In Alabama, HIV rates among young men of color who have sex with men, as well as rural folks, are high. The HIV service organization AIDS Alabama disburses federal funding to nine smaller agencies throughout the state to help reverse this trend. To serve the state's booming Latinx population, AIDS Alabama also hired Jean Hernandez as the coordinator of Latinx Outreach, a program that includes crucial services such as testing, interpreters, and support groups.
"I need money!" exclaims Hernandez, who wants to help AIDS Alabama create a one-stop shop for Latinx clients, who hail from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Venezuela, and elsewhere to work in farming, restaurants, construction, supermarkets, and homes. "There's a lot of racism and ignorance toward these immigrants and a lack of cultural competence, such as interpreters, to help them navigate the system," she says. "People can get away with stuff toward them now, but we'll see a shift in years to come," she adds, as their children become the first major generation of Latinx kids born in the state.
One of Hernandez's favorite clients is Angel, 58, who's had a remarkable journey from being a recent Mexican immigrant to an amputee living with HIV to a clown -- yes, that's right, a working clown -- surrounded by services and support thanks to his AIDS Alabama family. With translation (and some narration) by Hernandez, Angel shared his extraordinary story.
Angel: I was born in Culiacán, a city in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. It's where the notorious drug lord "El Chapo" is from. I was happy as a kid, but we were very poor and I had to work from the age of nine, such as washing the teachers' cars at recess when I was in school. I studied hard and went to the University of Mexico to become a paramedic.
In 2011, I came to the U.S. to work. There wasn't very much work in Mexico unless you wanted to work with drugs, and I did not. I moved in with my sister in Chicago and worked in construction and as a sign-painter. Then I followed a girl I loved to Birmingham, Alabama, but we're not together anymore.
So I was working a house-painting job, and I fell from a ladder and got a fracture and was sent to the hospital -- I had no health insurance. I was in a coma for 46 days. Then I got an infection in my leg that they couldn't control, so on Christmas Eve of 2013, they told me that they had to amputate my leg. They also tested me for HIV without my consent and told me I was positive. I was afraid, and I went through a crisis because everything came about at the same time -- the lady left me, the amputation, the HIV diagnosis.
Jean Hernandez: So he was very afraid, and the hospital sent Steve Dellinger, a peer mentor at AIDS Alabama, to talk to him. He told Angel that HIV cases had to be reported to the Alabama health department, and Angel was afraid that they would also report him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). So I came to visit Angel. He didn't even want to talk to me or look at me. He was mad, and I understand why. But little by little, I gained his trust and now we have a great relationship. And after months of me trying to wring his neck, he's going to physical therapy rehab and to his doctor appointments.
Angel: Yes, I was depressed. I had no money, and I knew I couldn't work for months and months. Tony [Christon-Walker] left his own family on Christmas to stay with me until my leg was amputated. So now I consider him a brother. I went to stay with him after the amputation, and it was very tough for me.
Tony also told me that the girlfriend took everything with her -- the bank account, the debit cards, the furniture. And then the hospital nurses disclosed my HIV status to someone who told everyone in my church. And the church people would not even come in my door. They left me food on my porch, and I had to drag myself across the floor to get it, I was so hungry, because I didn't have crutches yet. I still remember that like today. I was humiliated. They preach that God loves everyone, but instead they told everyone not to come to my home. That was hateful.
So Tony and Jean did everything for me. I couldn't pay my rent, so they found me an apartment. Now I call them my family.
JH: He had no wheelchair or crutches, so we had to coordinate with Birmingham AIDS Outreach, which provides medical equipment. I had to bring the social workers to Angel's home. We linked him to care and treatment at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and also to physical therapy and transportation for all his appointments for both HIV and for post-amputation needs. Tony would go with him to all of them.
So now he is in an apartment in Birmingham with a federal Tenant-Based Rental Assistance voucher, and we also pay a portion of his rent with HOPWA money. His HIV care is covered through ADAP.
Then a lawyer got interested in his case. He had an accident on the job, and sometimes when you're undocumented, people take advantage of you. His supervisor took his passport and laptop and said to him, "Don't say anything about the accident, because if you do, I'll call ICE." So the lawyer sued the company, and they paid Angel compensation and paid for his prosthetic leg, and that's how he's walking again right now.
