UH Student-Produced Documentary Explores HIV/AIDS among Latinas

Erica Fletcher is not your typical college student.

The 18-year-old University of Houston junior not only juggles two majors—anthropology and psychology—and her Honors College courses, but she 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. In observance of World AIDS Day, a free screening of the documentary will take place at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 1 at the M.D. Anderson Library, the Honors College Commons.

“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.

“Growing up, Latina women traditionally have been socialized to act subordinate, to be inexperienced sexually and passive about condom usage with their partners,” she said.
“They often feel that it’s not their place to ask their partners to wear a condom. For married women, economic dependency and the hope of preserving their family often discourage women from leaving abusive or unfaithful men.”

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. One of the women believes she contracted the virus after undergoing emergency surgery in Mexico. Another learned of her HIV-status when she was pregnant. The women also share their opinions and their experiences with sex, religion, condom usage and machismo.

“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 and Dia de la Mujer Latina, and 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 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 decided to focus the project on Latino women because of her love for Mexico and Brazil, her mother’s native homeland.

Fletcher has presented the documentary at UH, 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.

A soft-spoken and petite woman, Fletcher may appear to be the least likely person to produce a documentary on HIV/AIDS, especially when one considers her background. Fletcher grew up in League City, where she and her older sister Jessica were home-schooled by their mother.

“My mom taught me how to read when I was 3 years old,” said Fletcher, who at 14 entered Clear Creek High School as a junior. Later, both of the Fletcher girls enrolled at UH with Jessica majoring in mechanical engineering technology"

Erica’s involvement in this project at her age could have a real impact on other students, because she has a lot of teachable moments that may not be in the video,” Hutchison said. “People are going to come to her and ask her questions in a subtle way. She is an HIV educator from this point on.”

UH's World AIDS Day Activities on Dec. 1
The UH Health Center will offer free HIV testing from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. The anonymous and confidential testing is available to all UH students, staff and faculty
For more information, call 713-743-5155.

  • The NAMES Project AIDS Quilt Panels will be on display from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the University Center Arbor and the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. The Wall of Tears also will be on display from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the UC Arbor.
  • Information on HIV will be distributed from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the UC.
  • Students will read the names of people who have died of AIDS from a national registry.
  • A free screening of the documentary “Marianismo” will take place at 7 p.m. at the M.D. Anderson Library, the Honors College Commons.