ORLANDO SENTINEL

December 15, 2009

 

Volusia AIDS activist lauded for educating immigrants on taboo subjects

 

Ana Laura Bolaños launched Active Women's Alliance to teach Hispanic women about health issues

 

By Eloísa Ruano González, Orlando Sentinel

 

Ana Laura Bolaños traded a comfortable life in Mexico City to join her husband cutting foliage in the ferneries of northwest Volusia County. And when Bolaños landed on an all-female crew, she knew she had found her calling — fighting for rural women's rights to health care.

Co-workers frequently complained to Bolaños about the lack of health services in the small agricultural towns north of DeLand. Many of the women had serious concerns and didn't know where to go because of their limited English.

"Some had problems with sexually transmitted diseases and didn't know where to go. They were afraid to ask," said Bolaños, recalling her arrival in Seville two decades ago.

Since then, Bolaños has helped bridge the gap between immigrants and state and local agencies, including the Volusia County Health Department. In 2006, she launched the Active Women's Alliance, or Alianza de Mujeres Activas (AMA), to educate Hispanic women about health issues. The alliance, which operates out of Bolaños' home, also connects women to local resources in the hope that they will share that information with other women.

Bolaños has become a trusted and familiar face in a wary community. She's volunteered at schools and other community events since the 1990s. After the 2004 hurricanes, Bolaños lobbied the county and FEMA for disaster relief for local residents. Agencies set up in her yard to hand out aid for residents in the northwest Volusia. Gov. Charlie Crist honored Bolaños in September with a Point of Light award for her work in northwest Volusia. County officials also dedicated Nov. 5 as "Ana Laura Bolaños Day."

Bolaños has been willing to address AIDS and HIV in the immigrant community, while health officials haven't paid much attention to it until recently, said Robin Lewy, education director with the Rural Women's Health Project in Gainesville. The rate for Hispanics in the southern U.S. is higher than in any other part of the country, Lewy said. In Florida, Hispanic females represent 18 percent of HIV cases and nearly 15 percent of AIDS cases. Specific numbers weren't available. The rate among farmworkers and their families is roughly 10 times the national rate, Lewy said.

In the past two months, Lewy has trained Bolaños' volunteers about birth control and HIV prevention and testing. Each volunteer is responsible to share the information in Spanish with 10 other women.

Health officials in Volusia County have teamed up Bolaños and Lewy to set up testing sites and educate youth. This month, Lewy, Bolaños and organizations in five counties, including Volusia and Marion, started the North Central Florida Farmworker Corridor HIV Task Force to address the high rate of HIV-infected immigrants.

Most Americans have access to this information, however, immigrants living in rural areas often don't. "Because of economic, social and legal realities, they still have the same knowledge they came with when they came from their [native countries]." Many immigrants can't afford to see a doctor or don't have transportation because they live in remote areas away from clinics, so HIV is more likely to develop into AIDS, Lewy explained.

Bolaños said some people don't even know about the lethal disease. She said other women are afraid to discuss birth control with their husbands, fearing their men won't trust them. "The Mexican woman isn't used to talking about it and doesn't get tested," Bolaños said.

After injuring her back several years ago, Bolaños no longer works at the ferneries. Despite her own struggles, she plans to continue to look for food, health care and other resources to help her community.

"This area is often forgotten. Thanks to AMA, people have received help they never had before. I wouldn't be comfortable closing the doors of my house to people," she said.