In his comfortable living room, Mario Canedo puts peaceful Latin music on the stereo. He mixes a batch of margaritas.
Canedo has invited five gay Hispanic men to talk about safe sex. All of the men were born in Mexico, and they settled in the Kansas City area, the earliest one immigrating in the late 1980s. All are younger than Canedo, 38, a fit man with white-flecked hair, a soul patch and an understated charisma.
There's a stack of flavored condoms on a footstool, and Canedo gives each man a flesh-colored dildo to practice on. A grocery bag on the floor is filled with more condoms. One man laughingly pockets a handful, the brightly colored wrappers poking through his fingers.
One fashionable man in his early 30s, still wearing his dark overcoat as he drinks his second margarita, waves a dildo in the condom thief's face. There's a lot of laughter and fast talking as everyone loosens up over the tequila.
Canedo does his best to keep the discussion serious while he laughs along with his guests. This is a more open conversation than most of these men ever had when they were in Mexico. "What it means to be a man is very strict in our families," Canedo says. "No one talks about being gay or bisexual, or almost anything about sex. You grow up afraid and not knowing a lot."
They still have misconceptions. Canedo explains that rimming can be dangerous, and the men seem surprised.
"How do you say this?" Canedo asks, trying to translate the conversation so a Pitch reporter can understand the Spanish. "Black kiss? If there's a cut or a sore, it's dangerous."
He takes out dental dams, also flavored, and passes them around. The dildo waver unwraps a grape dam and pokes his tongue into it, the purple material straining to accommodate. He shakes his head and tosses it aside. "I don't like it. I don't like the black kiss anyway."
Everyone working to prevent the spread of HIV in Kansas City agrees that new infections are on the rise in minority communities, and until fairly recently, Hispanics were considered the most unreachable group. That's partly because of cultural taboos surrounding any discussion of sex — especially homosexual sex — and partly because it's hard to find the Hispanic men who are at risk. Canedo says most gay Hispanics don't frequent the club scene, and there aren't any clubs that cater to them, so they often rent out hotels for parties instead. Canedo meets people there and invites them to educational discussions at his home.
"A lot of men that show up to the parties have girlfriends or wives," he says of the men who frequent the hotel circuit. "They just don't want to be seen as that way [gay]. And because they hide it, they don't plan, so they don't use protection. If you don't use protection, you get sick."
Canedo started this work in 2007, when the Good Samaritan Project hired him as a community prevention specialist. It had just received a grant from the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department for Hispanic outreach and prevention services.
"I don't think anyone had made progress in this area, trying to bring gay and bisexual Hispanics together," says Paul Showalter, the organization's director of development. The Good Samaritan Project is a nonprofit that provides support and programs for people infected or at risk for HIV/AIDS.
"When we got the grant, we were told we couldn't be successful. It was a common idea that Hispanics are not interested in this subject and you can't bring them together to discuss it," Showalter says. "Because of Mario, we've had major breakthroughs. He's engaging hundreds of people, in the course of a year, we wouldn't engage otherwise. And things started to open up."
Last year, Hispanics contracted 32 of the city's 237 new HIV cases, according to the Health Department. That's double the number of new cases among Hispanics recorded in 2004; the infection rate spiked in 2005 and has remained constant since.
Canedo didn't plan to get involved until he went to a health presentation by a friend.
"I was sitting there as he talked, and I knew more than him. I wanted to ask a question, and he says, 'Be quiet now and just let me do my job.' You can't keep people from asking questions," Canedo says. "I got up and I said that's not right, let me show you. He is a good person but knew I knew more. After that, I went to the Good Samaritan Project and asked how I could help.
"He was Mexican, but he knew just straight people," Canedo adds. "He didn't know the Hispanic gay community in Kansas City. I know everyone so I want to help, not just talk. I know gay, straight, bi — everyone."
Canedo knows everyone because of his radio show. He came to Kansas City in 1998 from Mexico to work for La Super X, the Spanish-language station on KKHK 1250. Five years ago, he started talking about sex on the air during his 9 p.m.-to-midnight show. His willingness to discuss adult topics has made him well-known to Hispanics of all sexual orientations.
