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Straight Answers

Judge Manuel Franco, Former Star of La Corte del Pueblo, Lets Loose His Typical Tough Talk When It Comes to HIV Prevention Among Latinos

by Dale Reynolds

You don’t want to come up in front of Judge Manuel Franco without an airtight alibi—he’ll see right through your mediocre lies and excuses and verbally nail you to the wall.

And who is this ferocious guardian of the law and common sense? Manuel Franco, sixty-one, is an émigré from Mexico City (at age eleven), earned his J.D. from the University of California Law School, and has been a litigation lawyer for most of his adult life. His Spanish-language talk show, La Corte del Pueblo/The People’s Court, was recently retired from Telemundo TV, but expect to see him on the tube for years to come.

Leaving his popular show is a sore spot with him: “Telemundo hated that I was one of the few people willing to talk about the community in a way that was sarcastic, demeaning, and degrading when it came to its stupidity,” he says. “You don’t have to be poor to be stupid—you can be rich and stupid. And a lack of education accentuates the stupidity.”

This blunt-talkin’ guy, who looks a decade younger than his years, has much to say about HIV/AIDS and its impact on his communidad, but he is unwilling to sugar-coat his thoughts: “I have a gay cousin in Mexico, who is HIV-negative. But a lot of his friends, whom I knew, have died—brilliant, great, and smart people. And they knew better!” Apparently, what angers him is the way they—and thousands like them in all of Latin America—“let the little head lead the big head.”

For the jurist, the cultural conditioning start at home: “Regretfully, Latino males have the lowest self-esteem of anyone in the world. The only way they can look macho is to screw and they refuse to use condoms because it’s not cool.” And what is the cause for the reluctance of younger men to use condoms? “Ignorance and stupidity. Why is it that Latinos have no health insurance? Or, for that matter, why do Latinas allow their men to continue to abuse them while providing financial support to screw other women or men?”

He attributes this low-esteem problem to “the way Latinos don’t emphasize education; the insanity of the Church demanding you have as many kids as God allows you, so no condoms. My God, if you’re going to ‘stray’ from home, use a heavy-duty condom!” He digs in his heels when it comes to the Church: “Things are changing in Mexico, but it’s still a problem with a Church that promotes having unprotected sex in order to have many kids; a Church that creates bugaboos, that instills guilt.” This is compounded by “a society that doesn’t think independently, is uneducated, or still adheres to the old-style macho b.s.—that allows men to say, ‘I can screw anybody and I’ll make the decision whether or not I’m clean.’ I’d love to see clinics [encourage men to] test for HIV before they go off to fornicate.”

This articulate and pugnacious leader connects HIV prevention to sexual awareness: “There’s no secret to survival: you learn by example—abusive fathers, when through beating the mothers, would punish them further by raping ’em. That’s sex to some. And homosexuality, which is a huge taboo, doesn’t keep these men from fucking each other. Just no kissing—that’s ‘queer’!”

So, as full of opinions as he is, what would the good jurist do to change things? “Me, I’d like to see massive education on every level of both our societies—especially in getting the Church to change its attitudes about condom use. The idea that every sperm is sacred is insanity. What’s so sacred about infected semen?”

Part of the rationale for his judge-as-jury show was in helping the viewer learn about legal protections, but sexuality was sometimes censored: “A guy sues a girl because she gave him the clap; he wants his medical bills covered. Imagine, they wouldn’t allow [that episode] to air. ‘It wasn’t proper,’ they told me. But has anyone had a good look at [HBO’s] Sex and the City? We Latinos are 150 years

behind the times, sexually. On an intellectual level, fifty years behind the Caucasian community.”

His sweeping generalizations may offend, but he seems adamant about staying on-message and lighting fires under people in order to unite them for the fight against AIDS and the survival of Latino culture. “Our community tears itself down constantly. Why do Mexicans hate Cubans so much? Because they’re educated. You can retain your identity as a Latino without hating others. And get involved with the American mainstream. Is there racism out there? Yes, absolutely. Did I feel it? Yes! But you can use it to your advantage.”

Though you may not like his delivery, he wants the same things that many others want for their communidad: “Wear condoms, be educated. I want the Latino media to run community-oriented commercials. I’d do them for free. Radio should have commercials, along with Spanish TV and our newspapers. Embarrass the folks at Univision or Telemundo to make them. If you do, then Anglo TV will pick up on it; the advertisements will follow; everyone will benefit.”

Dale Reynolds interviewed painter Marco Nunes in this issue’s Gallery.

December 2004