An HIV positive fisherman isn’t the image one recalls from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s what José Unanue is.
"We’ve depended on the sea all of our lives," say Unanue, 39.
Following in the footsteps of generations of fishermen, Unanue boarded
his first boat at 18. Based in Bermeo, his hometown on the edge of the
mountains in northern Spain’s Basque country, Unanue sailed the seas for
six months a year, catching the tuna we buy canned in our local
markets. And like Hemingway’s old man, Unanue met exotic women and
dreamed about catching the big one.
Fish, that is, not AIDS. But12 years ago, Unanue was diagnosed with
HIV, and told that he had two years to live. With a population of
18,000, Bermeo has the highest HIV rate per capita in Europe today – 164
residents have died of AIDS. Most fishermen contracted the virus
through shared needles, and passed it on to their partners at home. "Men
also had sexual relationships at port, and there were no condoms at
port when I was at sea," says Unanue.
Unanue has since given up the sea to teach at a technical high school
for adults. It’s less rugged than life in the salt spray, but he still
faces challenges: When administrators found out that Unanue was
positive, they threatened to fire him, even though AIDS had already
claimed 20 of the students. Unanue fought back, and today he not only
teaches but serves as a confidante to students.
This summer, Unanue’s medical exam reported a CD4 count of 740 and an
undetectable viral load. "I’m not taking any medication and I’ve never
opted to do so," he says.
Bermeo may be a tiny town in a Catholic country, but every
summer, thousands of Spaniards drive north to attend a weeklong national
AIDS conference hosted by tx0-Hiesa, an organization founded by Unanue.
"Bermeo is a solidarity town," Unanue says, proudly wearing a red
ribbon. "Not many people in Spain wear the red ribbon, but every time we
plan something with respect to AIDS in Bermeo, everyone wears one."