how you develop rapport and trust.”

Before the pageant, the nine contestants competing for the titles of  Mr.,  Miss and Miss TG (transgender) Safe Latina participated in educational workshops about safe sex practices and received information about overall LGBTQ health. This was incorporated in the competition, with contestants being quizzed on these subjects.

Miss TG winner Brianna Salas featured parts of information in her costumes and in her talent performance, where she did a sketch about HIV medication. Salas said it was important for her to compete in the contest because she wanted to promote LGBTQ and in particular help trans women to better their position in society.

“Ever since I got involved, I knew that the main purpose of the pageant is to focus on health and also to promote [prevention medication], which is the main theme of the pageant,” she said via a translator.

One of the services the organization has recently focused on is informing Latinos about Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication for people who are not HIV positive, but are at risk of being exposed.

Esteban Cuaya-Muñoz, a Health Educator and PrEP navigator at Instituto Familiar de la Raza, hosted a table at the pageant as part of a new sexual health campaign, “Viva PrEP.” It began in May and is “one of the first Spanish-language PrEP awareness campaigns to specifically target the Latino community,” according to the organization’s website.

Cuaya-Muñoz became passionate about educating people on the subject of PrEP  when he began dating a partner who was HIV positive (Cuaya-Muñoz is HIV negative), which happened around the same time that the medication became available to the public.

“The medication helped alleviate a lot of the stress and fear in that relationship, and ever since then I’ve been a strong advocate for it,” he said.   

Although PrEP has been available to the public since 2012, few in the Spanish-speaking community know about its existence and often they have misconceptions about it, Cuaya-Muñoz said.

Jayda Nunley, 20, and Yessica Morfin, 20, were invited to the contest by a friend, and decided to go to show support for the LGBTQ Latino community.

“It’s not a community that gets a lot of recognition usually,” Nunley said. “So it’s really inspiring to see a lot of these people coming up here and being so brave.”

Morfin said she agrees with her friend and appreciated the initiative to host the event and the warm and welcoming atmosphere among the people there.

“It’s important to support and to know that you’re not alone in this, especially with the Latinx community where it’s not really talked about,” Morfin said.

Both women said that stereotypes and the absence of discussion about the subject are among the reasons why Latinos are often isolated from the LGBTQ community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a general lack of HIV awareness across all communities, but the reason Latinos are overrepresented is because of stigma stemming from discrimination and homophobia.

Velazquez explained that immigration status is also a contributing factor, since many Latinos do not have access to good healthcare or are undocumented and afraid of deportation. He said that although health among people in the Latino community has improved since the HIV epidemic, there is still a long way to go, and the event is just as important now as it was almost 30 years ago.

“HIV [medication] has advanced, but we continue to be disproportionately affected,” he said. “We need to continue making sure that our communities are accessing the information and preventing HIV.”