Kelly Sans Culotte


U.S. Dominicans and AIDS
On Miss Universe, sycophantic politicians, and the conversation that never happened.
By Carlos Ulises Decena

Miss Universe 2003 lovefest at "AIDS in the Dominican Community," forum, June 23, 2003. Mary Altaffer

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JULY 10, 2003. A so-called "dialogue" on "AIDS in the Dominican Community" held in New York City on June 23 was one more example of the idiocy of politicians and the wrong-headedness of attempts to mobilize U.S. Dominicans around HIV/AIDS.

Maybe I should have expected that combining our recently named Miss Universe, the Dominican Amelia Vega, with a conversation about AIDS was a recipe for disaster, but I held on to the hope that someone there might go beyond the usual platitudes. Or that Miss Universe, with her newly-owned "voice" as a public woman in the international scene, would leave the script of the beauty queen for just a minute and speak her mind.

Also spelling trouble was the way in which the Dominican American National Roundtable — the main sponsor of this event along with the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York — had framed AIDS as an important issue because it was about "women" (read: mothers) and "children." Apparently, Dominicans outside these categories who have died or who continue to live with the disease are not worth fighting for.

Photo Ops
Since the event started an hour late and I was early, I had plenty of time to ponder whether people were there to talk about AIDS or to see Ms. Vega. A nearby photographer answered my question when he wondered aloud if Amelia would come out to the front of the podium so we could see her in all her glory, upstaging the table where six or seven presenters sat.

Stunned at the comment and thinking that maybe what this man wanted was for her to parade on the stage in a bathing suit, I looked his way for a few seconds. Noticing, he immediately proceeded to misread me. "Míralo a él. Está pensando lo mismo." "Look at him. He's thinking the same thing." Right.

The politicians began to arrive, some holding what looked like gifts for Miss Vega. Soon the area closest to the stage was swarming with photographers, reporters, and bodyguards for the VIPs as politicians and activists gave interviews to the press and had their pictures taken.

When Miss Vega finally walked out, it was to a standing ovation from a sparse audience. Not even a "mamasota" like Miss Universe can get us Dominicans to attend a forum on AIDS. Even when the event isn't really about AIDS at all, but a celebration of Amelia Vega's beauty, transformed by its combination with the word "AIDS" into a grotesque circus.

When she sat down, the parade of hyperbole began with speech after vacuous speech from community figures and heavyweight New York politicians including Congressman Charles B. Rangel, New York State Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat, and New York City Council Member Miguel Martínez.

Erasing Gayz
Here are some highlights: "It's good that the Miss Universe contest has recognized that the Dominican Republic has the most beautiful women in the world." Applause.

"It's good that she is doing this, taking care of a disease that affects women and children. She should come to Washington Heights and visit a clinic for HIV-infected children." Yes, she should come and hang out with the nuns, the only HIV providers worth meeting in Washington Heights. Kiss kiss. Other HIV infected populations do not exist, of course.

Someone presented her with a proclamation from the New York State legislature in Albany. Who knew state representatives and senators actually spent time approving certificates for beauty queens? Smile. Come closer to the front of the stage so the press can get a full body shot. Smile.

"She brings humanity to AIDS." I have never thought of beauty queens as particularly human. Miss Vega was presented with prevention paraphernalia, which was never shown to the audience. And a baseball cap with the words, "Love Heals." Loving women (only as mothers, of course) and children, I guess. She put on the cap and came out front. Smile. Picture. Applause.

Saying AIDS
"Someone as beautiful as she is can talk about anything she wants." Applause and pictures. Smile. Miss Vega can talk all right. She is articulate, intelligent, and charismatic. What will happen, I wondered, the day she drops her script in the nearest trashcan and begins to really talk about AIDS? Will we listen?

The eloquence in Spanish that she demonstrated in her brief intervention contrasted sharply with the speeches of many of the presenters. Call me a snob, but it's offensive when politicians that supposedly represent Latinos speak English as flawlessly as a well-paved road and Spanish like the patchwork of potholes they call roads in Bloomberg's Bronx.

Another speaker had the audacity of suggesting that Miss Vega's taking on this issue, and the Roundtable having a meeting about AIDS, was in itself an act of liberation. Yes, twenty-some years after the disease began to rob us of so many precious lives, we Dominicans can bask in the freedom of saying AIDS out in the open. AIDS. AIDS. AIDS.

Another picture, another smile, and then it happened: an older woman dressed in black, clearly a member of the audience, climbed on stage, offered Miss Vega some flowers, and asked her — in front of our dropped jaws — if she would please pose for a picture next to her. Miss Vega, gracious and patient as she had been all afternoon, simply brought her closer and had the picture taken. I felt like applauding that lady. At least she, unlike most of the men on stage, was honest enough about what this was really about.

The Heart of It
The few cracks in the curtain of inane respectability and joviality were thanks to some of the women on stage. Dr. Ramona Hernández, Director of the Dominican Studies Institute, talked about research currently being planned with Dominicans in Washington Heights. The only person who dared talk about AIDS in concrete terms was Dr. Rosita Romero, Executive Director of the Dominican Women's Development Center in Washington Heights.

After paying her compliments to Miss Vega, Dr. Romero launched into a discussion of some of the conditions that make women particularly vulnerable to HIV: poverty and lack of access to resources, cultural norms like the double standard of men on the street and women at home, the "virgin/whore" dichotomy, women's lack of negotiation skills in sexual encounters (partly due to all of the above).

As she went on, the woman who had introduced her began to giggle. She put her hand lightly on Dr. Romero's back, to hint that she was running out of time. When Dr. Romero touched on the topic of women being anally penetrated by men to preserve their virginity and when she said that a homosexual is not just the man who is penetrated but also the man who penetrates, a cloud of tension descended upon the room. Someone was finally saying something important, something challenging. But her time was up.

Audience members were then told that Miss Vega had to leave for her next event, so we could not have a discussion. As a parting gesture, the presenters who were still around — by then, most politicians were gone — had their picture taken with Miss Universe.

Gambling with Lives
In a final announcement, the representative of the Dominican American Roundtable explained that, in honor of Miss Vega, AIDS would be discussed at the next Dominican American Roundtable Conference, surreally, in Atlantic City. I guess after having our pictures taken with Miss Universe, feeling liberated for being able to say the word AIDS, and patting ourselves on the back for doing nothing, we can all head to the slot machines and roulette wheels.

From the Web

Miss Universe
Dominican American National Roundtable
Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York

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