Mondo Guerra Looks Back on His 'Out-of-Body Experience' Sharing His HIV Status on Project Runway

Contributing Editor
Mondo Guerra and Charles Sanchez
JD Davids

Two days before World AIDS Day 2016, Latinx designer Mondo Guerra came to TheBody.com, where he was interviewed by Charles Sanchez, creator of the HIV musical comedy series, Merce_. You can check out the video -- which aired live on Facebook -- below, or read this excerpt in which Guerra details his experience coming out about his HIV status as a_ Project Runway contestant.

Mondo Guerra: One of the things that I always had was this picture of my grandmother, who passed away when I was 18 years old. She never realized that I really loved fashion. She has never been part of this life. But I have this picture of her, always in my suit jacket or my back pocket, on every single runway. So, if you see me with my hands behind my back, my hand's on that little picture.

Whenever I was at the sewing machine, too, I'd just think about my family, and just think about this opportunity that I had been given. I was really working towards something bigger than myself. I was really about building a new relationship with my family, really making them proud.

There was a challenge, the HP Fabric challenge. We didn't really know what was going to happen because when we walked into the room there were a bunch of different monitors at each of our stations that had pictures of us as children, from different moments when we were kids. For me it was really emotional because there were pictures of me very happy and in these amazing Halloween costumes that my mom used to put us in.

It stirred up a lot of emotion and surfaced a lot of things that I hadn't really felt for a long time. Because, you know, for me my childhood wasn't the happiest. It was very hard. I felt very much alone and a little awkward. I had a lot of alone time, you know?

Our challenge was to design a print that was inspired by a moment in your life, a very important moment in your life. And so, for me, I wanted to talk about something from the past, something from the present and something from the future. I had done a couple of different prints, and I laid them out on a table. Another designer from the season, April Johnson, came over, and I showed her the prints.

I said, "Which one do you think is me the most? Which one do you think is the most me?" She pointed to what is now known as the positivity print. And she said, "This one." She said, "Definitely that one. That one's definitely you."

Without even letting her know the story behind it, that's the one that I went with. This print was very bright, vibrant, colorful and a happy choice -- very symmetrical, structured. But it was a plus-repeated-plus print that signified my HIV-positive status. I was diagnosed at the age of 23. So, this is something that I had been living with for a long time that I hadn't been talking about at that point.

The big twist that day was that one of our loved ones walked into the workroom. And to see my mom walk in, after being there for several weeks without any, really, emotional connection, was very difficult. Not only that; it was a day when I was designing something that was so personal and so scary to explore, especially with my mom.

I didn't even really tell her that day, you know? We had the entire day off, and we were able to spend it with our loved one. I knew what I was working on in the workroom. At the same time, I wasn't working on building that relationship and that honesty with my mother. And, so, that was very painful.

When I slept that night, knowing that I was going to present the work the next day on the runway, that was very intimidating.

Every time you approach that runway, you don't have a plan. I never went up there calculated. I didn't know what was going to happen, you know. That day in particular was very scary.

I actually talked first about the inspiration [without revealing the HIV-related part]. Then the seven other designers talked about their inspirations. They were very emotional and very honest about their work, and I was very -- you know, I was very impressed. I felt very comfortable because, you know, these people that I had grown to love and really appreciate weren't scared about the honesty.

The vulnerability was constant. And that made me feel very, very safe.

When my critique ended Nina said these words -- and I will remember these words for the rest of my life -- she said, "I wish I knew what the story was."

And, so, when we were dismissed from the runway we started walking -- and I stopped. I turned to the panel of judges, and I said: "You know, Nina, you asked. You asked what my story was."

And in that moment, a lot of things changed. I think, for me, you know, I don't know what I said in that moment. I know that it was a release. I knew that I was lifted. And, it was kind of an out-of-body experience for me. Because it had attached itself to me in such a negative way for such a long time that it was finally a release that I didn't know where to go with it.

When I left the runway, I felt like a different person. And the producers that you never see behind the curtain, they came out, and they were crying. And they were saying, "Thank you for talking about this. We're so proud of you." It was just amazing, you know?

Charles Sanchez: As an audience member, it was surprising. It was refreshing. It was incredibly brave. And we could see that in you. We could see you make a decision to say those words and tell us about it. And the realization that you were not only saying it out loud, but saying it to this audience on a national level, international level, was really powerful and empowering.

Guerra: It was an amazing day. When I got off the runway, I was thinking about that moment when I was going to have to tell my parents and let my family know about my status. Eventually, this is going to be on television, you know? That was a whole 'nother story in itself.

But I want to talk about why I talked about it. This was a huge opportunity in my life as an artistic, creative person. And I always create a work that is about memories and love, and this is very kindred -- it's fun and, I want to say, honest. There's a lot of truth behind it. And I felt like when I was up there and hearing everybody else share their truth and me talking about, you know, just my love for color and everything else like that, there was no substance to it. It was very, very flat. There was no life to my design without really letting go of the story.

This transcript excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.