During a recent presentation on AIDS before a Hispanic audience, counselors repeatedly referred to "seropositives" -- people infected with the AIDS virus. After the lecture, as the counselors fielded questions, an elderly woman stood up, her voice quivering with indignation.

"I've been zeropositive all my life," said the woman, who mistakenly believed that counselors were talking about her blood type, O positive. "I haven't done anything wrong and now you're telling me I'm going to die of AIDS."

That misunderstanding illustrates the communication problems and cultural barriers that hamper the message of AIDS prevention for the nation's estimated 21 million Hispanics, who are contracting AIDS at a disproportionately high rate.

Nationally, Hispanics, who make up 6 percent of the population, account for 14 percent of the nearly 50,000 AIDS cases in the United States. Among women and children, the situation is worse: 21 percent of women with AIDS are Hispanic, as are 25 percent of children who have contracted the disease.

The face of AIDS, public health officials say, is changing dramatically. Initially a disease of white male homosexuals, acquired immune deficiency syndrome is increasingly becoming a plague of the urban poor, of blacks and Hispanics, many of them intravenous drug users who unknowingly transmit the virus to their sexual partners and unborn children.

In New York City, where Hispanics account for 40 percent of the approximately 12,000 cases, new infections are increasing fastest among Hispanics and blacks. Health officials say that at least 60 percent of New York City's addicts are infected.

The Hispanic community is "coming five years late to AIDS awareness," said Eunice Diaz, an AIDS educator who works as director of health promotion at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The reasons are apathy, denial and embarrassment."

Hispanics and segments of the black community share many of the same problems where AIDS is concerned. Both groups tend to be poor, racially stigmatized and less well educated, and if they have access to any health care, it is largely inferior. These factors are reflected in AIDS survival rates: Whites live an average of 22 months after diagnosis, nonwhites an average of five months.

AIDS educators say that the different survival rates reflect the failure of government, particularly the federal government, to respond to the problem.

"It's not that blacks or Hispanics haven't paid attention," said Suki Ports of New York City's Minority AIDS Task Force, an arm of the Council of Churches. "It's just that only now is there beginning to be an official response and a recognition of the problem."

As in the black community, Hispanic leaders have been slow to respond to a disease largely associated with male homosexuals and drug addicts. "The feeling has been, 'We have so many problems that AIDS is the last thing we want to worry about,' " said Alex Compagnet, president of Salud, a newly formed District health organization that is focusing on AIDS prevention.

The Hispanic community faces additional obstacles. Many of its members are new immigrants, a substantial number of whom are illiterate, illegal aliens from rural villages. "What that means is that all those wonderful brochures and billboards and newspaper stories are never going to reach them," Ports said.

Despite the popular stereotype of the freewheeling "Latin lover," Hispanic culture is steeped in conservative Catholicism, a tradition that proscribes the use of condoms, censures open discussions of sex and so condemns homosexuality that the Spanish language contains no word for "gay" that is not pejorative.

"In order to be able to communicate about AIDS, you have to talk about topics that are so taboo they aren't even openly discussed among spouses," said Dr. Raphael Tavares, professor of community psychiatry at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

In the Washington area, Hispanics account for 3 percent of the 1,633 cases, a figure public health officials predict is bound to increase. No one knows how many of the area's estimated 150,000 Hispanics, more than half of whom are believed to be undocumented, are infected.

"We're certainly not like New York, but we have all the elements of a high-risk population and we don't know how many people are infected," said Arlene Gillespie, director of the District's Office of Latino Affairs. "What we have here is a lot of prostitution by young Hispanic males in Dupont Circle, a young population that is sexually very active, an increase in venereal disease rates and a community that has very little education."

In response to the threat of AIDS, the District and private groups are starting to develop programs for the Latino community. Salud was formed six months ago, as was Enlace, an organization of gay and lesbian Hispanics. Radiomundo, a Spanish-language radio station, has broadcast public service announcements and local newspapers have published articles about AIDS.

Despite recent efforts at increasing awareness, "there is still a fantastic amount of ignorance about AIDS in the Hispanic community," said the Rev. Kevin Farrell, director of the District's Spanish Catholic Center.

And although Hispanic leaders agree on the need for education aimed at Hispanics, they do not believe that means translating sophisticated English-language brochures into Spanish -- as was done in a D.C. Department of Human Services AIDS pamphlet that discusses pneumocystis pneumonia and antibodies, concepts far beyond the comprehension of many in its intended audience who have little formal education.

"We try to give the message as simply as possible," Diaz said. "I don't refer to the immune system, I talk about the defense soldiers that guard our body." Because many in her audiences are from war-torn countries in Central America, it is a widely understood concept.

"All Latinos are not the same," Compagnet said. "We come from different countries and we have different customs and traditions and levels of education, and too many programs have failed to realize that. We need education that is culturally relevant, by Latinos for Latinos."

Compagnet and other AIDS educators say that in the Hispanic community, gay men rarely identify themselves as such, because of the enormous stigma attached to homosexuality. As a result, many gay men are married. Others engage in homosexual prostitution to support their families.

