Here To Inspire

La Vida Latina



 A lack of family support twice nearly cost Carlos Hernandez his life. As an effeminate child growing up in conservative San Diego, he suffered violent abuse from his Guadalajara-born father over his apparent homosexuality. “Broken nose, popped lip, broken teeth, head through the wall,” recites Hernandez, now 38. When he was 15 he attempted suicide, he says. Leaving his four older siblings behind, he went to live in a foster home in what he calls a bad neighborhood in San Diego. Soon after, he dropped out of school, took off on his own, and managed to support himself with a job at SeaWorld. He was infected with HIV by the time he was 17.

His parents have remained married for half a century. “They’re a typical Latino family — where the mother has no say,” Hernandez says. Over the years he’s managed to maintain a relationship with both his mother and father and his four siblings. At 18, he disclosed that he was HIV-positive to a sister in secret. In his mid 20s, when he told one of his brothers — “another macho Latino who was in the Marines” — the brother responded, “I love you, you’re my brother, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hernandez’s apathy about his future ran parallel to the tenuous support he received from family. Not bothering to enter into the proper medical care that had by then been available for a decade, he nearly died in 2006. “When you don’t have the support — if you don’t talk about it — you’re not going to deal with it,” he says. “It’s a lonely struggle. My dad would’ve been a lot happier if I had had cancer. At least then you can die with some dignity in his eyes and that’s ‘respectable’. ”

Twenty-five year old Anthony Solder suffered similar dismay when, early last year, he approached his family with the news that his former boyfriend (who still maintains he’s HIV-negative) had infected him shortly before their breakup. While one of his two older brothers became a strong supporter, the other, a pharmacist, responded, “How could you do this to the family?” and cut all ties with him. In the weeks that followed, his Puerto Rican mother began furiously sterilizing things he’d touched and refused to drink out of the same glass.

“I understand the stigma that my family had already, because they’re not educated,” says the native New Yorker who is in school in Tampa to become a registered nurse. “I was like, ‘Listen, you cannot be acting like this toward me,’ ” he told his mother, “ ‘You cannot contract it from water, you cannot contract it from using my restroom.’ ”

Ruben Acosta, a 19-year veteran of living with the virus, says what he sees as an “anti-intellectual tendency” in Latino culture makes discussing and learning about HIV more challenging for those infected and their family members alike. “It’s like my brother says, ‘Don’t start talking smart to me,’ ” Acosta explains. “Trying to elevate yourself with just using the proper vernacular in the language, sometimes in the Latino community, is looked down on. Oftentimes, the community isn’t ready to say such things as ‘nondetectable’ or ‘T cells’ or ‘viral load’. ”

Word choice also illuminates what Acosta sees as a certain defeatist identification with the virus among HIV-positive Latino men. “When they identify, they say, ‘I’m HIV,’ ” he says. “And I say to them, ‘You’re not HIV. You’re actually HIV-positive. But you’re hot, you’re sexy, looks like you’ve got a lot to offer — I mean, there’s a lot about you that you are that I’d love to know more about!’ ”