Finding Your Gate to Life
Motivational speaker Latresa Rice talks about growing up as an AIDS orphan, her AIDS activism work, and new book
by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]on’t be stupid all your life. At some point, get a clue.” The words of Latresa Rice’s grandmother traverse the motivational speaker’s new book, as if to reinforce the idea behind reaching our goals and living the successful life we dream of. In that sense, Gate to Life shows, as its subtitle points out, that, indeed, “You Choose the Life that You Shall Experience.” But Gate to Life does much more than that. This enlightening, educational and inspiring read is also a tell-it-like-it-is kind of read, heartbreaking, but also hopeful, offering the author’s own account on her life and her (in many ways) unique take on HIV and AIDS. Losing her mother to AIDS-related causes at a very young age, Rice was raised by her maternal grandmother who made sure her granddaughter didn’t only get a clue and find the gate to her life, but also that she found the gate to a prosperous, productive life that, in turn, would inspire and enlighten others, too. And her grandmother would be proud to see Rice now.
Latresa Rice is not only an author, AIDS activist, and motivational speaker. She uses her Detroit-based company, It’s Time Enterprise, as a vehicle to help others, in particular young individuals, find the gate to their own successful lives. As noted on its website, the mission of It’s Time Enterprise is to “empower AIDS orphans, youth and others who have experienced hardship, to use their God-given talents to succeed in life despite their upbringings, societal pressures and many other barriers that attempt to block them from reaching their destinies by sharing wisdom through public speaking and providing them with the tools necessary to succeed.”
And that’s still not all. Rice is not only the image of success, but also one of optimism. It is impossible not to feel hopeful and optimistic, and also enlightened when in her presence.
I got to get a taste of that surge of positive energy when I called Rice to talk about her new book, and also her inspiring work.
As an AIDS orphan, Rice has a unique perspective on the pandemic. She explains that right now statistics mainly speak of people living with HIV or AIDS, and yet “we don’t even know the percentage of those who are considered AIDS orphans.” She explains, “AIDS orphans are someone who lost one or both parents due to AIDS-related causes before they were eighteen years-old. [They don’t] have to have the disease or be in orphanages or things like that [to be considered AIDS orphans].”
It could be extremely traumatizing for a child, having to watch his or her parent transition from lively, vibrant and active to being sick and, ultimately, dying. And that child cannot really tell anybody about it, for fear of being portrayed differently…like, for example, “some people might not want to touch you,” as Rice points out.
Sometimes that kind of trauma shows itself as anger. As a child, Rice was angry all the time, not necessarily knowing why. Not knowing, at least at the time, that she was depressed having lost her mother at such a young age.
And yet, as a child, she couldn’t just say that her mother had died of what later on she learned was HIV/AIDS. She recalls one day, when she was asked, in class, to do an assignment that called for her to go in front of her class and talk about her mother, her parents. And she remembers being in tears and not wanting to do that assignment, because then she’d have to keep replaying and remembering what had happened, over and over again.
“I didn’t know what [my mother] died of,” Rice reiterates. “I had to figure it out. We were told that she died of pneumonia. It wasn’t until I’d seen my dad engaging in a sexual act with someone I thought was my uncle, when I was about thirteen. And then I had a health class in ninth grade, and I started piecing it together. Because in health class the teacher said that someone who dies of AIDS might have something like pneumonia. For me it was a trigger….And that’s how I found out that [my mother] had died of AIDS.”
That was a time of discovering a lot of things, as Rice explains. One of those things was that her father also had the virus.
Some say time heals all wounds. It might be true. And yet, we carry the scars of some of these wounds with us, inside of us, for our remaining lives. Some experiences remain forever imprinted in our memories, if nothing else but as tiny yet meaningful footnotes.
Time, life, and also her grandmother’s advice have propelled Rice toward the successful life she made for herself. She did take her grandmother’s advice to heart, and did get a clue. As for her grandmother’s famous words, “Don’t be stupid all your life. At some point, get a clue!” what that means, Rice explains with a smile in her voice, “it means, you may mess up, you may have made some foolish mistakes, but don’t allow that to be an excuse for you to [keep you from pursuing your dreams].”
