This Positive Life: An Interview With Bernadette Berzoza
September 15, 2011
Did you ever get your kids tested?
Yes I did. Him being at 0 T cells so soon and my T cells being lower, they figured that I had contracted it sooner than '89. So I had to take them in to get tested. Both of them are negative.
At one point he beat me up really bad. I was knocked out and when I came to the paramedics were in the house. I looked over and saw my son getting a paper towel, going to clean the blood, and I screamed, "Don't let him touch my blood!"
Everybody stopped. They said, "Why? What's wrong? What do you mean?" I said, "I'm HIV positive." They grabbed him, and they put these gloves on, and masks. It was terrible. That was the first time I had said it out loud, in the air. I had already known for about three years.
How did you get out of this terrible situation with your husband?
My angel came. [laughs] I started doing outreach for the substance abuse program, trying to get other kids and families in my housing development involved in it. I believed it was very important information for the kids to know, but it was more important for the women to know. I knew what was going on in my house was going on in other houses. A lot of the women there lived the same kind of lifestyle I was living: Some of them had partners that were in prison, or in and out of their households. There was a lot of violence, substance abuse, drug use, alcoholism.
One day I was introduced to a woman, Belinda Garcia, who had lived in West Denver; she had gone on to college and gotten her master's degree. She was a substance abuse counselor. She had all this education, but she came back to the community because she was worried that HIV was going to start to affect women.
When we met, she said, "I have some information that I want to share with women around HIV." Again, I was still undercover. I said, "I can do some outreach for you."
We made this flier and it said, "Come learn about AIDS." I started knocking on doors. People that I knew were like, "What's wrong with you? What are you doing this for? We don't need to know about this." I was like, "Well, that didn't work. How am I going to get people there?"
What I did was, the women that lived in the same area where I lived, I talked to each one of them individually. I said, "Let's go meet this woman and find out some of this information. If not then we'll just beat her up, or throw her out of the neighborhood." [laughs] I was young back then, and feisty. Those were my friends, my girls, and so of course they agreed.
There had been other programs that acted like they were coming in to fix us, like we were messed up and broken, the "bad people" in society. That's how I always perceived programs that were coming to the housing development. But Belinda didn't say, "I'm So-and-So and I have a master's." She introduced herself: "I'm Belinda, and I'm from the West Side. I grew up over here and I know people over there. My cousins are these people, and my grandma and grandpa " She really told us who she was, where she came from. That opened the door for all of us to be able to be who we were.
We weren't used to talking to strangers about our bodies, and what we do. But the way she did it was so non-threatening and so respectful that before we knew it we were telling her everything. A genuine caring came from her.
We went through the program, which was basic education and awareness of your body, your psychosocial development, what messages you got growing up, how you interpret all that stuff and how it makes you feel and think and react. We learned what our risk factors were for STDs [sexually transmitted diseases], HIV, substance abuse and domestic violence. But for us that was life; we lived it every day. We'd never seen it as a risk.
I grew up with my mom and dad. My dad passed away when I was 12 years old. They might have fought and argued, but every morning when I got up to go to school, my mom and dad were right there together. I learned, non-verbally, to keep secrets. What happens in our home stays in our home. You don't tell people out there.
When I started understanding all those dynamics I thought, "I can't let my kids grow up and live this kind of life. I don't want my daughter to be in a domestic violence relationship and put up with all kinds of bad things and then end up HIV positive. I don't want my son to be a drug user and hurt women." So I had to make it stop. I had to make a decision.
After we'd gone through all these classes, Belinda said, "I'm done. You have all this information. Go out and share it with people you know." I said, "Can't you keep coming? I'll do all the outreach. I'll bring more women. I know women need it. I know my cousins need it. I know some of my friends need it. I have sisters. I have nieces." That's how Sisters of Color United for Education was born.
This same group of women that you first brought to meet this prevention worker ended up starting this organization to reach out to women of color in your area?
During that time my husband was getting sick a lot more. This was around '92 now. One day Belinda said, "Are you OK, Bernadette?" I said, "No." I just broke down and started crying. I said, "My husband is HIV positive. But I'm not." She said, "OK. What do you need from me? Is there anything I can help you with?" She got up off the chair and she hugged me. I think at that time, that's all I needed. I needed to see that, even though I had this dreaded disease that everyone was saying was so bad, and only bad people got, that I could still get some affection or some care or concern from somebody else. After that I was able to confide in her.
Did you disclose to her?
I'd told her about him; and then maybe a week or so later I told her, "I have it too." She said, "I know you do. But that's OK. I'm here to help you." She was the very first person I disclosed to and told.
It was almost three years after you were diagnosed?
Yes. She's the one that helped me start taking care of all the things I needed to take care of. Because I knew I was getting sick. I wasn't taking any medications or anything.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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