Besides reaching out to gay Latinos who avoid the clubs, Canedo has organized on-site HIV testing at soccer league games. He usually has talks in his home every couple of months, where men feel more comfortable hearing about safe sex and asking questions.
He has plans to expand his outreach efforts this year. Canedo says he has finally found enough gay men who are willing to participate in the annual AIDS walk in April, and he wants to organize a local event for National Latino HIV Awareness Day this summer. He's also planning a program called "Your Voice Sings, Your Voice Talks," to bring people together for open discussions on sexual health. The idea is to have individuals stand up, one at a time, and discuss their thoughts and experiences regarding HIV.
"And on Cinco de Mayo this year, I want to have a party and invite all my American friends to share it with my Latino friends. I want to get people talking to each other and getting involved.
"We need to get HIV in front of everyone," he says. "Get the family involved."
When Canedo was 23, he lived in Mexico. He had just finished a degree in graphic design at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara when one of his friends was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Canedo didn't visit him in the hospital or go to the funeral.
"I feel so bad now. I feel so stupid," he says. "In Mexico then, we didn't know how you got it, so we all stayed away because we were afraid. Now I think, You were so, so stupid, Mario."
Canedo describes the culture he grew up in as far more conservative than the United States.
"No one wants to talk — not about sex," he says, "not my mom, and I grew up without a father. I learned things from my friends, what people would hear and pass along. That's the way you learn when you're in Mexico — from friend to friend. It's not right. It's a culture where little girls get pregnant because no one tells them anything. But it's hard for the parents, too."
He was always interested in radio. At age 9, he was a personality on a kids' show in Mexico, and he never really stopped broadcasting. When he got the opportunity to work the late-night slot at La Super X, he took it without hesitation.
He discovered that the United States was more permissive. Discussions on his radio program covered a range of topics, and five years ago he opened up the show to allow talk about sex and relationships. He didn't want to advise people on how to behave, but if they had questions, he wanted them to call in.
Almost immediately, he says, representatives from three Hispanic churches contacted the station to have him removed from the air. Shows such as Loveline are prevalent on the English-language dial, but in Canedo's line, most disc jockeys won't touch such topics. His philosophy is that people want to talk about normal life. They want to hear about simple things in a way that makes them laugh, and sometimes that includes sex.
Of his early critics, he says, "I think they finally understood that my show is not something bad." Rather, it's a place where people can be entertained and informed. "People call in and they talk about sex in bed, how to meet people, whether their husband or wife is cheating. All I want is to talk about things in a good way and be funny. Like how to be good in relationships and protect yourself from STDs."
Much of the discussion comes down to loneliness. Some callers just want someone to talk to for a minute or two. More men than women immigrate from Mexico, Canedo says, making it difficult to partner with those who understand their culture. Men call in with legal problems, after leaving their wives and children to make money and finding that they can't go back to see their families.
Once, a man said he had come from Guatemala to Kansas City and spent a week living in a Dumpster. He heard the radio program and called in to see if anyone could help him.
"We are the shoulder everyone can cry on," Canedo says.
Later this month, Canedo's show will move to morning drive time. He's eager for the larger audience, but he doesn't plan to change any of the discussion topics.
Last fall, a Spanish-language magazine mentioned him in a story about the Good Samaritan Project. Two of his female friends called when the magazine came out, worried that he was infected.
People make assumptions, he notes. "If you have gay friends, you must be gay. If you help Good Samaritan, you must be sick." (He declines to disclose his sexual orientation for this story.)
Those assumptions lead people to avoid getting tested for HIV. In the last month, Canedo says, three of the people he referred to Good Samaritan have tested positive for HIV. Each person's immediate reaction was to beg him not to tell anyone.
"I say to them, 'I won't tell, but you must tell someone you trust and start learning how to help yourself and not be afraid of what people will say,'" Canedo says. People don't want to get tested because they're scared, he says. But there's good reason to be tested.
"This sickness is something we can control better now. You're not going to die tomorrow."
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