Latinos represent about 15 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 17 percent of all new HIV cases. In 2006, the rate of new HIV cases among Latinos was more than twice the rate for whites.

The New York City–based Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA) is committed to fighting back. On May 10, the nonprofit group raised awareness of HIV in the Latino community at Cielo Latino, its largest annual fundraiser.

Watch highlights from Cielo Latino 2011:

“Unmask AIDS” was this year’s carnival-inspired theme. The event brought together celebrities, supporters and activists to raise funds to continue much-needed work in health education, HIV prevention, advocacy and awareness, as well as Latino health research.

Held at Cipriani’s on Wall Street, the event honored community members and businesses that have joined LCOA in its mission. Guillermo Chacon, LCOA president, called on the audience to remember those across Latin America fighting for their health.

“Carnival is celebrated throughout the world and is especially popular in the Caribbean and South America among diverse Latino and African cultures,” Chacon said. “And it is this diversity of people and health issues that we want you to think about as we celebrate the personal achievements and contributions of the people and companies we honor tonight.”

Honorees included Humberto Cruz, director of the AIDS Institute; Anderson Cooper, CNN news anchor; Jose Morales, one of LCOA’s founders; and pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences.

Hitting the red carpet and the stage to show their support were Dayana Mendoza, Miss Universe 2008; actresses Lupe Ontiveros and Rosie Perez; and actors Wilson Cruz, Steve Guttenberg and Tony Plana.

Ripping off the masks, dropping the euphemisms and sending clear messages, celebs and advocates took the microphone to call on Latinos to be open and honest, to get information, to be safe and to fight the health disparities in the Latino community.

“We’re here with hope, hope to make the lives of Latinos better, to educate the community, to stop what started 30 years ago,” Ontiveros said. “Forgive me, but I always ask for more, I won’t accept the status quo.”

In his speech, Cruz focused on the importance of getting testing, being safe and getting into treatment.

“Once you know your status, you can do something about it,” he said. “If you’re negative, then you can continue to be safe and continue to protect yourself. And if you’re positive, then you know and you can go out and get the medications that will help you stay alive longer.”

Mendoza spoke about the need for Latinos to put themselves first, to have difficult conversations at home about safe sex and to practice safe sex.

“We have to protect ourselves and our lives because if we don’t do it, no one will,” Mendoza said. “If we don’t wear condoms, if we’re not safe, we can get HIV.”

And Latinos do get HIV. At some point in their lives, 1 in 36 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV. In 2007, HIV was the fifth leading cause of death among Latinos ages 35 to 44.

“The numbers are rising,” Perez noted. “The reason why? Everyone thinks it’s OK to have AIDS now. Everyone thinks that because there is medication and treatment, it’s OK. And it’s not.”

For more information on the Latino Commission on AIDS, click here.