How did you find out you were HIV positive?
I got tested because someone that I was having a sexual relationship with died from the AIDS virus. His brother actually had run into me in downtown Brooklyn and gave me this news. But that was not the person who actually infected me.
My daughter, Raven, was born in June 1990 -- I had her tested at the age of 18 months. When her results came back positive, I had had no kind of sexual relationship then with anyone but her dad from the time I got pregnant with her until the time she was born. I decided, "Well, let me go contact him," under the impression that I might have infected him. It was not until I notified him that both his daughter and I had tested positive that he blatantly said to me, "Ain't life a bitch. You know how long I have been living with this?" He found out, incidentally, when I was four month's pregnant that he had contracted the HIV virus and never told me anything.
I really have to say that, back in 1991, it was very hard for African-American men to come forward. We were both active users of cocaine. He was my cocaine partner. I think it was not in an atmosphere or a situation that was feasible for him to tell me.
We were both victims of systems. In my pregnancy, I had health insurance. I was working in a very well-known, prominent hospital, and I think that because I was in that category of "private insurance," even though I was enrolled in a high-risk clinic because of my drug use, I was never offered an HIV test. I could have made use of the AZT regimen that was available to pregnant women at that time and protected my daughter from the virus. That's why I said we were victims of systems that failed us.
How did your feelings about living with HIV change over time?
When I was first diagnosed, every bit of fear came into me because I am an immigrant -- not an American citizen. I did not have a green card at that time. I was also being severely battered in a household with someone who was another drug abuser. So I was just under the impression that "Oh, my God, they're going to take my kids away from me. These kids are American citizens. They're going to take my kids away from me and they're going to deport me." So it was major fear.
It changed over time. The organization where I got tested and got into supportive services did a wonderful job ensuring that no part of my care would be linked to the Immigration and Naturalization Services -- from legal services to housing support to family counseling. It's what I call "the menu" -- when you get diagnosed, if you have access to these services, it tends to give you a better perspective: "I can fight this. I can do this." The other part was, I was introduced to a community of people who were living with the virus. And I gotta say, in fact, that it was gay white men that I befriended. And also, I attended this conference that the New York State AIDS Institute had.
So I had an opportunity to meet other people who were living with the virus, who were having a very hard time because, back then, what did we have? But they were learning about medications and services, and funding was now being allocated, and it was these people that gave me hope. That gave me support. It made it easier for me.
How long do you think it takes to process a diagnosis?
It could take one day ... it could take 10 years. I still have my days. You know, I'm very hopeful, I keep talking about how blessed and fortunate I am. But I still have days because society has -- We are ostracized. We are discriminated against. We are stigmatized.
And I have my days that I say, "My gosh, if I didn't have this disease, what would have made things better? Would it have been better? Would it have been worse?" But I have it, and what's keeping me going is, I am doing something about it. And I always say there are hundreds and hundreds of Michelle Lopezes that are still out there today.
I came from a very difficult childhood. I'm an incest survivor, and I truly believe these are factors that came into my life from my childhood and I think this is the outcome. But, again, I am very fortunate that I have the opportunity to do something about it.
What advice would you give someone who has just found out they are positive?
To not segregate themselves, and to seek out and find a community of us who are living with it and doing something about it. Because we are a family and we need as much as we can to keep this family growing. We still need representation of those of us infected to be within the decision-making. When you talk about HIV and AIDS affecting blacks and Latinos and immigrants -- if you look at all of us, we already have some kind of strike against us, and now HIV comes into the picture. So those of us who are infected, we gotta do double the work. Each of us can teach a newly diagnosed person out there something to give them that hope and that menu of survival. We must pass it on.
What conditions in your life put you at risk for getting infected?
My immigrant status, my drug use. You know, I always tend to say, "Oh, I didn't do crack. I wasn't a crack head." I used to sniff cocaine. I used to transport drugs for drug dealers, and that was my method of survival. I did engage in sex work for a period of time where it was in like an escort capacity. So I always felt like, "Oh, I did it in a much better class." But you know what? An addict is an addict. A sex worker is a sex worker. And so I think I just choose these comfort zones so as not to deal with this whole notion of "I am better than" or "I am somebody." Because no matter what, when I was homeless, when I was out there using myself up, nobody was better than me.
