Maria Mejia & Jason Wood

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Photo by Sean Black

A Warrior’s Path
AIDS activist Maria Mejia and author Jason Wood talk about their new book, From a Warrior’s Passion and Pain, and life lessons learned from the experience
by Alina Oswald

Photo by Sean Black

Maria Mejia’s story may be an uncomfortable read for some individuals, but it’s a must-read for many of us. It talks about sexual molestation, abuse, drug use, violence, and HIV/AIDS in such a way that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t fiction I was reading, but the real-life story of a flesh-and-blood woman. The woman is AIDS activist Maria Mejia. The story is her journey of spiritual, and physical transformation, told candidly in her new book, From a Warrior’s Passion
and Pain
.

Upon reading her story, words from a Whitney Houston cover came to mind: “I’m every woman.” That’s because Mejia’s life reflects every woman’s life, and every man’s for that matter. What is unique about her story is that it connects to people from all walks of life. It’s relatable. Mejia, a native of Colombia, has specific experiences, but everyone will understand her battles and her triumphs.

Reading the book, one may wonder why she waited so long to tell her story. Truth is, she has been offered the opportunity several times in the past, but each time she didn’t feel she was ready, especially when she wanted to talk about more than HIV/AIDS, about her upbringing, her family and life in a street gang. But when Jason Wood, publisher of Kantanoose Global, an independent publishing house specializing in “sharing compelling stories about the human spirit,” contacted her, Mejia felt that she could trust him with her story. And now, a year later, From a Warrior’s Passion and Pain saw print.

I caught up with both Maria Mejia and Jason Wood to find out more about their collaboration on the book. During our conference call, they would chat with ease, sometimes anticipating what the other was about to say…just as old friends would do.

Alina Oswald: So, how did you two meet?

Jason Wood: I was on Facebook, browsing around, and I saw her name. Her middle name had HIV in quotations, [Maria “HIV” Mejia.] I thought to myself, it can’t be real. Nobody is that bold. I went to her page and started looking around, and realized it’s real. I messaged her that I wanted to talk to her.

Maria Mejia: To tell you the truth, I was not shocked, because I get messages like that all the time, from men and women. When Jason [contacted] me, I explained that I was HIV-positive, and that I’m an activist. My mission is to prevent new infections.

What made you decide to collaborate?

JW: Many of us have an experience [that we never fully process]. Say, we were molested or raped or something happened to us. We get older, but we never grow up…and I can say that from my own life. But Maria reinvents herself. And you look at the finished product right now, and she’s an incredible woman! She didn’t let any one thing [from her past] define her.

MM: [The book tells] exactly what I’ve been through, and then some, because I’ve been through so much, but it was very important for me to share my story. [In terms of collaborating on the book,] I felt that Jason and I were meant to be. We have similar backgrounds. I trusted him with my story. I’m glad that I made the choice, because he really [wrote it] as if it was me writing it. We are a team!

Jason, could you explain the book writing process?

JW: It took over one year to finish it. We went at a pace that was comfortable for both of us. In my experience, you can’t rush somebody to go through the most intense parts of their life. [The book] is not just about HIV. It’s a very intimate look into her life. A lot of times we’d go back [and forth, until] we’d really narrow it down to her words, her feelings, and experiences.

For me, on day one, when I saw [the word “HIV” in her name, she was] my hero, but it has become more than that. By day 365 I have learned that this is a completely complex and diverse person. HIV is [only] one of a thousand things that she’s experienced. I don’t want to spoil the book, but between the foster home system, sexual abuse, having to live in different places, and adapting, adjusting, and surviving, I mean…she’s a warrior. She earned the title.

[What] I found very unique about the process [of writing Maria’s story, is that] there are other people she talks about [in the book], and she’s extremely protective of [their] privacy. No matter what has happened, she wanted to be fair and very cautious about other people’s feelings, even when those people did not [return] the [same] feelings. We were very careful to tell her story, and not go too far into the lives of other people [involved] in her story.

What do you want to accomplish with this book, Maria?

MM: I want to humanize the virus, and to prevent new infections. I want people to understand that no matter what struggles they goMaria cover web

through in their lives, it’s not the end. It is all about how [they] react to the situation, manage to pull through [and] continue to fight, because life is about that—good and bad moments. I’m a fighter by nature. I still continue to fight.