Angel: I'll always remember that day [in April 2014] when they put the prosthetic on, because Tony and Jean were there to see me walk again for the first time. I cried a lot that day.
Tim Murphy: What was the transition like to living with a prosthetic leg?
Angel: It's been very challenging to learn to walk again, but I'm grateful because I have a robotic prosthetic, the latest technology, and I also receive care now through my workman's comp. I'm very proud of where I am now. It took a lot to get here. Now I use my time to help others. I'm the clown for private parties and concerts and Mexican rodeos. I'm on the radio and social media all the time.
TM: How did you become a clown?
Angel: I learned to be a clown in Mexico. My clown name is Bamba, which means "I'm OK!" where I'm from. I do a show with kids and I dance with them, do face-painting. If the kids ask to be a butterfly, I also give them wings. I love to see the kids happy. I also love to be a rodeo clown. People get amazed. I get on a horse.
JH: I tell him not to, but he does it anyway.
Angel: The first time I was a clown here, I enjoyed it so much that I was crying when I was removing my makeup, but they were happy tears.
TM: What makes a good clown?
Angel: I don't do the same things over and over. I dress differently.
TM: Is it hard to be a happy clown when you've been through so many difficult things?
Angel: Yes, it can be difficult, but the show must go on. Once I put my makeup on, my face looks happy, so it doesn't matter how I feel inside or if I have leg pain.
TM: What do you tell people about your story?
JH: When he talks to people, he wants them to be educated and not fear HIV. He says, "Look at me -- I'm good!"
TM: What do immigrants living with HIV in the U.S. right now need most?
Angel: We need more medical attention.
JH: I have another client's $1,000 colonoscopy bill in front of me. If you are undocumented, yes, you can get ADAP [to cover HIV-related treatment and care], but certain things like colonoscopies, fractures that require going to the E.R. -- ADAP doesn't cover that. That's a big barrier, any specialty care. I have people who don't get surgery that they need, or who owe thousands of dollars in medical bills. UAB and another clinic no longer provide charity care for undocumented people. If you have cancer, forget about it. We have another client who's in dialysis and needs a kidney transplant, but they said, "No, you're undocumented."
TM: Angel, here's a difficult question. What do you say to people like Trump and his supporters who say that undocumented immigrants don't deserve health care, that they are a burden on the system?
Angel: A lot of people at my gym have told me that already. They say, "You don't deserve that fancy prosthetic. You're not from this country -- you invaded us. And we're with Trump forever." But I work hard and pay taxes. I don't have any debt with the IRS. I try to be a responsible member of society.
JH: He also volunteers his time with other people facing an amputation. He visits them and says, "Hey, look at me!"
TM: What would you say to other Latinx immigrants these days?
Angel: We know that Trump is racist and doing damage. In Alabama, because there's no public transit, we have to use cars, which exposes us to the police. So we have to do everything by the book, pay our taxes, comply with the law. But also, we're very proud to be Latino and we have to be more united than ever. We need to work with all the available agencies and services. And we need to give our time to those services. I'm the only Latino at the food bank from midnight to 7 a.m. twice a week, then I go to my job. Sometimes people are so grateful that they kiss me. I want other Latinos to give their time and volunteer. it's powerful to show that we are hard workers and very good people.
TM: Angel, when are you happiest these days?
Angel: I was in a coma, and God spoke to me and said, "I don't want you to sit down in a corner -- you're going to walk again and live your life with a purpose." I said to God, "I don't have a leg!" And God said, "Just listen. You're my son and I'm going to give you a leg." I believe in God all the time. That's my main source, praying. Sometimes my balance is no good, but God says, "Don't worry, just take my hand and I'll be with you." And every day when I wake up, I thank God for giving me a second chance.
It's clear that it's my job to give the community the message of "Si se puede!" ["Yes, we can!"]. If I overcame my problems, you can. My slogan is "Bamba: No Excuses!" I gave my friends at my gym a Bamba T-shirt, and we all begin our workout with a prayer, holding hands. I'm the only Latino, but they treat me like part of the family.
TM: The same people at the gym who said you don't deserve to be here?
JH: He meant the white people. All his friends at the gym are black.
To donate to AIDS Alabama's efforts to start Alabama Latino Access Center, a one-stop shop for Latinx clients, contact Jean Hernandez at 205-918-8190 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or donate directly here.