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Sound Salvation

For a scattered gay community in need of support, Radio Arte delivers.

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"Mario," says Jorge Valdivia.

Just the way he says it conveys so much--the excitement of new love, or at least infatuation. The way all else drops away, leaving one person, one shining body and being, hovering large. In his case, the realization meant the start of a lifetime full of new challenges and pressures as well as new chances for fulfillment.

He is gay, and meeting Mario, of the rosy lips and honey-colored skin, was what proved it to him.

"He made me feel..." he says in Spanish, and then pounding, sexy disco music swells.

Valdivia, 28, is one of the producers of Homofrecuencia, the nation's only Spanish-language radio show aimed at gay and lesbian youth. Broadcast from Radio Arte, the community station run by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum from a glass-walled studio on the corner of 18th Street and Blue Island in Pilsen, the sounds of the show carry out of the studio and onto the sidewalk. Although coming-out stories or a chat on transvestite fashion might not raise an eyebrow in Boys Town or other parts of the city, on 18th Street such things are not often discussed in public.

The Homofrecuencia DJs--Valdivia, Alix Weisfeld, Jose Tapia, Nancy Hernandez, Ivan Torrijos, Alejandra Aranda, and Tania Unzueta--all agree that there's a huge stigma attached to homosexuality in the Latino community. "Especially in an area like Pilsen, where most people are immigrants from the country, from small working-class towns that are very Catholic," says Valdivia. "The church tells you what's right and what's wrong." With the exception of several HIV-awareness organizations, there are few resources for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered people, and for kids in particular, in the neighborhood. Coming out is hard for any teenager; in Pilsen it can seem impossible.

"I didn't know about any other programs out there," says Hernandez, 20. "It seems like you're totally alone."

Homofrecuencia, which airs from nine to ten every Monday night on 90.5 FM, aims to fill this void by offering social and moral support as well as tips on health and safe sex. But the show is also lighthearted, irreverent, and often hilarious.

For an October episode, Weisfeld, who's 21 and the only Anglo member of the staff, took her tongue-in-cheek weekly feature, "Donde estan las lesbianas?," to a north-side farmers' market in search of lesbian culture, while Hernandez discussed lesbian writers and artists like Chabela Vargas and Gloria Anzaldua, and Tapia, 21, provided a list of five coming-out tips. Valdivia used music and special effects to help tell the story of meeting Mario and then coming out to his surprisingly tolerant family. "It was the only time I saw my father cry," he says. "They were upset, because they knew what I would go through in this society. But my father just said he wanted me to be happy and who cares what other people think. The only one who didn't cry was my little sister. She ran out of the room and came back with an issue of International Male and asked me who I thought was cute."

Hernandez hadn't expected to have a coming-out story to tell on the air, but she ended up coming out that same night to her family--they'd seen her in promos for a Telemundo news segment on the show.

The DJs say that so far all the feedback they've gotten has been positive. Along with honest questions from straight people, they've gotten several heart-wrenching E-mails from teenagers who say the show has helped them come out or feel less alone in the world.

This support can sometimes be a life-and-death matter, adds Valdivia, given the high rate of suicide attempts among gay teens. "The other day I met someone who listens to the show, and he was talking about how hard it was, and he was crying," says Tapia. "His family goes to the same church as mine, they're very strict Baptists, so I could really understand how he felt."

"We figured the 9 PM time slot is really good that way--maybe you're alone in bed with your thoughts, and you can lie there and listen to us on the air," says Weisfeld. "Plus the radio is a safe outlet because if someone's parents come in they can say it's just Radio Arte. It's not like there's a gay Web site up on the computer."

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