Violence against and murders of LGBT people in Central America are driving thousands to flee their hometowns each year. According to a 2017 Reuters article, "At least 136 LGBT people in El Salvador have fled the country since 2012." Many do not disclose that they're LGBT to immigration officials, so the numbers may be higher.
But while scores of Salvadorans flee violence and discrimination, others bravely make the journey back home to assist their communities and teach them ways they can advocate for their health. One such person is Hugo Salinas.
Salinas is a 56-year-old, openly gay Salvadoran man living with HIV. Salinas traveled to Mexico City to study at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and then moved to Washington D.C. in the early 1990s, where he became an advocate for HIV prevention and care. In 2005, while in D.C., Salinas announced his run for mayor of his hometown of Intipucá, El Salvador. From 2006 to 2009, Salinas served as an openly gay, HIV-positive mayor. TheBody spoke to him about his time in D.C., his work as mayor, and what he's up to now.
Giuliani Alvarenga: What motivated you to be mayor?
Hugo Salinas: What motivated me to become mayor was an article I read about Puerto La Unión, which is a port 20 minutes away from Intipucá. The construction of this port was made possible by Japan, who gave the money to El Salvador. I wanted to become mayor in order for my town to benefit from the job offers this port would bring to El Salvador.
GA: What are some of the things you did as mayor?
HS: I have been in solidarity with the people of Intipucá. When I became mayor, I helped develop streets and create parks for youth to play sports -- this was made possible by opening up a loan and mitigating the debt from the previous mayor. I also helped bring clean water to communities who did not have it, as well as bringing electricity to schools who did not have power. Those were some of the more recognizable efforts I helped develop as mayor.
GA: What are some of your efforts for LGBT inclusion in El Salvador?
HS: The very fact that I won the election as mayor of Intipucá helped create visibility for the LGBT community. I also gave talks at universities and high schools, which were organized by LGBT activists in El Salvador. I have been open about my sexuality as gay.
GA: What have you done to help people living with HIV in El Salvador?
HS: I have proven that I can be successful as someone living with HIV and that I can chase my dreams and succeed. I have been open about my HIV status and my sexuality. I think this is a powerful statement in a country that is machista, homophobic, and sexist. Confidence in myself has helped me move forward; this has also helped me gain respect from my peers. I have had HIV-positive people approach me and thank me for my advocacy.
GA: How does your hometown view you?
HS: At age 25 I accepted myself as queer and told myself not to have sexual relations with people in my hometown. The people in my town see me as a symbol of hope. As a little boy, I was a Boy Scout, and I studied and sat on committees that helped impoverished communities. I also studied in Mexico City at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
GA: What do you want the exterior Salvadoran community to understand about HIV in El Salvador?
HS: My HIV work started in Washington, D.C. That town helped me understand my status, and I joined case studies looking for a cure. The Maryland and Virginia areas have a strong Salvadoran community, but I had to educate them about my HIV status. They thought that someone living with HIV would be bedridden and sick all the time. To be honest, I feel the Salvadoran community in El Salvador has a better understanding of the virus than the exterior.
GA: What are some of the things you are doing to mentor the next generation of youth taking the lead in El Salvador?
HS: I believe that education is important. I want youth to use condoms as well as other methods. To this day, youth come to my house asking for condoms, and I always have these resources available. I try doing outreach this way, and I am ready to answer any questions they may have.
GA: What would you like the HIV poz community here to learn about what is happening in El Salvador?
HS: I want the HIV poz community in the U.S. to talk to their partners about their status. I had six partners after learning about my status, and I have always shared with them my status. El Salvador has many people living "in the closet" with both their HIV status and their sexuality. People have fled El Salvador to have better access to HIV meds, or simply because of the stigma and violence people face. We need to break the taboo of HIV in El Salvador. We are the second largest country in Central America with HIV rates (Honduras comes in first place).
GA: What was El Salvador like for you growing up?
HS: El Salvador was definitely a third-world country. I graduated right when the war broke out in 1979. I was fortunate enough to be in a city where the war did not affect us as much. There was fear, but it did not traumatize me.
GA: How were you treated once people found out you were gay?
HS: People did not believe I was gay, because I could "pass." Overall, people treated me right. No one ever bullied me or discriminated [against] me directly to my face.
GA: Why did you leave El Salvador to go to D.C.? And why did you choose D.C.?
HS: I left [for] D.C. because that is where my family was located. My mom and dad were there, along with my siblings. Choosing D.C. was not a choice, but rather my destiny. I had no choice. But I do enjoy the city, and it is culturally rich and diverse. I did fall in love with San Francisco, and I may have moved out there if I could.
GA: Were you involved in activism in D.C.?
HS: I was involved in activism since I got to D.C. I was actively involved in HIV prevention in the Latinx household. I would participate in the Salvadoran Consulate and participate in cultural festivals and Pride events. Activism has been a foundation of my life, especially since I was a Boy Scout growing up. Activism has always run through my blood; I felt the need to help others -- this fed my soul.
GA: What was it like moving to D.C. as a gay man and from El Salvador?
HS: I had a wonderful experience, and I met other men from other cultures who were attracted to me. I would respect others, and they would reciprocate that respect back to me.
GA: How did you run your political campaign?
HS: People knew I was gay, but I had gained respect from my peers, and that helped me navigate my campaign like anyone else would have run theirs. I never focused on my gay identity, but I did have opponents make an ad about me with the word "faggot" at the top of the ad. I still have that image, and I keep it as a reminder. I can send it to you if you like.
GA: How was it talking about HIV in your hometown?
HS: It was difficult talking to them about HIV/AIDS. I look healthy, and they could not believe I was HIV positive, because they think that if you are poz, you must be sick. Thankfully, I was accepted. The people enjoyed my lively spirits, and I serve as an HIV advocate who speaks at universities and public-health settings.
Another important factor I need to share is that I was celibate for a year after learning about my HIV status. I had to learn about sex ed and safer-sex practices, and I did this while living in D.C. I am currently seeing someone for the last six months, and I continue to talk to people about safe-sex practices and about abortions, especially because here in El Salvador we are a poor country with few resources for youth.
GA: What have you been doing these days?
HS: I currently live in El Salvador, and I am working to create a museum on Salvadoran immigration in the U.S., which will be located in my hometown, Intipucá. We are expecting to finish the museum this coming year; I have been working with Salvadorans in Washington, D.C. to make this happen. I also make myself available to talk with Salvadoran youth about safe-sex practices, as I have mentioned before. My mother is in town for my birthday, and she brought me 2,000 condoms and lube to pass around the neighborhood.