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
By Eloísa Ruano González,
Ana Laura Bolaños traded a comfortable life in
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
"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 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
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
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,
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.