Amaranta Gomez, a Mexican Zapotec transvestite, said at the first world AIDS meeting that Politicians don't include them in their anti-AIDS campaigns, as if they are asexual or they don't exist
From Peru to Guatemala, hundreds of activists, from priests to transsexuals, travelled to the Mexican capital for the International AIDS conference this week, to voice their concerns to some 22,000 scientists, policymakers and field workers.
The six-day meeting began Sunday in a region where deep stigma against people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) still exists and some 1.7 million are HIV-positive, according to latest UNAIDS figures, out of 33 million worldwide.
The church, conservatism, and deep-rooted discrimination are just some of the barriers to HIV-awareness here.
Indigenous people said that programs against HIV/AIDS fail to take into account their cultural particularities and accused UN agencies of moralizing.
"They never talk to us about HIV or about sexually-transmitted diseases," said Gomez, who belongs to a community where many men adopt a female identity, to their family's pride.
"Having HIV/AIDS campaigns for indigenous peoples would be recognition of the historical debt towards native peoples," said Willy Morales, an AIDS carrier from the Chilean Mapuche-Williche group.
Most countries in Latin America have anti-discrimination laws, but they rarely sanction those who fail to respect them.
A transgender sex worker from Cali, Colombia, explained how a group of 324 sex workers without official papers produced fake documents to help obtain access to AIDS prevention services.
"From a very young age we were sent out of our homes. Most of us don't have identity papers and that blocks us from many things," said Valentina Riascos, from the Santamaria de Cali group.
The document contains the female name the sex worker has chosen, a photograph with their female appearance and recommendations of how to deal with authorities when their rights are violated.
"We know that the police don't respect this document, that they throw it in the trash or trample on it, but it has helped us to get closer to Colombia's hospitals," Riascos said.
Argentinian transsexual Marcela Romero, coordinator of the Latin American Transsexual Network, said that in many Latin American countries transsexuals and transvestites avoid going to doctors out of fear of being treated as someone of the opposite sex, especially for sexual health and AIDS treatment.
"Some are really sick and they go to the doctor, but when their male name is called out in a hospital waiting room and everyone sees them (as a woman), they quickly take the (antiretroviral) medicine and leave," he said, adding that many fall very ill because they are too embarrassed to stay and ask how to take the medicine properly.
Meanwhile the shadow of the church and its attitude to condom use remains one of the biggest obstacles to AIDS prevention in Latin America, although religious figures say the image is unfair.
The idea of AIDS being divine punishment for promiscuous behaviour "is a caricature of the church's stance. The church is very present alongside sick people (too)," said Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre, the Vatican's representative in Mexico, the world's second most Catholic country.
"The problem is that politicians use religious ideas to manipulate people," said Gabriela Rodriguez, president of Mexican NGO Afluentes.
Others, like a group of Franciscans who travelled some 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from southern Mexico to the conference, prefer not to intervene.
"If a young person comes to me and asks if he can use a condom, I say: 'follow your conscience'," said brother Roberto to AFP. "I mean we don't condemn it, but we don't propose it as a solution either."