During my travels and with many different endeavors, I have the privilege of meeting several bright and charismatic leaders from across the globe. As someone who has dedicated his life to developing positive, social change in a society where quantifiable progress comes slowly, we as Latinos often become tired of fighting, resisting and advocating for our issues on a daily basis. For me, connecting and sharing stories with others is a source of renewal and revitalization, which is what happened on the day I connected with Alejandro Lopez.
The Latino experience is pluralistic: we as a people are diverse and have several different stories. As Latinos, we can easily find ways to connect but we also justify our reasoning for disunion. We explore reasons to build each other up and tear each other down. When I first came across Alejandro, he asked me if I’d be interested in helping tell his story. Initially I wondered what his story might entail. After our initial discussions, I realized Alejandro’s story carried a heavy and complex account of abuse, discrimination and affliction.
First, let me say that this story contains materials that might be disturbing to some readers. As a rebel with a machete pen, I want to confront the issues —the good and the bad— that we as a people struggle with, in addition to collectively provide suggestions to solve our problems. Furthermore, we need to look to each other for hope, assistance and kinship. Let us be each other’s keeper.
Alejandro Lopez is originally from Laredo, Texas. Like many Tejanos, a young Alejandro lived the life of a migrant worker in Hereford. This arduous lifestyle consisted of going to school, working the onion fields until sunset, finishing homework, then doing it all over again the next day. As a young man exploring his identity, Alejandro realized he was bisexual. It was also during this time that a couple members of his family became sexually abusive to Alejandro. With this self-realization and in an abusive situation, with his own father threatened to kill him for being a “pendejo joto,” Alejandro’s mother urged him to move away. Alejandro felt as if he didn’t have a lot of options, so in 1984 after high school, he joined the Army.
Alejandro went on to serve his country in the 307th medical battalion, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. While in the military, Alejandro began having an intimate relationship with a fellow male soldier. At this time, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” homosexuality in the military was illegal and highly frowned upon. While it was something that wasn’t openly discussed, it was known that there were several people in the Army that were gay. In the early 80s, with the boom of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, testing became more prevalent. One day, while on the job in the military as a personnel administrative specialist, Alejandro became privy to sensitive information that 17 people tested positive for HIV. One of the 17 names on this list was the soldier Alejandro had been with.
During the next few years, many of Alejandro’s friends began to die due to complications with HIV/AIDS. A spiteful, ex-boyfriend called Alejandro’s first sergeant and “outed” him. This began a covert investigation where an undercover agent tracked Alejandro and eventually confronted him with the question, “Are you a faggot?” In 1989, under the discretion of his first sergeant, Alejandro was honorably discharged after serving for close to six years—Alejandro had been kicked out of the U.S. Army.
With nowhere to go, Alejandro began working in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His ex-partner began stalking him. Again, finding himself at a crossroads, Alejandro dropped everything and moved back to Texas with $200 that his mother sent him.
Alejandro soon found himself again in the center of a familial dispute. After a state audit, it came to light that his parents had not received the correct of amount of money due back to them from Social Security. A $23,000 backpay was due to the family for all of the years they worked. The family became at odds over what to do with the money. Alejandro sided with his mother, who was becoming more in need due to her ailing health. She was always there to support Alejandro and he was returning the favor.
Also, Alejandro regularly donated blood. In 1993, Alejandro received a phone call from the blood bank stating that they’d like to meet with him. This dreaded phone call and the subsequent meeting is one that no one wants to receive. Alejandro only remembers two sentences from the meeting: “You have tested positive for the HIV virus. There is no cure for this.” Unbeknownst to Alejandro at the time, the HIV virus can thrive in your system for 10 years without showing any signs or symptoms. Eight years after being exposed to the virus, Alejandro finally tested positive. About a month later, it finally hit Alejandro. He said, “I’ve got the virus!” At this point, not many people knew he was gay. Almost all of the people he was open with weren’t around anymore. Still, Alejandro was preparing for a battle of losing his mother.
Alejandro’s mother was aging and struggling with her diabetes condition. Both of her legs were amputated. With no one taking care of her, Alejandro declared he was going to move his mother out of the house. Alejandro’s sister agreed to take in his mother and nurse her. Alejandro’s mother would often have to throw herself out of bed in order to shower or use the restroom. The final straw was when the police gave her a courtesy ride to the pharmacy, to fill a prescription, because no one else would. Alejandro always had a place in his heart for his mother because she was there to console him during his times of need. He confided with her about his condition. A year and a half later, Alejandro’s mother passed away. Her last wish was that Alejandro not tell their family that he was HIV positive.
