On October 15th, the last day of Hispanic Heritage Month, I alongside my many peer activists, educators and friends recognized the National Latino AIDS Awareness Day (NLAAD).
Organized by the Latino AIDS Commission in 2003, “NLAAD has been established as a national community mobilization and social marketing campaign that unites the Hispanic/Latino community in efforts to raise HIV awareness, promotion of HIV testing, prevention and education; in addition to other critical health issues such as Viral Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Infections and Tuberculosis…”
This year’s theme, Save a Life, It May be your Own. Get Tested for HIV, challenges us to educate ourselves about our own status and get tested, recognizing that regular and consistent testing is perhaps the best tool to combat this disease.
Every 9 ½ minutes, a person in these United States is infected with HIV… every 9 ½ minutes! All of us who work in this field recognize that more and more these days, the faces of those infected are that of our people, young Latinos and Latinas like me.
In the shadow of the day to come, I stopped and thought about what got me started in this field and why I continue to do what I do today.
In 2004, I had the privilege of attending the 11th Annual Ryan White National Youth Conference on HIV/AIDS held here in Portland, Oregon. The conference was a gathering of over 600 young activists, educators, students, and health professionals. In essence, RWNYC was a gathering of anyone and everyone who worked around, was interested in, or impacted by the issues of HIV/AIDS in young people.
For me, this was the first time I had ever attended an event of this type. Quite honestly, going to this conference was a bit outside my comfort zone! I don’t recall if it being my first time was what made me nervous or whether simply because I went to it alone, at the last minute request of a mentor. What I do remember, quite vividly, was sitting in the opening session of the conference, meeting and talking with a young man who was in attendance.
This young man was so charming with quite the lively personality. He was Latino, he spoke Spanish and he was young so we pretty much hit it off during that entire session. I remember conversing with him during the whole hour long plenary. He made it, being there…comfortable, he made it…relatable to me.
Towards the end of the plenary, there came a point where folks had a chance to introduce themselves and share a bit about his story. This young man got up and shared a bit about himself.
To this day, I honestly don’t remember what his name was or any other details about him for that matter. All I remember was one thing; him getting up to that microphone and saying four simple words: “I am HIV positive.”
For a young closeted boy like me who grew up in a small suburban neighborhood of Portland, HIV/AIDS was probably one of the last things on my mind. Looking back at it, this young guy, a guy I simply talked to for an hour at an opening plenary of a conference, probably changed all that!
Attending the RWNYC and meeting that young guy represented a fundamental shift for me personally. Attending that conference was the hook that started my work as a peer educator and activist in the field of HIV/AIDS. Getting to spend those days there made me realize just how prevalent HIV/AIDS is, how impactful it is on communities I am a part of: my Latino community, my young people community, my LGBTQ community just to name a few. The conference got me to see and understand the many issues and problems that impact those affected by this disease including stigma, misinformation and fear.
More importantly though, getting to meet this young man who in many ways was just like me, was life changing. In many ways I saw myself in him. We match every perceivable demographic yet our lives were very different in one way: our statuses . Getting to meet him and know him humanized HIV/AIDS. Getting to hear his story and know who he was allowed me to see how real and significant HIV/AIDS is in our community and in our lives.
It has been six years since I attended that conference and in a way I am saddened to see these numbers of infections and the number of folks affected by this illness continue to rise. More worrisome is the notion that within our communities this illness is still not talked about nor understood. I am very lucky to be afforded the opportunity to travel around the country and speak about this very illness and the faces of those in the forefront of this battle give me inspiration to continue.
Young, powerful activists of color are leading the fight for education and understanding of HIV. Young people are leading the battle by speaking out in their communities, encouraging others, and forging allies all in the goal of ending this struggle. Adolescents with HIV/AIDS, Allied Advocates, HIV/AIDS Activism, Prevention and Support; all of these things are on the rise and are tools in the battle against HIV/AIDS.
The National Latino AIDS Awareness day is designed to shed light into these issues and so many more. NLAAD is designed to be the spark for someone else like me, as a young boy, to get involved in this struggle and finally bring it to an end. So, with that said, every October 15 (and every day for that matter), take a moment or two and share this message with someone you care about. Take a moment or two and talk about HIV/AIDS, educate, inform, and pass the message along!