'Organize Our Anger, Defend Our Happiness': Marco Castro-Bojorquez on the Vision of HIVenas Abiertas, a Network of Latinx Immigrants With HIV Resisting Social Neglect

Anyone awake in the U.S. right now knows that Latinx immigrants are increasingly marginalized from social and economic opportunities that can make a huge difference in a person's ability to stay healthy. Now, Marco Castro-Bojorquez, a community leader and filmmaker living with HIV, has put out the call for support for HIVenas Abiertas, a national network of Latinx immigrants living with HIV, telling TheBody, "We are going to be a network of people that are going to celebrate on a daily basis who we are, despite everything that comes to us in the shape of hatred messages."

We asked Castro-Bojorquez to talk more about how the current time affects the lives of Latinx immigrants with HIV, and about his vision for the network.

JD Davids: So, there's now the bilingual website for HIVenas Abiertas, plus your presence on Facebook and Twitter. Tell us more about this national network of Latinx immigrants living with HIV.

Marco Castro-Bojorquez
Marco Castro-Bojorquez
Alan Bateman

Marco Castro-Bojorquez: The idea is very simple, JD: We want to get together. We relaunched the network on May 1 with our statement targeted to the HIV movement about their work on immigration.

It's a renaissance, or the relaunching, of a network that I started back in Alabama; we made the announcement at HIV Is Not a Crime II. My idea was to bring together Latinx immigrant people living with HIV and form a network, so we can have a seat at the table where our fate is decided. We never have really been asked for our opinion, or what we think, or what we want. I just felt, as soon as I joined the HIV movement, that there is a big gap, that hasn't been filled in all these years that I've been working, where we do not address the issues that are specific to that population.

JD: What might a person living with HIV be facing in the U.S. right now because of the social neglect of being an undocumented immigrant or a loved one of undocumented people?

MCB: It's incredible. Families are being broken, are being fractured ... and so rapidly that sometimes you feel that it's like a movie, you know? Because people living with HIV that are Latinx are part of families, however you want to define those families.

The new administration has targeted immigrants, first and foremost, because we are the most vulnerable population in the U.S. And so they chose, with DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], the program that for me was, from all the activist campaigns in the U.S., the one with most clarity. DACA people, they were children that were brought to this country, and they wanted to just be part of the whole society -- plurality, right? They wanted to do that in a cultural, in a religious, in an economic way. And there was nothing wrong with the program. There are people who were a part of DACA who are dealing with HIV. It was destroyed by the president and his administration.

Related: Rates of HIV Are Rising Among Latinx Gay Men in the U.S. Are Anti-Immigration Policies to Blame?

And then, there is this stigma and the discrimination -- which are not the same thing -- that folks experience. One of the most damaging parts of this social neglect is that people get isolated, greatly. I lived that isolation for almost three years, and it almost killed me.

When we isolate ourselves, we get immobilized by the stigma and the fear to go and get health care, and go and see a doctor, talk to a therapist, get some food stamps so you are not hungry or become diabetic in a year by eating what you can and when you can. And all of these aspects that we see are on top of on how inaccessible these programs are to begin with, and then, on top of that, you have this incredible amount of stigma and hate messages that we get from everywhere.

You get up in the morning as a Latinx person and turn on the TV and, within seconds, you're being insulted, to say the least, and misrepresented, and completely misjudged. And receiving all this hate cannot be good for anybody's soul, you know?

JD: And now there's the new proposed federal "public charge" rule that is already creating a chill effect on immigrants accessing vital services out of fear that they will then not be allowed to get permanent residency. Amanda Lugg from African Services Committee has explained the change:

Under U.S. immigration law, a person seeking a green card through a family relationship must show that they "are not likely to become a public charge," which under current law is someone who is unable to support themselves and thus likely to depend on government benefits for income. Historically, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has only excluded applicants based on continuous receipt of cash benefits or long-term institutionalization at government expense, so as not to "inhibit access to non-cash benefits that serve important public interests."

On March 29, the Washington Post received a leaked draft of proposed changes to the law showing that the DHS is now seeking to redefine "public charge" to include mere "use" of any public subsidy rather than "dependency."

MCB: Yes, the new rules would actually include not only people that are receiving cash, but also food stamps or even Medi-Cal or Medicaid.

And there are other actions that you can combine with this potentially very damaging rule. For example, the administration just took away the temporary protective status for people from Honduras. Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the whole world, specifically for people that are queer, or living with HIV, or transgender. The rates on homicides there and the violence against our community are incredibly high.

A lot of our people, a lot of our sisters and brothers that are queer who try to come here, are running away from violence. And these types of actions, if you combine them with the potential public charge rule, devastate communities that already have so much to deal with.

Sometimes when I think about it, JD, I get lost in a sense of anger and pain, because I've experienced a lot of difficulty for the past couple years. And there were moments that I felt that nobody really cared about what was going on with me -- which was my perception, right? But when I think about folks that [do not] have the privilege that I have, I wonder how do they deal with it.

