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Michelle Lopez Alora Gale Precious Jackson Nina Martinez Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga Loreen Willenberg  
Michelle Alora Precious Nina Gracia Loreen  
Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga

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By Bonnie Goldman

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This podcast is a part of the series This Positive Life. To subscribe to this series, click here.

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga

About Gracia
Age: 32
Home: La Paz, Bolivia
Diagnosed: 2000
Click here and scroll down to view Gracia's HIV med regimen and updates!

Gracia Violeta Ross Quiroga co-founded Bolivia's first organization for people with HIV, and travels around the world advocating for HIVers. But it was a long road from testing positive to becoming a global HIV activist. A rape survivor, Gracia struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis and disclose to her family and friends. She comes from a religious family -- her father is an evangelical Christian pastor. It took years for her to tell her congregation. But now, with the support of family, friends and her church, she has found peace with her HIV status and works tirelessly to raise awareness of the epidemic in South America.

Gracia spoke at the XV and XVI International AIDS Conferences in Bangkok, Thailand, and Toronto, Canada. [To read one of her speeches, click here.] She also received one of the Keith D. Cylar AIDS Activist Awards from Housing Works -- and a $10,000 grant she's used to continue her work.

Updated August 2009

How did you find out you were HIV positive? Do you remember where you were?

It was really a coincidence. I was not expecting such a test result. I was still doing my research in anthropology in a rural community in La Paz [Bolivia]. Part of my research was to participate in the coffee harvest with the local people. While doing this, I got an injury on my hand. This injury then became more and more infected. So I went to the lab, because I thought I had a tropical disease, because I was in the tropical part of Bolivia.

My older sister knew I had been -- I am -- a rape survivor. I experienced rape in 1998. She suggested an HIV test, among many others. All of those came back negative that day, except the HIV test.

What year was this?

It was in 2000. It was a total surprise to me, because I didn't expect this test result. All the information I ever had on HIV -- which was not a lot, anyway, in Bolivia -- I never listened to. All the HIV information was referring to the so-called "risky" groups, referring to men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users. In that context, I thought I didn't have any risk because I was not a member of these groups. I had a partner for nine years. So I thought I was not at risk.

I was also not prepared for the test. I then received a free counseling session. It was a real shock for me.

Who did you first talk to about this?

I talked to my sisters, especially the one who had the idea of doing the test. I blamed her. I said, "This is your fault, because I'd rather not know." But actually, it was really good that she suggested it, because I also was to discover that I [tested] HIV positive maybe three or four years after being infected. This gave me the chance to change my habits and to start treatment early enough; I never got sick, like being in bed. I think I have been HIV positive for nine years now. I never got so ill as to be in the hospital.

Many of my friends in Bolivia discovered they were HIV positive only in the hospital, and only when they were about to die. So my relatively early diagnosis was, at the end, an advantage. But at that moment, I couldn't rationalize; I didn't yet have an understanding of that.

I was very angry, because the information we had been given was that people who had HIV could die in three months. That's really what I thought was going to happen to me. I was so depressed. Even though my older sisters tried to help me and explain it, for three months I was isolated and really ... I didn't know what was going to happen until I decided to talk to my family. I decided that their response was going to determine what I was going to do. If my family ever rejected me, I was going to kill myself. After they responded with a lot of love, I decided to live.

"My parents told me, 'You are our daughter, and we love you and we will love you, three months, six years, ten days ... however long you will live, we will be with you.'"
That's a big test they had to pass! So you told your mother and father?

I told them after three months. My father is a pastor in an evangelical church in Bolivia. He's very well known. I knew this was not what the pastor expects to happen to his daughters. We are three sisters. I am sure no father expects this to happen with his children. So I knew this was going to be a very difficult situation for them to understand, but I had to tell them, because I thought I was going to die. I wanted to explain.

