Rosie Perez

Actress and choreographer Rosie Perez gave the annual Voices of Color Lecture at Hamilton on December 7. Perez is an Academy Award-nominated actress and Emmy-nominated choreographer. She began her career as a choreographer for such artists as Bobby Brown, LL Cool J and Diana Ross. She also choreographed and directed the "Fly Girls" on Fox Television's In Living Color, for which she received an Emmy nomination.

In films, Perez has starred in comedic and dramatic roles. She starred opposite Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette in Michel Gondry's Human Nature, which made its debut at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. She also starred in Penny Marshall's Riding in Cars with Boys with Drew Barrymore, starred in and produced Nancy Savoca's The 24-Hour Woman and lent her voice to Dreamworks' animated film, The Road to El Dorado. She also starred in Peter Weir's Fearless opposite Jeff Bridges for which she received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. As a producer, Perez's credits include Nancy Savoca's 24 Hour Woman for The Shooting Gallery and HBO's Rosie Perez Presents Society's Ride which ran as three parts and Subway Stories, an anthology of short films that she created.

Throughout her career, Perez has been a vocal activist for a number of causes, especially those related to AIDS and inner city youth. She has spoken at several AIDS conferences (including Harvard AIDS Institute) and hosted numerous AIDS fund-raisers. Organizations such as AIDS Action Foundation, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and the Latino Commission on AIDS have honored her with awards. Perez is also active with the Working Playground, which is an arts education organization that brings dance, theater, film, poetry, and fine arts to students in Harlem, the Bronx and the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Perez began her lecture by telling the audience about how she came to do AIDS activist work. She grew up in New York City in the 1980s, at a time "where sexuality in New York City was not divided." In the late 1980s, Perez started hearing about AIDS and people she knew were getting the disease. "Slowly but surely," she said, "the culture started to divide." It became known as the "gay disease," even though everybody, gay or straight, was dying.

Perez was discovered by Spike Lee and began pursuing her choreographing career. When she was asked to attend a dance-a-thon in New York City for AIDS, she said "I felt such a conviction for this issue, like no other." The night was "fabulous" and a great opportunity for media attention. Perez was asked to attend a few other, much smaller events in the city for AIDS patients, and while she agreed at the time, she did not end up going.

Then she got a phone call from an old friend, saying "Don't be a hypocrite. Don't do us any favors." Perez found out through that phone call that her dear old friend had AIDS. "I finally took heed to the conviction in my heart," she said. "And I never stopped." Later, Perez's mother died of AIDS.

"I say this before I get into the facts because I want to challenge anyone, if you have that knocking, about this issue, or any issue, take heed," said Perez.

Perez then discussed current HIV and AIDS statistics. While latinos make up only 14% of the United States population, they now account for over 25% of all AIDS cases in the country. African Americans and Latinos make up the largest number of cases. "This shouldn't be happening," said Perez.

The Latin community is "one of the most complicated communities in the issue of AIDS," said Perez. Statistics show that four out of ten males infect their female partners with AIDS because they had sex with another man. Part of the reason for this is that it is extremely hard to come out in this community, so people are secretive and not safe about their lifestyles. Another recent study shows that teenage girls in the Latin community are making up the highest numbers for teenage depression. This is harmful, said Perez, because when you are depressed, "you will turn to anything to make you happy."

Perez has been lecturing about AIDS since 1992 and used to visit high schools to talk to students as well. She discovered that another major problem is that people do not know they are infected. Young people especially do not get tested because they are "scared to death of the truth," said Perez. "So many kids in high school and college are getting infected because no one wants to get tested."

Perez stressed that there is nothing wrong with healthy sexual expression. "We just have to do it safely," she said. "Because the numbers are growing." She also described the media's "new face of AIDS," which makes it look like living with AIDS is possible and not so bad, using people like Magic Johnson as examples. However, Perez stressed, this is not a realistic portrayal because the vast majority of people can not afford the treatments.

In terms of college students, Perez had some suggestions. "Just think twice," she said. "If you're in a serious relationship don't use that as an out for not practicing safe sex." She also cautioned against excessive alcohol and drug use because they inhibit your ability to think properly. "You can not think sensibly stoned or drunk…you are not smarter than the drug. You might slip up," said Perez.

"After 25 years [since AIDS was defined], what have we learned?" asked Perez in closing. "Safe sex prevents the transmission of AIDS. If I touched anyone today, please spread the message."

-- by Laura Trubiano '07

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