La Vida Latina
BY Benjamin Ryan
November 18 2010 5:00 AM ET
Then on a day like any other in 1993, he returned to his cell with some heroin he’d scored and, as he recalls, “Something just clicked in me. I was like, You know what, Sam? You’re doing the same thing you did in the streets. And you’ve got 20 years to do. So I said to myself, I’ve got to stop this. So I just stopped. I had to take an inventory of myself.”
He got his GED. Then, fed up with the poor medical treatment offered to him and his fellow HIV-infected inmates, he went to the law library and approached a friend who was in for life. “Teach me the law,” he said.
By 1995, he initiated a civil suit against the corrections institution for misuse of funds for their care for HIV-positive prisoners. He started an HIV support group and by 1998 got a job on the inside as a law clerk.
Hernandez experienced a similar moment of reckoning. A hospice nurse approached him as he was waiting to die and said, “Why are you giving up? Why aren’t you fighting anymore?”
“That night,” he says, “I remember getting on my knees and I just prayed. I said, ‘God, just give me a second chance.’ And I kind of made a deal with him. I said, ‘If you give me a second chance, I will completely turn my life around. I will dedicate my work to sharing what I’ve been through with other guys who are avoiding their status, who are hiding from it.’”
The process of healing included helping his parents cope with both the shock that he’d been hiding his serostatus from them for 15 years and their lack of education about the virus. Eventually, a social-service organization for HIV-positive Latinos and their families in San Diego called CASA was able to provide the Hernandezes with the right kind of education and support to bring them together again as a family.