Then my parents told me that they didn't care about what happened in the past, and how I got HIV -- they didn't ask me any questions. My parents told me, "You are our daughter, and we love you and we will love you, three months, six years, ten days ... however long you will live, we will be with you." That really changed my mind. Since that moment I decided that it was worth living, even with HIV.

Did you expect them to say anything different?

I thought they were going to be a little disappointed. I thought they were going to exclude me from the house, because, being in the context of an evangelical community, this could be really shameful for a pastor. I thought they were going to at least ask me difficult questions: How did you get HIV? What did you ever do to get HIV? They were so wise; they didn't ask me these questions. At the end, I told them the story, but in that moment, they just showed me love. I was really expecting that they would reject me, or at least confront me with my mistakes. I felt that I may bring shame to the leadership of my father, because he was the pastor. He is currently still the pastor. That was a really difficult time for me, but they were full of love, and that really changed the response. There was no judgment from them, actually.

Do his congregation and other people in the community know that you're positive?

That couldn't happen at that moment, because we all were afraid to do this. What could be the reaction of the congregation if they knew the daughter of the pastor had HIV and AIDS? Or AIDS, as it was only known at the time. We were very afraid that people wouldn't be able to continue trusting the leadership of my father, and there would be many complications. We didn't tell them for three years. We were not planning to tell them at all, but in those three years, I started to become a leader on the Bolivian Network of People Living With HIV and AIDS [RedBoL], and I started to become a public speaker, first on radio and maybe in some meetings, some small meetings.

At some point I knew I had to confront the issue of speaking publicly about my HIV. I had started speaking on TV, because I was already a leader. We had a family meeting, and we decided that we were going to tell the congregation in 2003. If they didn't react as we expected, we were going to say that they were not real Christians, because a real Christian would not reject. If you follow the example of Jesus, there is no space for rejection, but only for love. We told them, and the response of the congregation was so amazing, something we never expected. The congregation, from that moment on, became the main support of my family and me; they were amazing and they really showed us the love of God.

Did they want to know how you got infected?

I told them in the beginning. I didn't try to keep any secrets. I didn't want to lie. I think for me it was more complicated to have some people who knew I was positive and other people who didn't know, and maybe some people who knew how I got HIV. That was more stressful for me. So I decided I would tell everyone how I got HIV, and I would start telling them that I did get HIV through sexual intercourse -- as 90 percent of the HIV-positive people in the world did -- and if they then wanted to go away, or they wanted to stop being my friends, or they would reject me from their community, then it's their problem.

I decided to do that, and people reacted very well, because when you bring the truth, there is also life. They couldn't deny their own risk, the congregation. Everyone that I talked to afterwards didn't have anything to judge against me, because they were also in those situations of risk; but they were lucky enough not to get HIV. So instead of judging me, people started to support me so much. So I became more and more well known in the media in Bolivia, and internationally, after that.

"If I was bringing shame to the congregation by saying publicly that I am HIV positive, I told them to forgive me, but that is something I had to do."

When you did tell the congregation, did you just stand up in front of the congregation? How did you do this?

I did, after the main message in the service. We talked to the person who was going to offer the message, the meditation, that day; we asked him to prepare a portion on how Jesus treated a woman that was found in sin. [In the story], everyone wanted to stone her, and Jesus said, "Who of you that wants to kill this woman are free of guilt?" Then everyone ... nobody would [stone] her anymore.

We asked him to prepare a portion on this, and after his preaching, I just stood up in the front of the church and I told them, "I have something to tell you." I told them how I came to be in this place. I told them I was living with HIV already three years. I told them that I considered that God, if I had made any mistakes, He did forgive me. I told that I needed their support. If I was bringing shame to the congregation by saying publicly that I am HIV positive, I told them to forgive me, but that is something I had to do. There was no information, and people were dying in Bolivia who didn't have medication. To help these people, I had to be public about living with HIV. I told them that as soon as I started to work with other people living with HIV, I realized how much this could be a mission that God gave me, based on my mistakes, mainly, based on lack of information and ignorance. It was a mission that I was bringing good outcomes from. The congregation said, "Will you forgive us? We were so indifferent with your needs. We didn't ask about your health. We are not working on HIV with our congregation. We have to repent, not you." That was very, very surprising for me and my family.

