Elisa: I’m HIV negative but have lost two brothers, a cousin, my husband’s best friend and numerous friends and acquaintances to AIDS. After my brother Billy died—it was June 17, 2004, at 10:01 in the morning—I lost my mind. After a couple of days licking my wounds, I decided that maybe I needed to talk to someone. But it seemed that nobody wanted to talk to me. I called my local hospital and churches, and I even called the CDC. We family members need support too. We need to know that somebody cares. But nobody could address the need I felt that I had.

Bernadette: I know how that feels. I found out I was HIV positive in 1989. They didn’t know how to treat positive women back then, and most of the support groups were geared to white gay men. I’m a Chicana woman and my issues are different. That’s why I helped start Sisters of Color United for Education [SCUE].

Elisa: After meeting a priest who helped found an AIDS support group in DC, I tried to start my own group: LifeLine2 Friends and Families of HIV. But nobody came. I live in a little rural town about 40 miles outside of Washington, DC. The mentality out here is very good-old-boy; when I say that my brother died of viral meningitis, it’s not a problem. But if I say my brother died of AIDS, people take an emotional or a physical—or both—step back. I don’t want anybody else to feel that way.

Bernadette: Wow, I can’t even imagine how hard it is out there. Denver is a big metropolitan city, and the community I live in is very different. But even as big as Denver wants to think it’s getting, people still have closed minds. The hardest part of this whole journey is getting beyond stigma. It doesn’t matter what color skin you have, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman—HIV can happen to you. And if it does, it affects your whole family.

Elisa: It’s definitely happening here—I’ve talked to our county health department, and all three hospitals in the area. The health department says it has about 150 cases; social services says it has about 300.

Bernadette: The question becomes how do we reach these people and their families? At SCUE, we’ve learned that sometimes you have to figure out how to get to them through the back door. Sometimes, people don’t want HIV in their face. A lot of our programs include cultural events, like food and dance celebrations, because in the Chicano community, there’s always food. Sometimes people say we do stuff backwards, but for us, that worked to help us reach people.

Elisa: Yes, all I need is the people. It’s not like I don’t have the passion, or the heart. And I can get the information. I want people to know that just because you may have a lost a family member to AIDS, or you have a family member that is ill, it doesn’t mean that people don’t care and don’t understand. I want people to know that there’s at least somebody out there who can empathize and sympathize with what they’re going through.

Bernadette: It takes a strong person to try to do what you’re doing. It’s good to help the people who are infected like this because they’re going through a lot—but we also need to provide services for their parents, their sisters, their children and whoever else is a part of their support system. It takes a long time. It doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve been doing this since 1990, and it’s 2007; it’s taken that long to get this far. If you ever need someone to come out and speak and show the face of somebody living with this virus, let me know; I really want to support what you’re doing.     

For more on Sisters of Color United for Education, visit sistersofcolorunited.org. Contact Elisa Mills at SOMDLifeline@aol.com.