One year later, two of Alejandro’s young nieces were abducted by a man who disguised himself as a police officer. The same day the town little girls were found beat up. One was nearly choked to death and the other was raped and ran over with a truck. Close to five hours of surgery were needed in order to repair her fractured skull and collapsed lung. With all of these events, in addition to Alejandro’s condition, he became highly depressed.
He didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything.
He was dying inside.
At the age of 27, he didn’t know if he’d see 30.
In 1996, he went to a retreat for HIV positive men and women. Alejandro met Joe and the two started dating for seven months. Joe passed away in May of 1997 due to HIV/AIDS complications. Alejandro felt as if Joe was the first person he ever cared about. This man was the love of his life, and Alejandro could finally be himself openly. Again, depression began to sink in. With more loss surrounding Alejandro, just when things were starting to turn around, how could he recover? Alejandro thought suicide might have been the answer. One day a neighbor came to Alejandro and helped him realize the positive things in his life. Reflecting on his past, Alejandro realized that his health care and benefits were covered from his military experience. Had his first sergeant discharged Alejandro dishonorably, he would not have had this coverage and may have easily died without access to treatment. Slowly gaining strength and a positive mindset, Alejandro began living the life he had for himself. While still working for Walmart, Alejandro put in for a transfer from Amarillo, Texas, to Georgia. He started his new life in 1997.
Alejandro found a law firm that has accepted him for who he is and they hired him to a full-time position in Atlanta. It would not have been uncommon for any organization or business to discriminate Alejandro due to his sexuality or health conditions. Alejandro now is also a board member for Georgia Equality, an LGBT advocacy group that promotes fairness, safety and opportunity for LGBT Georgians. Alejandro’s past experiences fuel his drive to fight for the causes that have affected him; he’s an advocate for health and wellness in the LGBT community as a navigator of the Affordable Care Act and Latino outreach. Alejandro knows about advocacy and is still fighting for his own life.
Alejandro is preparing to go through his second attempt of eliminating Hepatitis C from his system. The first treatment included two shots a week with side effects of intense cold feelings, vomiting and weight loss. A new treatment may affect him differently. In April of 2015, he’ll start a new treatment, which will probably bring on new side effects and not guarantee his health. He’s also receiving medication for HIV, which include him taking seven pills a day. The maintenance of these meds is lengthy. This is a far cry from the earlier years treatment of AZT, DDI and DDT, plus the Bacterim he used to take, which added up to 23 pills a day at various hours of the day.
It took Alejandro a long time to find the strength to disclose his condition and trust others. But he finally realized his worth; his value and that his condition doesn’t limit what he can do. Alejandro feels fortunate for where he is in life and is thankful that the good Lord has saved him. Today, Alejandro lives happily by the saying, “Living with HIV doesn’t define who I am.”
One may question why highlight a story such as this one. In actuality, these are the current realities, stories, and lives we lead. While many of us live advantageous and fortuitous lives, there are several others dealing with troubles that go deep beyond the surface. And for those of us currently experiencing troubling times, what mechanisms do we use to turn things around? There’s an estimated 220,000 Latinos living in the United States with HIV/AIDS; although we make up 16% of the current U.S. population, we account for 21% of new HIV infections. Millions more struggle with depression, addiction, and family problems. Furthermore, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is not something exclusive to the LGBT community; we often ignore the problem outright in heterosexual lifestyles. HIV/AIDS, like familial problems, is often taboo in many circles. Why do we turn a blind eye? Why do we accept that some things and fight to change others? We as a people are a resilient nation; the tragedies we experience are a shared experience. And we must do better with regards to our own health, individual decision-making, and acceptance of others. If we don’t, we’ll perish by our own swords. It is my hope that this article will encourage us all to have open dialogue on the issues that plague our communities: conditions of migrant workers, machismo, homophobia, diabetes, mental health stability, safe intimate relations, and the unwillingness to seek help. There are organizations like Georgia Equality that can assist us in times of need. And we can’t be afraid to seek that help. In the end, we’re all people and when we collective see ourselves as Brothers & Sisters of the same struggle, we’ll grasp our true place in society as a force to be reckoned with.
In the spirit of positivity and wellness.