It was an emotional disclosure for Miguel Mendez, Housing Works' senior vice president for operations.
Standing in front of hundreds of peers last week at the Reunión Latina 2011, a yearly training convention for New York Latinos working to fight HIV/AIDS, Mendez shared -- 20 years after his diagnosis -- that he was living with HIV.
"Brothers and sisters, yo soy el esposo con SIDA, el hijo, hermano, primo, tío, compañero y vecino que tiene SIDA," he said during the speech. "I am the husband with AIDS, the son, brother, cousin, uncle, friend and neighbor who has AIDS."
"It was very important for us to have someone like him being so comfortable speaking about his experience in such an open way," said Daniel Leyva, general coordinator for the Reunión Latina Training Institute. "It really motivates others to find ways to disclose, if not in a gathering in front of a podium, then in front of their families."
Diagnosed in 1991, Mendez always had difficulty sharing his status with others, his fears heightened by stigma from his family and the Latino community. But when the Latino Commission on AIDS invited him to speak, he resolved to make a political speech that was also personal.
Mendez grew up in a drug-ridden section of Williambsurg and remembers watching the huele pegas -- the glue-sniffers -- from his backyard window. By 16, he was heavily into heroin and running with gangs. His speech tells the story of how he righted his life, eventually earning a Master's in Computer Engineering. Mendez rose through the ranks at Housing Works, starting as a case manager and ending up as one of just six executive team members at the largest community-based AIDS organization in the country.
The Reunión Latina is sponsored by the Latino Commission on AIDS.