My self-esteem also made me submissive to a lot of abuse, and being an immigrant in this country, knowing that I had this strike against me. And still today I cannot get a green card because of a horrible congressional law in Congress called the HIV ban. We must get the United States to lift that ban because it affects immigrants living here. There is still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, and I say, "Stay tuned. Because Congress is going to lift that ban and it's going to be Michelle Lopez that is going to lead that campaign. And I'm going to win!"
When you look back, what would you have needed in order not to get infected?
I would have needed an opportunity, for one, to be able as an immigrant to have access to proper schooling. You know, a green card for me -- it plays a significant role in an immigrant person's life. I work, and I support my kids, and I pay my bills, and I'm a law-abiding person. If I had certain resources available to me as a young teenage girl migrating from the Caribbean: I needed family therapy. I needed a therapist to be able to say, "At the age of 16, I was brought to the United States by my aunt because my parents were having a very difficult time with me being rebellious growing up as a teenager." But they never had an opportunity to put a handle on "Why is she doing these things?" They just knew that I was a bad, rude, disruptive kid.
My first trauma came into my life from age seven until 10, when I was sexually molested by my three godbrothers. My parents would take me to a gynecologist to get treated, but had no connect that somebody was molesting this kid. That's why she was coming down with these STDs. That's why she was so rebellious. That's why she kept getting into fights. This is why she attempted suicide three times. They didn't understand what that cry for help was about. So, they sent me to the United States because I got involved with gangs in the Caribbean. They sent me to the belly of the beast! But I didn't join a gang. I just engaged in behaviors so that I could survive. I just wanted to survive.
I share things with my children today. And I let them know of the situations that came into Mommy's life. The things that happened to me, I'm not going to let happen to them.
My mom was an incest survivor. My sisters, they have been molested by other family members also. So certain cycles just had to be broken, and I believe that I have broken that cycle.
How has HIV changed you?
HIV has opened up my eyes to life: It's what you make of it. I took some lemons and I made lemonade. And I made some damn good lemonade! I'm still making that lemonade because, as I get older, as my children get older, my needs have changed and I can't become complacent. I want more for myself. I want more for my community. I want more for my children. This has just made me more of a fighter. I want to continue to let people know that we all can do this together.
And I love the different people that I meet. HIV has made me be more tolerant and more appreciative of who I am, what I have in my life, but also able to share it with another person.
Tell us a little about your life?
We live in the Bronx, in a community that is predominantly Latino, with a population of African Americans. It has an immigrant component also to it. A lot of young people, families, a working-class population. But I don't do much inside -- I go outside of my community to commune. That's why I am doing a search right now to move to Brooklyn. I want to move back to my past neighborhood and I want to be closer to my church.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Trinidad.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a journalist.
What kinds of work have you done?
Oh, wow! I have worked as a biller, in customer service. I have done babysitting work as a nanny. I have done work in the health field. Oh my God, I have done a lot. But you know what? The work that I always tend to do, now that I sit and I look back, is all people-related. I like working in the public health community sector, giving services to people.
What work did your parents do?
My dad was a longshore foreman, and my mom worked in the court system as a custodian, a civil servant, and even building streets and stuff. Both my parents were very, very hard-working people, and they gave their kids whatever we wanted, my God!
Who are the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Personally, my spiritual mom and my mother. Professionally, Oprah Winfrey!
Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist? What does that mean to you?
I do consider myself an AIDS activist. Activism means being able to fight for what I know is still needed, or being able also to teach a person what we should be doing as a people; being able to stand up for what we want.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love to read. I love going to Broadway shows. I love shopping! I love bike riding -- if I had a better opportunity to be able to purchase a bike, I would do it!
Are you a religious or spiritual person?
I'm a very spiritual person.
Do you attend a church?
Yes, indeed. I am proud of my church, the Court of St. Michael. It is a spiritual Baptist church. We pray to God. But we also do uplift our ancestors and the Orishas, and the deities that have walked the earth. My minister -- the reverend -- is a female.
How does the church address HIV? Do you feel accepted as a person with HIV?
That's how I met my minister, please! She participated in Balm in Gilead's Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. She has provided a tremendous amount of support to individuals who are infected with this disease. It's a humble little church. It's not even one of the big ministries. Her church is in the basement of her house. God, she's an amazing woman. I love her! She has helped me get closer to God. Whew! When I talk about her, I get emotional!