So, I hope that HIVenas Abiertas will be a space for people to at least make sure that we know what is really happening with the folks that are experiencing so much discrimination and violence targeted at us on a daily basis.

JD: What are your top priorities for the network?

MCB: My first goal is basically to gather folks and just to ask, "How are you doing today?" Because we don't really know how people are doing, period. None of the organizations that I work with on a local, state, and national level have made that basic inquiry to our communities that are dealing with immigration, and with HIV.

I'm really, really curious, and I want to be mindful and just start by asking, you know, "How are you doing today, Sister? How are you doing today, Brother?" That's the very beginning.

The very first issue that I consider, that englobes everything, is a social neglect that is taking place for people living with HIV who are immigrants -- especially those who are undocumented, those who are sex workers, those who are transgender people, people that are living with mental health [challenges], folks who are struggling with drugs (which is also mental health), and women and younger folks.

The incidence of people who are getting HIV has not decreased within the Latinx community. That worries me a lot. Although there are efforts around, led by incredible people, we are really missing a more robust prevention effort with the folks that are getting HIV. And if you look at the numbers of people that actually have access to PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], for example, it's -- I'm not going to talk about numbers, but I think it's just ridiculous, not only with Latinos, but with black folks, as well.

JD: How can the network function and create space when, for some, it's at times literally not even safe to go outside because of being targeted for deportation, or due to the fear that someone from your family will be taken away? In what ways will you be moving forward to help people connect for support when they are so isolated?

MCB: The first thing is that it's not going to be my decision or my vision -- it's going to be a collective vision. The network hopes to gather a core group of people that are interested in moving forward with the dissemination of our potential work.

HIVenas Abiertas is a name that can be also changed if that's what folks want to do. I am just interested in facilitating this to take place.

We are going to do a national conference call in the next couple weeks. Then, we are going to create a core group of organizers that really mirrors our community to join an in-person retreat for us to set the basics and the structure of our organization of our network. And then, we're going to -- with a lot of sabor, with a lot of flavor -- we're going to sail away into our movement, in the HIV movement.

I'm also interested in decolonizing how we do potentially manage a network, or do network organizing. In my vision and in my dreams, I think of embracing our cultural heritage, our racial and language richness.

We are going to be a network of people that are going to celebrate on a daily basis who we are, despite everything that comes to us in the shape of hatred messages. I know that Latinx people, immigrant folks that are here in the U.S., have the potential to do that.

I've worked with family acceptance in the past, and I have witnessed this incredible amount of potential for transformation -- not only personal but also on a community level. I'm betting all that I have for the transformation of our Latinx immigrant people living with HIV community. Because it is so clear to my heart, and in my mind, that is actually possible.

To create such sense of pride, a sense of pride and empowerment -- I find that our colors, our sounds, our smells, and our flavors are going to be powerful enough to dispel those shadows.

And then, furthermore, to make sure that that takes place, we need to invite, and hold space, and provide leadership for those most marginalized within our community.

JD: When you say "family acceptance," what are you referring to?

MCB: Besides doing HIV work, I've been working for over 10 years on family acceptance within the Latinx community, which I've done with advocacy, with education, and also with my films. I've created films where we actually explore with parents, both moms and dads of Latinx queer people, their unconditional love for their children.

My films, I consider them anti-racist, as well. Because I find it racist that people assume or say that Latinx men, for example, or Latinx families are homophobic and transphobic by nature. The years I have working with the families have taught me the complete opposite.

It has taught me that parents love their children, no matter what, first, and that the Latinx community is as -- or less -- homophobic or machoistic or transphobic than other cultures. Therefore, we should not be stereotyped as something that we're not -- or that we are, but in the company of the rest of the society.

What I witness with my family acceptance work is that we sometimes are the target of practices by people in power, where they utilize our culture and our identity against us to oppress us. We need to remind each other how great, and how powerful and resilient, we are as a community and as individuals.

And also, [we] need to go back and look at the South for inspiration and knowledge. By that, I mean our pueblos in Latin America. Because, first of all, there has been amazing work on HIV/AIDS in the rest of the continent. Also, our cultures, our indigenous cultures, for the longest time have embraced gender and differences that are very empowering for some of us. We rarely ever hear, or see, or use any of these images as we do education on HIV/AIDS.

JD: Any final thoughts as you prepare to move forward with this network?

MCB: On the website, there is a saying that we're going to "organize our anger and defend our happiness."

I am going to bet my life that Latinx people living with HIV have all the potential to transform our lives and our communities, one day at a time. For that, we need true and powerful solidarity from the rest of the movement. We need for folks that are in power and have resources to trust that we are leaders that are capable, that we know what we need and how to get there. We just need some resources to do it. And I would appreciate it if organizations that are established, that have resources, would reach out to us and provide us with support for us to actually become a reality. We need them to step aside and let us walk. Let us walk.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.