Wow! What a moving story! How big is the congregation?

It has about 200 members. It has similar congregations in different neighborhoods in the city. So at the end, all the congregations in the other neighborhoods also knew because we sent them my testimony. They all read this and they all were aware of this, and all of them reacted with love.

Wow. Do you think this caused many people to get tested for HIV?

I don't know, because people are still, in Bolivia, thinking that maybe this "won't happen to me," and there is so much denial, even in the government. No. You don't listen to anyone speaking about HIV, except us -- those who are already living with HIV. Our president, our leaders, ignore the issue of HIV and how important it is. We are in a total denial right now in Bolivia. We have started to challenge that with our congregations. Some of them decided to have a special workshop on HIV and AIDS. They said they needed to learn about this. Other people wanted to work on HIV prevention, and others are working with people who have HIV.

Surely they cannot be the same after listening to my story, because I was a daughter of the pastor. Since I was born, the congregation was in my backyard. If anybody had reasons to disobey God's voice, if you want to call it that, it was not me. That's how God's grace operates: He precisely is able to forgive us everything. That's why my testimony is called "Grace for Grace" -- how I did receive grace from God, and I only understood what his grace was about when I got my HIV-positive test result.

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See Also
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Jacqueline Torres (Brooklyn) Thu., Feb. 20, 2014 at 10:04 am EST
Gracia your story is inspiring, I could relate to your story. I'm also HIV positive I was also in a state of shock when I found out my results in 1999 and the reason for that was because I didn't go to the doctor so I can get tested I went to accompany a friend because she felt that her boyfriend was cheating on her so I went to give her support. While we were their I said to my friend I never got tested before now that I'm here I matters well. When we go back for the results in 2 weeks I get the results and the doctor told me it was positive I couldn't believe what I heard. My friends result was negative I requested for a second testing and a third they all came back positive. I didn't want to believe it either because I never consider myself in the risky group category. So I thought... I always been a family woman my strength was God second was my kids I would look at them and say to myself I can't leave them they are still young and the thought of having to think that someone else has to raise them was more devastating for me. I said to myself they are my responsibility to take care of them my job is not done and when they get older I would share my story with them. Working with Harm Reduction has helped me with my ignorance. Many people think that they are not at risk like yourself and me because they are not a drug user or they are not a sex worker or sleeping with a men who's having sex with a men. You and I thought that having sex with one or two guys we might not put our self at risk. Our stories should inspired everyone to use protection at all times because it only takes one person in order for someone to become positive. HIV doesn't discriminate just like drugs it doesn't matter if you are black, white, rich or poor. We are here to educate others how to protect them self because if they don't they would be just like you and I. Someone is out their not caring about someone Else's body or they just don't know about they Owen states. Everyone must get tested
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Comment by: Gary S. (Durban, South Africa) Fri., Sep. 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm EDT
Gracia is such an inspiration! Amazing woman...
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Comment by: fuzzy (nyc) Sat., Jan. 22, 2011 at 11:30 pm EST
is it possible to live with hiv without medication?
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Comment by: IVY J AND KAREN K (Philippines) Tue., Dec. 14, 2010 at 5:12 am EST
don't worry i know that god will help you in fighting with that disease you encounter right now and i wish you'll be fine..just always pray....god will always be there for you..
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Comment by: Tess (Midrand) Wed., Sep. 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm EDT
Hi Stones cannot work miracles But thy can strengthen the immune system AMBER WORN ON SKIN a tourmaline necklace can be worn Meditat on the Violet Flame Sterkte
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Comment by: Gilbert Chewe (Durban South Africa) Tue., Sep. 8, 2009 at 8:30 am EDT
Gracia you are blessed and look forward and see that there is nothing impossible for you to have your own family. All is well. God bless you.
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Comment by: B L (london) Fri., Aug. 28, 2009 at 8:30 am EDT
Im a HIV positive Asian male with healthy outlook, would love to find someone who would love to have child together. If we are HIV positive, our child does not have to be HIV positive, but can have a more positive future and understanding.

