In the world of Spanish language TV, the telenovela reigns supreme. These Spanish language serials are rife with scandalous familial dramas that keep viewers hungry for more. And the plot line of a new telenovela web project by one of the nation’s largest community health clinics is no exception.
AltaMed health clinics that serve patients in Los Angeles and Orange Counties is debuting an original series of four YouTube telenovelas as a way to educate Latinos about the spread of HIV.
“As a culture, Latinos tend not to speak about things,” says Paco Farias, director of the AltaMed series. “Growing up in my family, whenever there was something borderline scandalous or taboo we just didn’t talk about it. I think that’s pretty pervasive in our community.”
Called “Sin Verguenza,” or “without shame,” the series' aim is three fold: to educate the clinics’ mostly Latino population about how HIV is spread; to encourage universal HIV testing for everyone 15 and older and to assure viewers that HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, thanks to the availability of new treatments for the virus.
Getting that information to Latinos is especially important as they experience a disproportionate number of infections. In 2009, the HIV infection rate among Latinos was almost three times as high as that of whites, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among Latinas, the disparity is even worse - nearly four times as high as that of white women, the agency reports.
"We began looking at what was the best approach for reaching clients," says Natalie Sanchez, AltaMed's HIV prevention manager. "The telenovelas really capture what’s central to Latinos - which is the family. And so in (AltaMed's) telenovelas - you’ll see an unraveling of the different issues that impact Latinos."
The CDC provided AltaMed with a $385,000 grant to hire a professional writer, director and bilingual actors for the four seven-minute episodes. The producers shot each one twice – once in Spanish and once in English.
Their HIV plot line is told through the lens of the fictitious family Salazar of East Los Angeles.
“It’s highly connected to the stories that we hear on an everyday basis here at the clinic from patients who are HIV infected,” says Hilda Sandoval, a program manager for AltaMed’s HIV unit, and co-writer of the series. “The telenovela focuses on one family unit but it really ties into some of the issues that no one really wants to talk about.”
Issues such as homosexuality, infidelity and risky sexual behaviors, one of which – by the series close - will lead to the HIV infection of a member of the Salazar family.
In the first minutes of Episode One viewers wonder whether it might be the Salazar son, Enrique, a law student who lovingly embraces his gay lover – a young medical intern – in the kitchen of the family restaurant, within full view of dad’s disapproving eyes.
Less than a minute later, though, viewers learn that the family mother - Adrianna Salazar - is also potentially at risk. Her husband Cesar Salazar, it seems, may be fooling around. The distraught Adrianna shares her concerns with her mother, the widowed Grandmother Salazar, who tries to comfort her daughter as best as she can.
But just seconds later, we learn that not even Grandma Salazar is safe from the risk of HIV exposure. After she tells her adult grandchildren she’s off to bingo at the senior center and that she's "feeling lucky" they begin teasing her about getting "lucky" with the handsome Senor Rodriguez - another senior center patron and future love interest.
“So the grandmother is dealing with going back into the dating scene not knowing what to do after being a widow for 10 years,” Sandoval says. “A lot of times we forget that out elder population really do have a life beyond their 60s and 70s and the do go back and start dating because HIV does not discriminate in age. So we wanted to depict what we see happening in our community."
Episode One of Sin Verguenza, now on YouTube, will be followed by the release of episode two in mid-December and the final two episodes in January.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the director of the telenovela as Pablo Farias. His name is Paco Farias.