Aracelis Quinones, 45 • HIV educator • New York City • HIV diagnosis: 1987
I found out I had HIV when I was nine months pregnant, but not because anyone offered me prenatal testing. I had come to the U.S. in 1986, already pregnant with my younger son. One night I called my mother in Puerto Rico, and she said some people we knew were dying of “that thing.” Because I was pregnant she said I should get tested, so I did. We didn’t even really know yet how you get HIV. But now when people ask how I contracted HIV, I say it’s not important. By now, everybody knows how you get HIV. The real question is why positive people are afraid to say they have it. How can we women living with HIV empower others to come out?
Testing positive was a bad experience. They told me I had a year to live, and they didn’t give me any information. I was really depressed, and it took me a couple of years of crying before I started looking out for places to help me connect with support. I told my mother and the rest of my family in Puerto Rico right away, and then my son was born negative—thank God!
I never stopped going to the doctor, and at the clinic I read magazines on HIV. That told me there were a lot of women like me and I wasn’t alone. So I decided I needed a network, a purpose. I started going to support groups, meeting other people in my same situation. And I went back to school and started working in the HIV field. I became a group coordinator for support for other people with HIV. I became an advocate because I saw there were too many women getting infected with HIV.
I think Latina women are at high risk for HIV because of our culture. We never tell men to use protection. Then there’s machismo. The men ask, “Why do you want me to use a condom?” and they think you are being unfaithful. I know women who have gotten beaten because they asked a man to use a condom. And if a woman carries a condom in her purse, then she’s a prostitute!
Latinas also have some barriers—not only language barriers. Some programs don’t offer things we need, like babysitting. And people think that because we all speak Spanish we are all the same. But we have different cultures. For example, in a group I run, the Mexican women are more shy, they don’t open up. Puerto Ricans are more talkative, more active. And Colombians make a group among themselves, they don’t want to talk to others. We are all called Latinas, but we are from different cultures.
One thing we women all do, though, is take care of everybody first and ourselves last. My mother, my father, my dog—everybody before myself. We forget to love ourselves, and we take care of too many things. And a lot of women think we can’t survive if we don’t have somebody by our side. That leads some women into bad relationships, because it’s difficult to deal with loneliness.
The other day, I was telling one of my girls, “If you don’t want to disclose you have HIV, then you keep the stigma going because you make it seem it’s something to be ashamed of.” More women have to be open about being positive. Tell the world, “I’m HIV positive, and I’m alive and well.” I need to let other people know. I am full of life and can do anything.