National Latinx HIV Conference: Journey of Renewal

National Latinx HIV/HCV/SUD Conference (NaLa)

by Ray Rico

El Paso, TX • May 1-5, 2024

I recently had the privilege of attending the National Latinx HIV/HCV/SUD Conference (NaLa) in El Paso, Texas, from May 1-5, 2024. As someone deeply committed to community outreach and advocacy for nearly two decades, this conference resonated profoundly with me. Living in an area where Latinx representation is crucial, I felt compelled to contribute to building a more equitable Language Justice system for our community through collaboration and resource mobilization. NaLa left me invigorated and inspired, reinforcing the importance of active participation, deeper understanding, accountability, and connection within our communities.

Unveiling the Legacy of NaLa

NaLa, also known as the National Latinx Conference on HIV/HCV/SUD, serves as a vital platform to address health disparities affecting the Latinx population, including HIV, Hepatitis C, and Substance Use Disorder. For the past nine years, this conference has been orchestrated by the Valley AIDS Council (VAC), a non-profit organization dedicated to providing sexual wellness services in South Texas. With the collective efforts of community members and organizations at local, state, and national levels, NaLa celebrates the vibrant Latin@/x culture while fostering dialogue and action towards better health outcomes.

Meet the Driving Forces: Organizers at NaLa

At the forefront of NaLa’s success stands the Valley AIDS Council (VAC), the primary provider of HIV prevention, education, and testing services in the lower Rio Grande Valley and along the US/Mexico border. Through their tireless dedication, VAC ensures access to medical care and supportive services for individuals living with HIV across a three-county area. A huge shout out and thanks to the conference organizers, Sean Camacho, Dr. Frances Myers Mitchell, Marco Martinez, Jonathan Tovar, Pedro Coronado, and Armando Molina. Of course, an event of this size took way more than these folks, so thanks to those others who have gone unnoted. 

Navigating the Path to NaLa

My journey to NaLa began with a serendipitous encounter on social media. Managing pages like @EndHIV901 @refocuspod and @focusmidsouth, I have had the chance to network with others in the community. Thanks to the @latinosandhiv Instagram page, helmed by the dynamic Mr. Pedro Coronado, I was introduced to the conference’s mission, attendees, and invaluable insights. Pedro and his team’s engaging content piqued my interest, prompting me to apply for a scholarship. To my delight, I was among the ten scholars selected from a pool of over two hundred applicants, representing Memphis with pride alongside an exceptional cohort.

Introducing the Scholars

Estella – Eagle Pass, TX  

Sahara – Cleveland, OH  

Ari – Birmingham, AL  

Aris – Los Angeles, CA  

Rosa – Eagle Pass, TX  

Gigi – Philadelphia, PA  

Erick – Chicago, IL  

Abbi – New London, CT  

And myself, Ray – Memphis, TN  

Under the guidance of the gracious Marco, we embarked on this transformative journey, supported by the generosity of our sponsors, Viiv and Gilead.

National Latinx HIV Conference: Journey of Renewal, images courtesy Ray Rico

Crafting Change: Scholar’s Initiatives

Securing a spot at NaLa wasn’t just a stroke of luck; it was the culmination of dedication and vision. Scholars were tasked with developing work plans outlining our potential contributions as change-makers. For me, Language Justice emerged as a focal point, offering a platform to showcase our efforts and forge meaningful connections within the HIV care and prevention landscape. The synergy among scholars fostered collaboration and innovation, underscoring the conference’s profound impact on its participants.

Here is my proposed work: Language Justice

NaLa: A Conference of Inspiration

The conference buzzed with energy as attendees immersed themselves in a rich tapestry of presentations and discussions led by distinguished keynote speakers. Francisco Ruiz, the visionary Director of ONAP at The White House, set the stage with his profound insights into policy and governance. Dr. Robyn Neblett Fanfair, a beacon in public health as Director of the Division of HIV Prevention at CDC, illuminated effective strategies in combating HIV. Billy Sibilly, renowned for his roles in groundbreaking shows like Pose, captivated the audience with his personal journey and unique perspectives on creativity and storytelling. RK Russell, a dynamic force blending athleticism, writing, and advocacy, left a lasting impression with his multifaceted approach, notably his work on the Viiv podcast, Love in Gravity. The conference also made history by hosting the inaugural Latinx Film Festival, spotlighting diverse narratives in the battle against HIV/HCV/SUD. As a grand finale, a vibrant drag show featuring queens from all corners of the nation, including luminaries like Edra Valencia, Lady B, Ry’Lee Hilton, Dizzy Grand Diamandis, and Luna Karr, brought the event to a bittersweet close, celebrating unity and resilience.

National Latinx HIV Conference: Journey of Renewal, screenshot

NaLa wasn’t merely a conference; it was a catalyst for renewal, empowerment, and collective action. As I return home, I carry with me a renewed sense of purpose and a deeper commitment to serving my community. NaLa has reminded me that amidst the challenges, burnout, and uncertainties, inspiration and connection abound, igniting the flame of advocacy and resilience within us all.

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