Ricky Rivera was born in Puerto Rico and spent his early years traveling between Puerto Rico and New York City with his mother. When he was 15 years old he and his family settled permanently in New York City.
"In school I was put in a special education bilingual class which was really little more than an advanced baby-sitting class. We weren't taught anything." Ricky had been a slow student all of his life. His teachers thought he was lazy until it was realized that he was dyslexic. "Everyone thought I just wasn't trying, but one wonderful teacher finally realized there was a serious problem with my learning ability." Coming to New York City didn't help Ricky's learning difficulty. "The educational system assumed we would all be failures anyway, so they didn't make an effort to teach us. I graduated from high school unable to read."
Upon graduation, Ricky went to beauty school but soon dropped out. The same fate awaited his attempts to study fashion and jewelry-making. "I finally realized that I could never be a success at anything without knowing how to read, so at the age of 23 I re-entered school. Now I can read at about an eighth-grade level. I still have problems, but not as bad as before."
At the time Ricky was also dealing with severe phobias. "I just couldn't deal with people, and my shyness and insecurity about my reading ability made it that much worse." Ricky finally had to go on SSI when he was 27 years old. The guaranteed income helped, but Ricky still didn't feel as though he was part of society. "A part of me really needs to be active -- to give of myself and to help others. Because of my phobias, it was very difficult."
Ricky eventually met a lover and they were together for five years. "We both tested as HIV-positive, and my lover became very ill. I took care of him, all the while thinking I was about to die myself. It was a very depressing situation." Ricky's lover eventually succumbed to aids-related problems, and his family blamed Ricky for his death. "They didn't want me at his funeral, but I went anyway."
"My own family is very homophobic, and they've never been able to accept my being gay, but my HIV-positive diagnosis has opened some doors with them. At first they were afraid of me, but now they're better. They understand a little bit more."
Ricky is still on SSI, and this money allows him to spend his time helping others. "My title since testing positive is 'volunteer,' says Ricky. "I started taking medication that really calmed me down, and allowed me to direct my energies toward becoming more creative. Medication controls my phobias and anxieties, and gives me the chance to live a productive life. I give back to society by volunteering for GMHC, the Lesbian and Gay Center, the Hispanic AIDS Forum, and Body Positive. I've volunteered in drag for organizations like LLANY, and have been active in gay parades and the Halloween Parade in New York City. I'm very proud of being a part of organizing the Gay Pride Parade and of being a part of it. I also volunteer with the Momentum Project."
"I had a very depressed childhood. My family was very religious, and I thought I was evil and the devil because I was gay. I eventually found out by going to gay churches that this was just not true." Ricky found many answers to his doubts and confusion at ICM Cristo Rey, at 446 West 36th Street in New York City, where he often attends the 12:30 Sunday service.
When Ricky thought he was going to die, he asked God to let him live long enough to see his niece graduate from high school. "I'm very proud of her success because I made her an extension of myself, and inspired her to become more than what I am. Even though I didn't know how to read well, I insisted that she go to libraries and study extra on her own to learn." His niece graduated high school, attended college, and is now a teacher.
"All my problems -- the depression, phobias, fears, and aids -- have made me stronger. Volunteering has built my self-esteem, and I bloomed into other things that I didn't think I could do, and I'm still growing, still blooming. It's a very beautiful, healthy thing.
"I feel that when you can build your self-esteem, you can do for yourself and help yourself. I don't believe that anyone is lazy; I believe that people have illnesses and problems that are unrecognized, and that others should be compassionate and try to understand."
Ricky has put his life as an HIV-positive gay man in God's hands. "I told God that I couldn't deal with my depression and my fear of aids, and that I was returning to the church and giving my fate over to His care. I have full-blown aids now, but my spirit feels good and I think my life is following its proper path."
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.