"Si se puede" or "yes, one can," a term coined by Dolores Huerta, could be heard in speeches by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the early 1970s. It's a slogan that not only served to unify Latinx people, namely Mexican Americans, but also raised awareness around the plight of farm workers. It is still used almost 40 years later for various causes. Little did we know that a decade after the saying became popular, the world would face a health epidemic -- HIV/AIDS -- it had never seen before, and Hispanics would become a disproportionately affected group.
For the past twelve years, my life has largely centered on this very group, even though I myself am not Hispanic. At 14 years old, I began to take food and clothes down to a local orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico, through missionary work with my church. Almost immediately, it was apparent that I needed to learn the language if I wanted to be effective. I learned formal Spanish including reading and writing in school, while I learned what we call "street" Spanish from monthly visits to Mexico.
Later on, Tijuana would grow to become like a second home. It's where I met my now ex-girlfriend and possibly the very place I contracted HIV. It was in this border town, a melting pot of both U.S. and Mexican culture, that I learned about life. The people, ways of life, and spirit of helping fellow humans I've seen in Tijuana has always inspired me. It's also opened my eyes, educated me with real-life experiences on the plight of undocumented workers and given me a bird's eye view on the rippling effects of poverty.
Although I am Caucasian, I have continually immersed myself in Mexican culture. Whether it is television, food or music, I am "Tijuanense" -- Spanish slang for someone from TJ. I was given the Spanish nickname of "Juanito Perez" (a name I got after working as a painter in my early teens) among others such as "Miklo Velka" and "Güerro." I may not be Mexican by blood but I often say I am at heart.
My love for the Spanish language and knowledge of the culture has served especially useful in my HIV advocacy. I help moderate the largest Spanish-speaking international support group on Facebook, Grupo Internacional para Personas con VIH/SIDA y las Personas Afectadas, founded by fellow HIV advocate Maria Mejia. With over 18,000 members from across Latinx America, the group has given me a unique perspective not only of HIV here in the United States, but also on the challenges faced by the Latinx community across the world. Whether it is antiretroviral shortages due to the political situation in Venezuela or a lack of one-pill-a-day treatment options in countries such as Mexico, change is necessary.
Culturally, this virus remains a highly stigmatized and hush-hush subject within the community. Far too often, the voices of Hispanics go unheard, in some cases due to fear of social rejection due to the simple act of being open about one's status. As discussed in the group on Facebook and elsewhere, various factors that can contribute to the stigma, including male machismo, lack of education/awareness, religious beliefs, language barriers, immigration status and poverty. I have great regard for the power of these issues, informed by my personal experiences and my efforts to appreciate the diverse cultures the Latinx community. I am committed to being a strong ally.
To those of us who are not Latinx, I urge you to put the term "si se puede" to use by uniting with our Hispanic brothers and sisters to look beyond our differences and break the stigma. At a time when Hispanics make up almost one-third of new HIV infections and the alarming news that one in 36 Latinx men (and one-quarter of gay Latinx men) will become HIV positive if current trends continue, it's more important to speak up now than ever. We must support the work of Latinx leaders to get information about treatment as prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) out to the Hispanic community. By doing so, we are not only chipping away at the stigma, but also saving lives along the way.
A battle isn't won with a single soldier but rather with an army, a team in which each person's role contributes to the overall group goal. It's my hope that as an ally I can continue to lend a voice to the voiceless and a helping hand to a community that often lives in silence, alienated from the HIV/AIDS conversation.
If you are a Latinx person living with HIV or know someone who is, I would encourage you to visit the HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Latinos at TheBody.com. If you are in search of a Spanish support group online check out Grupo Internacional by clicking here.