To me, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve done or what you’ve been through. The important thing is what you are today, what you do now. I don’t let my past define me, but I [use] my past and my present to teach people to have a more positive future.

In the book, you talk about the “misunderstood chimera that is HIV,” and speak to readers from all walks of life, in languages they each understand. Why is that important?

MM: The education of HIV has helped me in my activism, because I’m relatable to everybody, not only in the Latino community. I could speak to the biggest thugs in jail, which I have, and they would relate to me; to doctors, and scientists, people in Europe, young, old…. I can reach anyone. Anybody can relate to me.

[HIV education is important because] HIV is still here. Unfortunately the statistics show a rise in infections. We need to educate [everybody, and show them that they] can overcome any obstacle with dignity; that they should not be ashamed of their past. The forgiveness that I gave [those who hurt me] was a gift to myself, because I could not be chained to that hate. It’s within us to make that [kind of] change. By doing that we can change the world, one person at a time.

You also reverse HIV stereotypes, in particular when it comes to the topic of women and the disease. 

MM: There’s still a lot of stigma, misinformation, and lack of education out there. [People who are not infected or affected by the virus, don’t think of HIV.] So it’s very important for me to talk about women and HIV because of that, and also to give hope to the hopeless, because there are a lot of women with HIV who feel worthless, [or not worth of anybody’s love.]

One can live and love while living with HIV. My wife, who is HIV-negative, and I have been together for almost seven years. HIV doesn’t define who I am. There is life after the diagnosis. It’s not an easy road, but it’s not the end.

Anything you may want to add, Jason?

JW: I think that, unlike other diseases and conditions, [when it comes to HIV/AIDS,] information itself can be a huge preventative medication. Not for people that have contracted [the virus] but for billions and billions of people that have not. You talk about women, but the problem is, it still isn’t cool for a guy to be reading a book or watching a program about HIV.…

There’s a chapter in the book [that talks about] a guy who’s hitting on Maria [and cannot believe she has HIV because she’s too pretty.] It sounds comical, but that’s typical, [even] in 2014. When you’re in the world of HIV/AIDS and medicine, it seems silly. But when you’re not in that world, it’s common….You need to realize that there’s no typical face of this virus.

*

In the book Mejia mentions that “thirty years from now, we could have a new generation that barely remembers the old days of HIV. [Making sure that doesn’t happen is] up to us.” I asked her what her thoughts were on the progress we’ve made so far in finding new treatments, and possibly, a cure.What I really want, because I’m really tired of having HIV, [is] a cure. [But] I don’t think it’s going to happen within at least ten to fifteen years, because the truth is that [AIDS is] a business,” she says, worrying that profits are ultimately trumping people’s lives but hopeful that researchers will prevail and deliver a cure or vaccine despite the drive for money. When she speaks to HIV-positive and negative teens, she reminds that, while HIV is not a death sentence, medications are no joke—they often come with another set of problems, such as toxicities and side effects, no matter what the benefits. “This is like getting chemotherapy for the rest of your life without a break,” she says, stressing that if a cure is not forthcoming then she wants improvements on medications to make them less toxic.

Mejia’s story is a story of human resilience that takes the readers on a journey of self-discovery, while experiencing the full spectrum of emotions. An important take-away from this story is Mejia’s ability to “take the shame out of the game,” as Wood refers to it. Once people are not ashamed or afraid anymore of their past, they can learn from their experiences, and open up the much-needed conversation about unpopular, yet vital topics, such as HIV, drug use, violence, or abuse.

After all, nobody is ashamed today of having breast cancer, or diabetes, anymore. The same has to happen with HIV/AIDS. And for that to be possible, the conversation about HIV/AIDS has to become a topic of discussion at the dinner table. Maria Mejia’s story helps jump-start this conversation around many dinner tables across the world, because her story is relatable to many people, and because we are not so different after all.

To find out how to purchase the book click here. Find out more about Jason Wood by visiting:www.kantanoose.com. Connect with Maria “HIV” Mejia via Youtube :
www.youtube.com/user/Mariasjournal; Twitter: @MariaHivMejia; and Facebook: www.facebook.com/mariahivmejia.

Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.