(Top photo) David Meneses, left, speaks with Bryan López in El Tejar, Guatemala on Feb. 2, 2017.
EL TEJAR, Guatemala — The two volcanoes that rise from the countryside surrounding El Tejar, a town that is slightly more than an hour west of Guatemala City on the Pan-American Highway, were clearly visible on Thursday afternoon.
Children were riding their bicycles through a small park in the center of El Tejar as venders sold food and other items on the street. Bryan López, a 27-year-old nurse who lives in the nearby city of Chimaltenango, was talking about his efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
He told the Washington Blade while in the park that people who have sex while under the influence of alcohol and don’t use condoms put themselves at risk of contracting HIV. López added four of his friends have died from AIDS.
“For me it was very painful,” he told the Blade.
López is one of the five local volunteers with Colectivo Amigos contra el Sida, an HIV/AIDS service organization that is based in Guatemala City, with whom the Blade spoke on Thursday.
Founded in 2005, the organization that is known by the Spanish acronym CAS works with the Guatemalan Ministry of Health to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections in Guatemala City and in the departments of Quetzaltenango, Jutiapa, Santa Rosa and Chiquimula. CAS last year worked with officials in the departments of Chimaltenango, Sololá and Totonicapán to combat the epidemic among men who have sex with men and the Mayan community, but the funding for this initiative ended.
CAS provides HIV and STI tests, counseling, health care and other services to roughly 3,500 people a year.
López and his fellow CAS volunteers conduct HIV testing in the area that surrounds Chimaltenango. They also provide sexual education, which includes information on how to use a condom, to local residents.
“They need help,” David Rosales, a 22-year-old gay man from Chimaltenango, told the Blade as he talked about why he decided to become a CAS volunteer. “I would like to help these people.”
César Vielman, who also lives in Chimaltenango, agreed.
He told the Blade that one of the challenges he and his colleagues face is people don’t know their status. Vielman added many of them also “don’t like to use” a condom.
“It prevents many diseases,” he said.
Taboos about sex are another problem that the CAS volunteers told the Blade they face.
“The taboo refers to the fact that people don’t accept certain social situations,” said Anner Davila, a 19-year-old gay man from El Tejar.
López told the Blade that Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, which has become more popular and influential in Guatemala and throughout Latin America in recent decades, have contributed to these attitudes. He said the country’s religious leaders are not willing to publicly talk about HIV/AIDS, STIs, condom use and other sexual health-related issues.
“The lack of information in Guatemala is very evident,” López told the Blade.
‘A lot of times life here is very hard’
The CAS volunteers also spoke about the local gay community and the challenges it faces.
López spoke with the Blade about machismo and how it continues to shape attitudes towards homosexuality in Guatemala. He said many gay men have suffered psychological abuse because of their sexual orientation.
“A lot of times life here is very hard,” López told the Blade. “People here have to have various personality profiles.”
“There are a lot of problems because a lot of people have never been respected,” he added.
Other CAS volunteers were less pessimistic.
David Meneses, a 27-year-old gay man who moved to El Tejar from Guatemala City three months ago, told the Blade that local residents are “very tolerant” for the most part. Davila agreed.
“Thank God here in El Tejar there are no confrontations or violence or anything similar like many cases that I read about,” he said. “The majority of people accept homosexuality and lesbianism . . . with no problems.”
Vielman said his father “accosted him” a lot when he came out as gay and told him that he could change his sexual orientation.
“It is not possible,” he told the Blade.
Vielman said his mother told him she loves him “as you are.” Other CAS volunteers told the Blade that local residents have reacted to them in a similar way.
Davila acknowledged homophobic attitudes persist. He nevertheless stressed that many straight people feel more comfortable talking with him and other gay CAS volunteers than those who are heterosexual.
“They are heterosexual and they understand,” Davila told the Blade. “They know (about us.) They like to share with us because we are very different to other people.”
He and his colleagues said their work is having a positive impact.
“Changes are happening bit by bit,” said Meneses.