RipplePHX’s new weekly Lotería event mixes education and entertainment

By Tom Reardon, March 2020 issue.
Photos by Scotty Kirby

Once upon a time, Thursday nights were a lot of fun. For about two decades, NBC ruled the TV world that night of the week with shows like Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Seinfeld, and Will & Grace (not to mention the convicted sexual abuser, Bill Cosby, who had a hit Thursday night show, too). It was a night when “everybody knew your name and they were always glad you came.” It was also just one day before the weekend started.

If your Thursdays have been in need of a little shot in the arm as of late, never fear because RipplePHX’s Lotería is here every Thursday night at Stacy’s at Melrose on North Seventh Avenue in Phoenix.

What is lotería, you say? Well, it is best to start at the first of several beginnings.

Raul St. James

Some people refer to loteríaas “Mexican Bingo.” Game play is similar, but instead of having numbered ping pong balls, loteríauses cards that are displayed to the players during game play. Each card has a different image and each participant is given a tabla, which features rows of four random images that match the images from the fifty-four-card deck. As cards are turned over, players look for matches, just like in bingo, and when four in a row are matched, players shout, “Lotería!”

From 7 to 9 p.m. at Stacy’s @ Melrose, the talented team from RipplePhx’s Lotería Project will host the festivities to help spread awareness surrounding HIV/AIDS to Phoenix’s LGBTQ+ community. This project was initiated in 2019 and received funding from the National Library of Medicine’s Community Outreach Project, which helps cover the costs for the first year.

Celeste Montiel

RipplePhx’s board chairperson, Jason Jones, seems more than just a little excited about Lotería, which is just one part of RipplePhx’s outreach activities, as a way to get the Latinx population in Phoenix talking about HIV and AIDS.

“I think we all have different experiences. While some in our community were born in Mexico, I was born in the United States and my experience would be a little bit different. There’s the kind of macho mentality in the Latino community and just being gay is one thing, you know, and I think we all have different experiences with that. My dad was a super macho kind of guy and his role in our family was the provider. When I came out, I wondered how he was going to take it, but he came around pretty quickly. When I came out as being HIV positive to him, which was about four years after my diagnosis, he was like, ‘What do you need?’ But again, I think a lot of us have very different experiences and it’s an incredibly hard thing for lots of us to talk about,” says Jones, 45.

For Jones and his partner, Jeremy Bright, who is the executive director of RipplePHX, the importance of building a grass roots campaign to open conversations around HIV and AIDS in Phoenix is a necessity, especially within the Latinx community. During our conversation on a lovely February evening, it became very apparent that Bright and Jones are doing this work for the right reason and that is to save lives.

Karloz Quinto and Jimena Cavalli

“We wanted to go back to grassroots. We knew that AIDS-related grassroots projects back in the 1980s were really successful because they focused on empowering the community and building the community up around an illness that was affecting our community. In the last ten years or so, HIV has lost the headlines, but the virus is still very present,” says Bright, 42.

RipplePHX was started in April 2018 in the apartment that Bright and Jones shared at the time and by June of that year, they had their 501c3 status as a non-profit. In a short amount of time, the duo (with the help of volunteers, initially) started getting out into Phoenix and sharing a message based around the idea of having open, honest conversations about HIV/AIDS, how to protect yourself, how to get tested, and above all, just being aware that the disease is still out there and men who have sex with other men are still very much at risk without taking proper precautions. 

In addition to partnering with other agencies such as Chicanos Por la Causa and Terros to help with outreach activities who can provide services to Valley residents, RipplePHX has also been putting on events in the community and partnering with other community events to spread awareness. They do three Carnivals each year to help build understanding around HIV and raise some funds to help keep the program going. The carnivals are fun events that also have information about HIV as well as testing available on site. The next one will happen during Phoenix Pride weekend (April 4 and 5) at Stacy’s at Melrose.

“I think it’s important to normalize that conversation. Just because someone’s living with HIV doesn’t mean it defines them. It doesn’t define their life. It doesn’t define their day-to-day. You can live a long and normal happy life, but it is a piece that we do need to be aware of because it doesn’t have to overwhelm or consume anything, you know? I think we try to live that and breathe that, and we can still come together as a community. We can still enjoy things as a community and have a beautiful spirit, but also be aware of this,” says Bright.