"A lot of undocumented men engage in prostitution because it is the only way they can survive," said Judith Arandes, chairwoman of Enlace. "They don't need a work permit from the INS {Immigration and Naturalization Service} to do this" as they would for other jobs.

"Bisexuality is a lot more common in the Hispanic community," said Norma Y. Lopez, health policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, which recently sponsored the first national meeting in Washington for Hispanic organizations. "Men are raised from earliest childhood to be the head of the household, the macho, the provider, and when they deviate from that role, they often get no support from their families or the church, and it's very traumatic."

Diaz recently counseled a man who planned to return to his wife and six children in Mexico after his male lover died of AIDS. Diaz said she told the man, who was infected with the AIDS virus, that he must always use a condom with his wife and any other sexual partners.

"He said, 'I can't do that with my wife,' " Diaz recalled. "I said, 'You know, you don't have to be gay or bisexual to get AIDS and she doesn't need to know anything about your life here, but you must protect her.' I'll never forget that he looked at me in astonishment and said, 'But Eunice, I'm not gay, Ramon {his lover} was.' You see, he was the macho man in the relationship so he honestly did not believe he was gay.' "

Because AIDS is primarily a sexually transmitted disease -- most cases among persons of all races are gay men, not drug users -- resistance to discussing sex openly remains one of the most formidable obstacles.

"In the Hispanic community there are much stricter definitions of what is acceptable behavior for men and women," said Tavares, the psychiatrist who is president of New York's Hispanic AIDS Forum. "A woman who initiates a discussion about AIDS is seen as signaling that she is a loose woman. The feeling is that if she is a good woman, she wouldn't know anything about it. So she is given the responsibility for protecting herself and her children but no power to enforce it."

Compounding the problems, Compagnet said, is that anal intercourse, the highest-risk activity for transmitting AIDS, is often used as a method of birth control.

Educators who are struggling to change the long tradition of silence about sex acknowledge that it is a difficult process.

One afternoon last week, two dozen women, two men and their babies crowded into the Family Place, a drop-in center in Adams-Morgan, and gathered around a large color television for an AIDS movie in Spanish titled "Eyes That Can't See."

The women, one of whom had arrived from El Salvador only last month, sat in silence during the movie, which featured vignettes in the form of a soap opera about a neighborhood whose residents are affected by AIDS: a man who stays out all night with a prostitute, then goes home to his pregnant wife; a middle-class woman who visits a hospitalized coworker dying of AIDS and then returns home to discover her son is gay; a former prisoner who shows a friend how to clean his syringe with water and bleach before injecting heroin, and a newly married bisexual man who cannot tell his wife that his lover is infected with the virus.

After the movie, Compagnet tried to initiate a discussion and solicit questions. First, he displayed a foil-wrapped condom, as several women blushed and averted their eyes.

"Don't be offended. See, you open it just like a ketchup packet," Compagnet said, as he demonstrated. Then he held up the unrolled condom and stretched it to show it would "fit anyone," as several teen-age mothers giggled.

"Sometimes in our culture we speak of sex as something we have to hide, but SIDA {the Spanish acronym for AIDS} is a crisis that's affecting our community and we have to take care of ourselves. Otherwise, many of our families will be affected and disappear," he said.

One of the few women who asked a question said that she knew her husband was sleeping with other women "like other men so he would feel macho." She said she was certain he would not use a condom if she asked.

That is a common problem, according to Yolanda Zepeda, a health educator for Family Place. "The women have heard about SIDA but they say, 'He's my man and I can't deny him anything or he'll go with someone else and leave me.' "

Persuading men to use condoms is equally difficult. Many counselors say they appeal to men to use them to help protect their families, or to supplement other contraceptive measures to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Arturo Olivas, director of Cara a Cara (Face to Face), a Los Angeles-based AIDS prevention organization, said his group is trying to educate high school students about condoms and AIDS.

"We tell the girls not to fall for the old lines like, 'It doesn't fit' or 'If you love me, you'll have my baby,' " he said. "The message is: 'No Glove, No Love.' "

"Women, especially newer immigrants, never question their husbands when they stay out all night or get drunk with the guys," he said. "They are taught not to question their man and if they do, they are set up for abuse."

As a result, he said, "Programs that focus on women to try and get men to use condoms won't work. We're trying to make it the macho thing to do. The theme of a new poster campaign aimed at Latino men features a male face that is half human and half skeleton. The message: 'AIDS Attacks Even the Most Macho.' "

In addition to reticence in discussing sex, counselors must confront other cultural differences.

"There are practices in the Latino community that are more widespread than among Anglos, things like tattooing and ear-piercing," which can transmit AIDS if they are performed with unsterilized needles. "People who sometimes need a little pick-me-up will go to injectionistas {persons who give them shots} for vitamin B-12 rather than consulting a medical doctor."

"If you have a little fever or night sweats you don't seek {medical help}; you take a shot of tequila and {lemon} and sweat it out and you'll feel better," Olivas said. "Obviously, that's not going to work with AIDS."