Positive since 2006
My story is called “My Four Wars and My One Big Victory.”
War No. 1
I am from El Salvador, a country with a population of 7 million and where a crazy civil war took place back in the ’80s that left 75,000 people dead. I remember when I was very little, the war was the norm. I used to get caught in the crossfire between the army and the guerrillas. I woke up endless times with bullets next to me that had found their way through the ceiling of our metal roof. I played between dead bodies that had been burned with tires and gasoline and saw many classmates and friends lose their legs in land mines. Many times, I had to hide to make sure that none of these groups took me to fight. The guerrillas forcefully took kids as young as 7 years old. I guess I was lucky. When I was 15, the guerrillas captured and almost killed me, but I was blessed enough to escape. This is the reason I decided in 1989 it was time to flee El Salvador.
War No. 2
I grew up in a very dysfunctional home. My parents fought and broke up all the time. My father was an alcoholic. He died when I was 14. He was 36. Sadly, his death also took away my only chance to be a son and a little boy. He took that with him, leaving me with just the memories of the sexual, mental and physical abuse that my mother, younger and older sister endured because of him. My dad was the worst abuser I ever encountered in my life. I think he hated me because he perceived I was different. He found joy in calling me all kinds of degrading names in front of my friends and family. As a result, many of his friends and relatives also abused me sexually and verbally. I remember when I was about 4 or 5 years old, some famous white actor died of what they called the gay cancer in the early ’80s. I thought to myself, That is going to happen to me too. In many ways, my father spent his very short life programming me to fail, hate myself and have zero self-esteem. The worst part is, I did not know or understand why he treated me the way he did.
War No. 3
I am gay. When I was 24, I told my wife. Our second child, a girl, was only 2 months old at the time. A heated argument turned into tears, confessions and drama. She called me a faggot, just like my dad used to, and I exploded. We eventually talked and agreed that we were going to fight and defeat the demon of homosexuality with prayer and fasting.
A few days later, she forced me to come out to my mother and sisters. Of course, their reaction just made my life more miserable and depressing because I believed I had failed them. They all convinced me that I could change. I tried. I even fasted for 15 days nonstop. At the end of the 15 days, I was strong spiritually, but I still had homosexual thoughts and feelings. I wanted to kill myself, but I couldn’t because, according to the Bible and my pastor, people who commit suicide go to hell. Days later, my pastor reaffirmed my biggest fear and told me that God hated me because I am gay.
After 10 months, I was still gay, and the problems with my wife were getting worse and worse. One day, I fell into temptation. I was so scared and thought about killing myself again, but I didn’t have the strength to do that. Time went by, and I started meeting men, many who were abusive. I started attracting men who did the same things I had been exposed to growing up with my father: abuse, humiliation, rejection, etc. I had a lot of issues that I needed to deal with.
War No. 4
“Your HIV test result came back positive,” said the doctor on April 13, 2006. My whole world was destroyed in seconds. I cried nonstop and couldn’t think of anything else but my three children. “Oh, my God! I am going to die. What am I going to do? Why me? Why now?” I asked myself. I was devastated and couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. I thought God probably did in fact hate me and was punishing me because I am gay. He is giving me AIDS, I thought.
I told a few friends who thankfully were very supportive and gave me all the unconditional love I needed. Those friends are the only reason I was able to survive such a horrendous situation. Ironically, I was working in the HIV field at the time, but after my own diagnosis, I had to quit and do something else. I hated myself probably more than I ever had. I did not want to take HIV medication, but I was forced to start treatment after getting thrush, which was painful, depressing and uncomfortable. It reminded me that I was HIV positive.
My One Big Victory
“Your HIV results are positive,” is what I tell people when they test positive. Many cry and talk about killing themselves. I tell them that everything is going to be OK simply because I am not the one in their shoes.
For many years, I struggled and fought wars that I could not win at the time because I was defensive, unprotected, alone, naive and uninformed. Coming out as HIV positive was not an option during this time. I couldn’t tell anyone, especially my family, that I was not only gay but also had contracted HIV. I told myself it was because I wanted to protect them—or at least that was my excuse to continue living in the shadows of loneliness, shame and guilt for having allowed myself to contract this virus.
God has been nothing but great to me. Not the God that my pastor said hated me but the merciful, loving, caring and understanding God that has blessed me in so many wonderful ways, such as allowing me to help others. People, who, like me, have been programmed to “fail” and feel nothing but shame and self-hate for being who they are.
Ten years later, here I am. I have found my calling. I am the pastor I always wanted to be, but I am ministering in a different way—I’m helping those like me who have experienced different wars that have left them unable to walk on their own or to care for themselves because they felt worthless. I have chosen to stop being a victim and have blossomed into a survivor. I am stronger because I have learned and accepted that I am beautiful, capable and useful in endless ways. God chose me to make a difference in this world and in this life.
I currently work as a health educator. In the past two years, I have met young and old people with HIV. Because of my own experience, I have chosen to go the extra mile with those who are newly diagnosed by accompanying them to their first doctor’s appointment, interpreting for them if they do not speak English, coaching them about living with HIV and helping them find the resources and services they need to succeed. I don’t have a perfect life. I’m not financially rich, but I am really happy. I married a very handsome Southern man who loves me, cares for me, respects me and accepts me for who I am. He is HIV negative and on PrEP. I have the best job, coworkers and bosses a person can have. I am finally able to utilize my creativity and assist in making a difference to help others. I am a survivor. I am victorious.
I’m sure my story can touch many lives and help others who are still afraid to be themselves because they do not know any better. The need is here, especially in northern Virginia where 7 percent of the people I test get a positive result. This is a fact.
What three adjectives best describe you?
Caring. Creative. Funny.
What is your greatest achievement?
I am a survivor. I am making lemonade out of my lemons.
What is your greatest regret?
I waited too long to start using my experience to make a difference. I chose to cry and feel self-pity for too long. It’s never too late to start, but I also understand that it is about readiness to do stuff.
What keeps you up at night?
The TV show Golden Girls, my dreams, my present/future plans to travel and my desire to make a difference. My goal is to make at least one person smile everyday.
If you could change one thing about living with HIV, what would it be?
I guess the side effects of some meds, like insomnia, diarrhea and pain. It can be annoying sometimes. I would make medicine that is less toxic and has no bad side effects.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Allow yourself to cry when you feel like crying but also allow yourself to laugh when you feel like it. Sometimes just cry and laugh at the same time because that is OK too.
What person in the HIV community do you most admire?
My doctor, Ricardo Caldera. He has been my doctor, my therapist, my friend, my father and my angel many times in so many ways. After God, I owe him my life and who I am now.
What drives you to do what you do?
The smiles of the people I accompany to their doctor appointments.
What is your motto?
To know that I cannot change the whole world, but I can help one person be a little bit happier.
If you had to evacuate your house immediately, what is the one thing you would grab on the way out?
My old family pictures, videos and letters.
If you could be any animal, what would you be? And why?
An eagle. They fly above the storm, and from time to time, they lose old feathers and nails and then blossom into a stronger bird. I can relate.