billylaulondon@yahoo.co.uk
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Comment by: Damaris (Bolivia) Mon., Aug. 17, 2009 at 6:47 pm EDT
Gracia is my sister, we love her so much, and I want to tell every body who sees this page, that God's love is above all, if you can't be sure of your family's love, your health in future years or anything else, be sure about this YOU ARE PRECIOUS TO GOD AND HE LOVES YOU, HE wants only your happiness and your salvation, trust him and when ever you feel is too mucho for you, let him do the hard job and carry your worries, he loves you no matter what, that's what makes my sister wake up every day and that's what gives us (her family) enogh strength to keep the hope and love to her. Your life is not worhtless if you let your self be hugged by GOD's arms and cry your pai and let him take care of you, we'l be praying for you where ever you are... feel our love to you too.
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Comment by: Preciosa (Mexico) Fri., Feb. 27, 2009 at 7:21 pm EST
En realidad estoy impresionada con tu testimonio,
se lo que se vive cuando te diagnostican, yo no vivia con mi familia estaba viviendo en otra ciudad. En realidad la noticia fue peor que bomba yo tenia una pareja por 3 meses y nos separamos despues me entero que esta enfermo empece a visitarlo y empezamos a ir con medicos para que lo consultaran y asi fuimos como 6 meses a medicos diferentes yo me entere porque el se agravo y fallecio sin yo saber que el era portador 5 años antes.
Cuando el fallece ese mismo dia su mama me comento que habia fallecido de sida, es como si el mundo se me hubiera venido encima.
Creeme a sido algo dificil esta situacion porque no se como decirselo a mi familia de hecho todavia no lo hago solo lo saben pocas personas de mi familia solo 3 hermanas.
Lo mas triste es que un dia le dije a mi pastor lo que me estaba sucediendo y el comentario que me dijo primero por causa del pecado. Bueno entiendo que fue cierto porque no estaba casada, pero con el tiempo me preguntaba como estaba y una ocasion me dio tristeza porque me dice no se lo digas a nadie porque la iglesia no esta preparada. Y escondiendo las cosas y sin hablar del tema será peor. En realidad es duro, pero ahora tengo paz en mi corazon porque he descubierto cosas maravillosas de la vida. Se que un día me voy atrever a decir toda la verdad.
Muchas gracias por tu testimonio y que Dios siga
usando tu vida como hasta ahora.
Gracias por este espacio. Es la primera vez que lo escribo y creeme es como un proceso.. Mil gracias.
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Comment by: B P O A (Ghana) Fri., Jan. 16, 2009 at 10:48 am EST
Hey! I am happy to read about Gracia testimony, i know her, we have met several times at conferences but i never know her story. I wish we Ghanaians can also have not just a Pastor's daughter but a christian who could come out and tell the church and the whole christiandom about what it is like living with HIV/AIDS and it crosses everywhere even in the church. God bless you Gracia, i wish i have the kind of courage to do the same in my church. Never give up
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Comment by: Christina Maietta (San Gabriel, CA 91776) Wed., Jan. 14, 2009 at 2:28 am EST
my name is christina maietta, I was diagnosed in 1989 june. I found out three months later I was pregnant. I didn't know what to do. I don't believe in abortions, so I prayed to GOD what to do? To make a long story short she lived for 15 1/2 years and passed away in oct 2006 ! if anyone can relate to me contact me at cmaietta@yahoo.com
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Comment by: ISHWARCHANDRA (DELHI, INDIA) Sat., Dec. 6, 2008 at 5:16 am EST
WOW u have been so bold and i was so proud to say for your deeds and your activities. Keep it up Gracia!
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