For example, she remembers wanting to go to college, but not having the money to see her there. Taking her grandmother’s advice to heart, she decided she might not have the money, but that she had the wisdom to figure out how to reach her goal. “You need to figure out what is going to take to get there,” she reiterates, “and work the clues you get. You can’t just say I can’t do this or that. Those are excuses and are not acceptable. You get the clues necessary and make some changes, and it will happen for you. So, based on that, the best advice [to offer others] would be if you see that you’re going down the wrong path and you desire a change, than you do what it takes to be that change.”
Her grandmother also encouraged her to never give up, and to pursue her dreams. Today, that’s exactly what she advises others, in particular the youth.
Nowadays, Rice works with young individuals to inspire and empower them to find the gate to their own success. “For me it’s so important to focus on the youth because that’s our future,” she explains. “To ignore them means to ignore life itself.”
A lot of times the youth are ignored, especially when they don’t have any families. A lot of times today, they go through things that adults did not have to go through when they were young. Social media is one of those things. Social media can be used to promote a cause, show off one’s work, but it can also be used in a harmful, damaging way. If a student does something in class, chances are that it will be posted on social media, going viral at times. Sometimes that can be quite damaging for the student and/or others. “Today’s youth are dealing with a lot of new issues, but also [with] a lot of issues that we’ve dealt with,” Rice adds. “[I’m] focusing on the youth to make sure that they’re not being ignored, and that they’re being heard and empowered, and know that they can overcome these things. They don’t have to become statistics.”
Rice does everything in her power to make sure that young individuals do not become statistics in many ways, in particular when it comes to HIV. And speaking of HIV and HIV prevention in particular, Rice shares her excitement over the availability of PrEP, “a drug that is ninety-nine percent effective at preventing HIV,” she calls it. “It blows my mind that many of us are not aware [yet] that this even exists. And, you know, [HIV] is preventable. Abstinence is always the best,” she adds, “but in the same time, if you’re not going to be abstinent then the least you can do is engage in safe [sexual] practices to protect yourself and others.
“The message of the book is that our actions affect more than just us. A lot of times we say ‘It’s my life. I can live it the way I want to.’ But your life is interconnected with everybody else’s life. If you do something that affects you, it might affect everybody else in the society, because it’s not only you that exists.”
That’s true in so many other ways. For example, each person comes into this world with different gifts. If someone chooses not to share his or her gifts, then we all feel the void.
What I personally found remarkable about Latresa Rice is not only her inspiring and empowering story, but her personal take on life and staying positive, always uplifting not only herself, but others, too. And yet, she’s the first to admit that she, too, does get down at times. “But the longer you are down, the longer you stay down,” she says. “I limit the time that I’m down…to five to ten minutes. If I’m stressed out and upset then I may do something that I know is relaxing me—listen to jazz or classical music, also I pray.” She re-emphasizes, “I do what I need to do, but I know one thing. If I stay in that state then nothing will get accomplished. The longer you stay in that depressed state, the longer you will be there.” She goes on to say, “You choose the life that you want to experience. If you want to live a life of abundance, then you have to do the things necessary to experience that life.”
In order to stay focused on her goal and stay positive about her life, she sometimes uses “haters ringtones.” Available on Amazon, and also on CD Baby, haters ringtones are one-minute ringtones that one can use as an acknowledgment that someone who wants to say something negative is calling, about to spoil your day. “You can apply the ringtone to their phone number, so you know [their call] is coming,” she reconfirms.
On the It’s Time Enterprise website, Rice describes the need to have a haters ringtone in a way that might put a smile on someone’s face: “Are too many haters calling you? Your haters are your #1 fans. Know when your haters are calling and thank them in advance before you answer the phone!”
Truth is that sometimes blocking the caller is not possible, because sometimes the caller might be a relative or family member—hence, the use of haters ringtone. “The mere fact that they’re using their free time to call you [and tell you how bad you are] is an indication of how valuable you really are,” she says. She also encourages people to get themselves ready for such calls and to turn this negativity into something positive, in order to encourage themselves. “You listen to the lyrics of the haters ringtone. You recite the opposite [message] in the mirror to yourself everyday to prepare yourself to push that [incoming] negativity away. You prepare yourself, as if you’re walking up the stairs, rising higher and higher on your path. [Because after all] you choose the life you want to live.”
Hair and jewelry by Latosha “Lyssin” Rice of Lyssin’s Couture Salon Suite. Makeup by Tiffany Elder of Aisha Tiffany Studios.
Alina Oswald interviewed artist and curator Steed Taylor for the March issue.