AJ Dominguez

Maricopa County is currently in the top 50 counties in the United States for new HIV infections, even in the day of Truvada and other drugs that can help stop HIV transmissions. For the Latino population, the number has been increasing for men that have sex with men. This is why the Lotería is led by eight Latinx community leaders.

“That’s where our focus is. The Lotería project has shifted it. We wanted to make sure we put an emphasis on that and that it was driven from the community. This is completely led by this group to empower them to affect their community from a very genuine place,” says Bright.

In June, RipplePHX was able to bring on AJ Dominguez as the prevention outreach manager/Ripple-maker and the team started kicking around ideas for innovative ways to continue getting the message out to underserved populations such as Latinos. Dominguez began working on Lotería after their grant request was approved in August of 2019 and RipplePHX began recruiting the Lotería project team.

“For me, it’s important to be vocal about my (HIV+) status. I think, you know, growing up in our families, you know, even in school, you didn’t hear too much about HIV. That’s just something that we didn’t talk about or even gay sex we didn’t talk about within our culture. I think for me to be open about my status will give hope to others and give them the courage to be able to talk about safer sex, about HIV, and being open about their status,” says Dominguez, who is also one of the Lotería night hosts.

As funding was approved and the reality of the Lotería project set in, it was apparent that there would need to be a team of hosts to cover each Thursday event. Dominguez reached out to Geo Johnson, who was 2016 Mr. Phoenix Pride and Mr. Gay Arizona America in 2018, to be a host and to also help find other hosts.

“Since the beginning it just sounded like a great opportunity for me to be part of educating my community. I had been helping our community in different aspects and I enjoyed doing that since I’m a little more of a public figure. So, when this came across, I’m like, ‘what better way than to address this now? It’s something that’s more personal to me because I’m Latino, which is the Latinx community,” says Johnson, who joked about his name not being very Latino.

After Johnson came aboard, he started reaching out to other people and he helped recruit Tucson resident and fellow performer Raul St. James to join the group. St. James is excited to be a part of the team, even though he has a long drive on a regular basis.

“I’m so happy to be here and be part of this group. I’m excited to get involved with this community and spread the word about HIV awareness,” says St. James.

The eight-member team also has drag queens Aubrey Ghalichi, Celeste Montiel, Jimena Cavalli, and Saszy De la Cruz, as well as performer Karloz Quinto. While Ghalichi, Montiel, Cavalli, and De la Cruz were busy getting photographed for upcoming events, the rest of us discussed their yearlong mission and what drives them to be part of the group.

“I’m part of the Vaqueros (Spanish for ‘cowboy’) community so this is a great way to show other vaqueros that it is okay to talk about HIV and it’s okay to be HIV positive. Vaqueros usually have the attitude that it’s not going to happen to me. ‘I’m this tough guy, Mexican guy, it’s not going to happen to me,’ so I this is a great opportunity. I knew it was going to be a hard job and a lot of time was going into it, but Lotería is totally worth it and I love it,” says Quinto, who is getting married in March.

There is a learning process for each member of the Lotería team that they seem to not only embrace but also relish the challenge of learning more about HIV and AIDS in order to become an expert on the subject. The passion for this project was tangible as we sat outside of the photo shoot at RipplePHX’s headquarters. It is obvious this group can accomplish great things.

“We’re all going to grow together. We want them to learn as we’re going, you know, about HIV that we can share all the information with all their social groups that are out there,” says Dominguez.

“That’s another reason I’m excited about this project. I’m learning how to take care of myself and sharing with my friends how to take care of themselves. If there are things I need to know, I can just go to Ripple and they’ll get me the information or I can just tell people to go to Ripple,” says St. James.

In addition to their hosting duties, each member of the Lotería Project team will also have a web presence with regular updates to an ever-growing content library of information that they have significant control over.

“It’s an awesome website. I feel like you want to keep on searching and seeing everything that’s in there. Each one of us has a different topic, so it’s not the same thing over and over.  I think that’s also a great way to let them know all about it,” says Quinto.

“We’ve all been very involved in choosing how we want to talk about our topics. We are involved with the look of the website, which is what this photo shoot is for, and we are coming up with memes that will be eye-catching for the community,” says Johnson, before adding, “and Lotería is a very fun way to engage the community and get people feeling really comfortable about talking about HIV.”

Visit ripplephx.org for details.


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