The following four individuals are clients of Voces Latinas (in English, “Latina Voices”), a nonprofit organization in New York City that assists immigrants. They were on the cover of the POZ October/November 2019 print issue and spotlighted in the cover story. Below are their personal stories.
Veronica Dominguez, 41, Queens, New York
When Veronica Dominguez declares “I am one of millions,” she is not talking only about other women living with HIV. “I know so many women who suffer from domestic violence … more than HIV,” she says, “and sometimes I feel like we are forgotten.”
Veronica has lived in the United States for the better part of 25 years, though in the past she has returned periodically to her native Mexico for financial reasons, or for the care of her children. As a young woman in New York City, she became involved with the man who would father her two eldest children (now 21 and 19). “I was very innocent,” she remembers, “I believed everything people would tell me.” Her former partner began brutalizing her almost immediately — physically, emotionally and sexually. The abuse continued for the two years they were together.
After examining her experiences in therapy for several years, Veronica came to see that she was raised to believe a relationship was forever, regardless of abuse. “I also saw violence between my parents, I thought it was normal,” she explains. Her partner would even hit her in the street, within sight of police officers, and tell her no one cared about her and that the police would just send her back to Mexico. She was isolated from the few family members she had in the United States. Even the people they lived with wouldn’t greet her for fear of her partner’s jealousy. “I have never experienced as much fear as I did in the two years that I lived with this person,” she says now.
Her partner’s death eventually ended their relationship. Veronica would later find out that he had been living with HIV. He never disclosed to her. It was not until years later, partnered with her current husband and pregnant with her third child (now 15), that she got a strange, persistent flu and ended up at the doctor, where she was diagnosed with HIV — a health condition she knew nothing about, and that was not explained to her.
It was another several years when, back in Mexico, she got pneumonia and was found to have a CD4 count of 8. It was already the era of effective HIV treatment, but medications were not readily available in her area of the country. Even doctors seemed certain she was going to die. Veronica’s father called her partner in the States, who had been worrying about her, and told him everything.
“He said, ‘I don’t know what HIV is but I don’t care; Veronica can’t get rid of me that easily,’” she laughs. “‘I want for you to do everything possible for her not to die, because I love her and I want her with me.’” The two were married, and by 2009 the couple and their three children were all under one roof in the United States. Her husband and all of her children remain HIV negative. “If life has given me a lot that is bad,” says Veronica with relief, “with that it rewards me.”
Soon after Veronica had her fourth baby, a girl, now 8, she attended the health fair where she found Voces Latinas. “I remember that their sign didn’t say anything about HIV, but it asked: Are you living with depression? Do you feel lonely? Do you feel sad?” This spoke to Veronica. She conquered her lack of trust and got in touch with them. Nowadays, supporting other women through her activities with the organization is part of what gives her hope for the future.
“I participate a lot with Voces Latinas, telling my story, because I know that some people that are living the same way I am can identify with my story and have that strength,” she explains. “If life or God has given me many opportunities, it’s for something, no? I want to take advantage.”
Alexander, 33, Harlem, New York City
Alexander is someone who appreciates being by himself. “I have always liked solitude,” he muses — not that he is depressed, just private and self-sufficient. His recent experiences have pushed his tolerance for solitude to the limit.
Alexander came to the United States from Colombia in May 2018, without any family. He was no longer comfortable there after being targeted as a gay man and an LGBT activist. He had been in the United States just a few months when he began to get headaches and sweats and to feel “weird — just not OK.” He didn’t have a doctor or insurance in the United States, and a friend pointed him toward Voces Latinas for an HIV test, which came back positive. While the diagnosis was a surprise to him, in hindsight he realizes that he and his most recent partner had not practiced safer sex.
Alexander also knows that being HIV positive does not mean he is going to die. Still, his diagnosis was an additional strain in an already challenging year of building a life in a new country — and experiencing some discrimination as he searched for a job and began to study English. “With all that is happening right now, I do feel very lonely,” Alexander shares.
Alexander looks forward to the next time he will see his family outside of a computer screen. In the meantime, Voces Latinas has provided the connection and community that Alexander needed to support his adjustment to life in the United States — and to living with HIV. The same person who gave him his HIV test and diagnosis has stayed connected with him and become a case manager of sorts, inviting him to events and gatherings, support groups and discussions. “He is the person that I trust and talk about everything with,” he says. “It has been really helpful for me.”
Elia Rivera, 68, Chinatown, New York City
In recent years, events such as the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017 have brought to many people’s attention a fact that has been true since 1917: that people from Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States, and the island is a territory of this country, not a foreign land. Their relationship with Puerto Rico has been a source of confusion in the United States for generations, even for members of the Trump administration, and people from Puerto Rico have been known to experience anti-immigrant discrimination, despite their status as citizens.
But Elia Rivera, who hails from the island originally, has not had any problems with that. “None of that has really affected me,” she comments, “I have been lucky.” Elia arrived from Puerto Rico as a teenager and lived in California for many years before moving to New York City, where she now lives. But she does feel for people of immigrant experience who are struggling. “It bothers me that the government doesn’t want to help immigrants,” she says, noting the importance of their work and contributions to the country. “Without immigrants, this country would be on the floor.”
Elia, now 68 years old and a mother of three, has been living with HIV since 1990, when the outlook was bleak for people diagnosed with the virus. When a doctor asked her to take a test, she recalls thinking, “I didn’t use drugs or sleep around, so I didn’t think anything of it.” But her husband at the time, who has since passed away, had many relationships outside of their marriage. “When I found out it was hard, I had three small kids,” she remembers. “I was afraid to even touch them. I had no information. I was afraid I would transmit to them. … I was very nervous about everything.”
Women and people of color tend to be underrepresented in HIV research studies, but Elia credits being part of clinical trials as something that has helped her live well with HIV. “I was part of many studies,” she says. The study doctors had to see participants often. “That really helped me because I kept myself informed about my condition, my T-cell count, the progress of the virus.” Attending support groups at Voces Latinas also supports Elia’s mental wellbeing. “They do the groups in a way where you leave feeling uplifted and inspired after, not depressed — and with information that you need.”
Another thing that has had a positive impact on her life has been seeking help for her mental health — and she counsels others to do the same. “Mental depression affects the body,” she says. “I have three kids who may not need me physically, but mentally they do — so I try not to get depressed, to keep active, to take it easy and to enjoy my life with my children.”
A social worker once enlisted Elia’s help with a patient of hers who believed that only “crazy people” get psychiatric help. Says Elia, then as now: “We look for this help so as to avoid becoming crazy.”
Gloria Maldonado, 32, Forest Hills, New York
“I tell my friends that I take it, and they think that I must be sick [with HIV],” says Gloria Maldonado, who has been taking PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for HIV prevention for the past year. However, quite the contrary: “All has been well as a preventive means,” comments the 32-year-old native of Colombia about her experience with the drug, “and because I have control of my health.”
Gloria hadn’t heard of the drug before arriving in the United States three years ago; she notes that this prevention method isn’t widely used in Colombia. Gloria was originally told about PrEP by a friend, and she pays it forward by talking to other friends of hers about the benefits of the daily pill. Most of them don’t know much about the topic of HIV prevention, and end up getting a bit confused. But Gloria believes it’s important for them to understand. In part because many of her friends are highly sexually active with multiple partners, she says, “I explain to them that it is good to take [PrEP].”
The author wishes to extend immense gratitude to Marco Castro-Bojorquez for translation support and assistance.