I remember the time when I was little, before I had a degree or the knowledge to verbalize that something was wrong: All I knew was the feeling of suffocating. Continually fighting to breathe, fighting to get through, fighting to wake up each morning.
I am not sure whether I was angry at nature or nurture. Whether I was angry at my inability to never fit in, to never seem to know how to shut up or just fold. My inability to accept a "yes" and just swim along the tides. Would HIV have been more bearable if I simply knew how to assimilate? I get a house with a white picket fence, monogamous sex, church three times a week, stay at home? Would it have been more bearable if I had known my mother, black HIV-positive woman, before she gave me up?
Why is that? Well, I think it's because I didn't grow up in a black household. My adoptive mother was a Boriqua queen who ran the house and the heart of my father (both were born and raised in Puerto Rico). I was black and, back then in 2000s when everyone my age thought being "Spanish" was looking like JLo or Pitbull, I wasn't allowed to claim what my Afro-Latina stepmother did. (She often told me she was black, and once, that my white-passing father's family did not want my caramel-toned stepmother in the family.) While I value her experiences, I needed to see other little black girls with Latinx last names and who loved merengue just as much as I did. There was no "Afro-Latina" then in the South Florida where I grew up. I had no right to be as proud of my parents' culture as they were, although I was raised as stereotypically as you can get: loud bilingual momma, yuca and yellow rice on the stove, a mechanic father with plenty of machismo. There was no one to help me navigate the world as a black woman. Maybe my anger came because I understood things I couldn't yet speak.
Stories of my biological mother are few and far between, pieced together and passed to me by the nursing staff of my former hospital in Broward County, where I was born in 1991. I know she was a woman living with HIV when there was inadequate treatment. I know she was black, a mother of at least nine children, dealing with drug addiction and HIV, and she never got to know me. I assume she used drugs because I was born with drugs in my system. I read my hospital report, which says that this beautiful black woman had more demons than I could ever come to understand. Before black spaces, I would have assumed she was doing drugs, running around sleeping with folks to fuel her life. Before black spaces, I would have read my chart and hated her more for passing so much onto me with little support -- for making me deal with the so-much before I even learned how to walk. Truth is, black spaces helped me realize that she could only do as much as her chains would let her: I lived. I'm here writing and excelling. A black momma did that, not only did she, but with the weight of oppression on her shoulders. Mission complete. I think she did exactly as she was supposed to do with all against her.
The story was that she named me and that was it. Did she plan a name in the midst of her heightened addiction? Did she pray for forgiveness? To die? To separate from her blackness as I did? Was it her blackness that aided in her losing me to another momma? For a black women with HIV and children in the midst of drug addiction, police and jails and judgmental doctors and child protective services in the 1990s demonstrated a lot of disdain for her, her choices, and the children she birthed.
In my dreams, I believe she tried as hard as she could to make it right. By naming me, it proves to me that she in her own way tried to tell me she loved me. Some children who acquired HIV know the history of their moms, even if they died. I didn't and still don't. I'm left with only her signature releasing her rights to parent and my own medical records from birth. I don't know whether she's still alive. I'm left knowing that, no matter how bad she may have had it, like most black women, her love shines through: She named me Tiffany. To me, that act signifies an attempt to do right.
My dad and stepmom didn't help me foster any black identity. Yet, even as child I was drawn to other black people. My entire childhood until I was 18, I sat in clinics waiting to be seen by my HIV doctors, and I always felt safe with the black mommas who were there to be seen about their own diagnosis, or with their HIV-positive kids.
After the first 25 years of being isolated from most black people, it was black women who brought me into the HIV movement, which led me to the U.S. Conference on AIDS in 2017, when I came out about being HIV positive. Since then, my life has totally changed. Most recently, I attended the Black United Leadership Institute (BULI) for black HIV activists working on HIV criminalization. I recently wrote about why I made a sex contract, so it made sense for me to get a better grasp on HIV criminalization. But what BULI provided to me is so much more than that, and something I can't yet fully grasp.
Related: As a Woman With HIV, I Make My Sex Partners Sign a Disclosure Contract: Here's Why
For once, being in room with other people who looked like me was both peaceful and safe. I built a new family, a chosen family at BULI, of brothers and sisters, mommies and daddies, people who share my skin and my vision to change the world. This is how far I've come: from a girl who barely kept up with her own meds to being an advocate for others. I wish my mother could see me now. I write this in hope her Spirit finds me; she flows into me and helps me to connect with my blackness in ways that my adoptive momma never could. That she blesses and honors the black women who have continued to love me, from Gina to Venita and the new mommas in my life, such as Kamaria and Trina. So, I say to Luella Stringer, my first momma, I am trying. Trying to change a mean system that made your survival hard.
And to all the black mommas who don't know their biological black children, just know we come from a long line of fierce change-makers, biological family or not. We look to our ancestors and to our whole community for shelter and empowerment. Our most revolutionary goal? Never be erased. Always be present. Always be heard.
To my black momma, Luella, wherever you are, I hear you. Your life matters through me.
You are loved.
Tiffany Marrero is a sex-positive advocate using her lived experience as a black, queer, cisgender millennial woman living with HIV to work with, and on behalf of, other people in her community. Tiffany has earned her bachelor’s degree in social work (B.S.W.) from Florida Gulf Coast University and currently resides in Broward County, Florida.