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Honors Student's Documentary Explores HIV/AIDS Among Latinas

Erica Fletcher is not your typical college student. The 19-year-old University of Houston junior not only juggles two majors—anthropology and psychology—and her Honors courses, but also is working to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS among the Latino community.

Fletcher’s approach to a complex challenge is simple: allow HIV-infected women to speak for themselves in a powerful and disturbing documentary. Titled Marianismo, the film explores the cultural factors that contribute to the disproportionate spread of HIV/AIDS among Latina women.

“The concept of marianismo typifies the reasons why HIV is becoming a major problem within the Latino community,” Fletcher said. “The term marianismo comes from the idea of the Virgin Mary, the model woman who is pure, selfless and submissive and who will quietly endure suffering for the sake of preserving her family.”

The documentary opens with a statement scrawled across the screen: While African-American and Latina women make up only 30 percent of the U.S. female population, they make up 80 percent of AIDS cases among women. The AIDS rate is eight times higher in Latina women than in white women. From there, the film delves into the lives of two HIV-positive women and another woman with AIDS, who speak frankly about how they were infected with the virus.

“They were so brave to speak to me about these issues,” said Fletcher, who previously didn’t know anyone who was HIV-positive. “Their struggle really touched me. I hope their stories will move other people to become more aware and educate themselves about this problem.” The film also includes interviews with social workers from AIDS Foundation Houston, Dia de la Mujer Latina, and Dr. Janis Hutchison, UH anthropology professor, whose research interests include condom use, HIV/AIDS, racism and health, and health issues among people of color.

“The intent of the film is not to stereotype Latina women into the simple category of victim but to show the complexities of their cultural situation,” Fletcher explained. “That being said, even the word Latina does not capture the great cultural variety among the 22 countries that comprise Latin America; nevertheless, cultural emphasis on the purity of women, the importance of caring for the family, and allowances for male infidelity are widespread among Latino communities.”

Fletcher added that the purpose of the documentary “is to generate further discussion on cultural awareness and education strategies will lead to the effective promotion of healthy lifestyles among Latina women.” Her interest in HIV/AIDS was sparked by a class, Anthropology of HIV/AIDS, taught by Hutchinson. Following the class, Fletcher applied for and received a $2,800 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

from UH’s Office of Undergraduate Research to produce the documentary under Hutchinson’s direction. Fletcher has presented the documentary at the University of Houston, the Thomas Street Health Center, and the AIDS Foundation of Houston. She hopes to take the documentary on the road to other universities and organizations across the nation.