It’s been 20 years since Pedro Zamora captured the attention of the nation as a cast member of MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. Reality TV was younger and less jaded then. Into this new medium stepped a clean-cut, crazy handsome, young Cuban immigrant from Miami, who was also unapologetically gay and openly living with HIV. More importantly, he had a mission: however much time he had left, he had committed his life to fighting AIDS.
I first met Pedro a few years earlier in Washington, D.C., where he was giving the keynote at a national conference for professionals serving homeless and at-risk youth. Pedro was an astonishing speaker; poised, insightful and fully comfortable in his role as a subject matter expert and peer. He spoke directly to what led to his HIV infection at an early age: his own misplaced efforts at finding love and acceptance after the early loss of his beloved mother, the absence of any meaningful AIDS prevention education in his school, and the ways in which he’d sometimes been exploited by older men.
Pedro acknowledged how uncomfortable these topics made some feel. He let them know that those feelings were all valid, explaining that moving through that discomfort was essential to any real progress in breaking down the stigma that fueled the epidemic.
Pedro knew how to connect deeply with any size audience and he used that ability to reach so many young students, peer educators, and medical and social service professionals. His openness about HIV and AIDS helped build up the mental and emotional awareness so many of them needed to fight against the stigma and new infections in their own lives, work, and communities.
While MTV magnified his impact, I believe Pedro’s real legacy was being such an important voice at a time when our nation desperately needed somebody to make connections between the personal, the educational, the cultural, and the political.
Even 20 years after his death, Pedro remains relevant because he’s a compelling example of how social and cultural changes are often driven by the restless hearts and the capacity for commitment and innovation found especially among young people.
If we truly want to achieve an AIDS-free generation, then we must actively challenge, motivate, and support the emerging generation of young leaders who are as committed to ending the epidemic today, as Pedro was 20 years ago.
That’s why the National AIDS Memorial Grove has established the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship Fund, to help ensure that Pedro’s aspirational example remains a powerful one for young people pursuing service and leadership in the fight against HIV and AIDS. These scholarships, funded through individual donations and the generosity of companies like UnitedHealthcare, will support young people pursuing careers and public service to end HIV and AIDS.
Whether its becoming a researcher or practitioner on the front lines of medical breakthroughs, a social media expert exploring new ways to communicate globally, or an aspiring public servant who wants to work in the community or seek political and social change, the scholarship fund will be an important resource for them.
By supporting their pursuits, the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship Fund not only keeps the legacy of a true trailblazer alive, it hastens the day when AIDS is really just a memory, and the lives of those lost (and still standing) will truly find rest.
On World AIDS Day, the first scholarship recipients will be announced at the National AIDS Memorial Grove during ceremonies to honor, reflect and remember so many friends and loved ones, like Pedro, who have been lost to HIV and AIDS.
Still today, 20 years after Pedro’s death, the war against HIV and AIDS rages on. There is a new HIV infection every 10 minutes, mostly impacting young people. One in three Americans don’t know they’re infected, and despite perceived access to medications, less than 10 percent of HIV-positive Americans maintain stable viral suppression.
More needs to be done. More can be done. The Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship Fund will invest in the future of these young leaders as they carry their own version of the torch Pedro carried 20 years ago to end HIV and AIDS.
ERIC CIASULLO is a board member with the National AIDS Memorial Grove, overseeing the Pedro Zamora Youth Scholarship Fund. Ciasullo, based in San Francisco, was friend and supporter of Pedro, an is a long-time advocate for HIV and AIDS youth education programs. To learn more about the National AIDS Memorial Grove or to support the Pedro Zamora Youth Scholarship Fun visit AIDSmemorial.org.