Desperately Seeking Robert
New York City-based artist and activist Rob Ordonez talks about coming to America, HIV, art & activism
Text & photos by Alina Oswald
Throughout the centuries, immigrants (most of them, I believe) have considered America a beacon of hope. Some have reached her shores in search for a better life for themselves and their families; others, to prove themselves to themselves and their families. Most immigrants look for new beginnings in the New World they hope to call “home”—most immigrants, but not all.
Rob Ordonez came to the States in 1998, at the age of twenty-five. He was not seeking a new beginning, but rather spending the last years of his life in a country he’d known, until that point, only from afar, through movies and books.
If the name Ordonez [pronounced Ordóñez] sounds familiar, it’s because many might have seen his artwork at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Center, GMHC, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan and other venues; or maybe they’ve seen Rob, himself, as captured by many artists, including photographer Lester Blum [A&U, August 2016]. Rob Ordonez is a street and fashion photographer, actor, model, and also HIV activist living and creating in New York City. But his story doesn’t start in New York City, but rather south of the U.S. border, in Mexico.
Ordonez was born in Mexico City. His family calls him Roberto, but here, in the States, he goes by Robert or Rob. He comes from a very large family (nine children), and also from a very conservative family. “My dad and all my brothers were very macho,” Ordonez remembers his childhood and teen years, as we chat in my studio. He remembers his father was very controlling and demanding. “They didn’t know that I was gay,” he adds. “I had girlfriends to pretend that I was straight. You had to have girlfriends, and boys on the side. The girls were very religious. And we’d say, ‘we have to save ourselves for marriage.’” And Ordonez would use that as an excuse not to take relationships to a next, more intimate, step.
Ordonez attended an all-boys Catholic school. Classmates “would call me ‘faggot,’” he says. “I guess they suspected it [that I was gay].” Ordonez pauses for a brief moment, as if pondering on what or if he was going to say more. “I used to be bullied in school,” he adds, “but I wouldn’t tell my parents. I would fight back. And when the whole classroom was bullying me, I would just cry and take it.”
As time went by, the bullying did not stop at school, neither did the pressure he was living under at home. “I was a very depressed teenager,” Ordonez says. “I was in the closet because I was gay.”
The depression drove him to the edge. He even considered suicide. “In Mexico we are allowed to carry guns,” Ordonez explains. “We all have guns. And so, I thought maybe I’m just going to shoot myself. Thank God I didn’t do it!”
In 1996, Ordonez was dating a flight attendant. The condom broke. They went to get tested for HIV. The flight attendant tested positive. On December 20, 1996, Ordonez received an HIV-positive diagnosis, too.
He still recalls how it felt receiving the news. “I had a panic attack in the clinic. I kept asking ‘Are you sure? Is it not a false positive?’” It turned out that it was not a false positive. “I was so scared. I remember I sat in my car and looked at myself in the rearview mirror. And I felt that the light in my eyes just [went out], as if a part of me just died.”
While the HAART treatments were made available during the mid-nineties, in 1996, AZT was still the main medication available to many of those living with HIV. It was “really bad for you, and it was expensive, too,” Ordonez says, speaking of AZT. “So, I didn’t want to take [AZT]. I tried natural medications [instead].”
A friend had told him about a doctor who was using holistic, natural ways to treat HIV. Ordonez soon discovered that these HIV treatments involved electric shock, having the patient take “natural pills” every several hours or spend about twenty minutes smelling a mixture of water with a drop of the patient’s own blood, and everything in between.
“They were very interesting treatments and his office was packed,” Ordonez says. “I even tried Reiki. And I [remember I] would go to sleep during the sessions because [I’d heard that] the human body is healing when you sleep.”
But despite all treatments, deep inside, Ordonez could feel that he was losing his battle with the virus. He felt like he was dying. And, at that time, he had no choice but to face his battle alone, because he couldn’t tell anyone about what he refers to as his “dark secret.” And so, he found himself locked inside a reinforced closet—he couldn’t let people know that he was gay, and after sero-converting, that he was HIV-positive.
In 1998, doctors gave him only five years left to live, and so Ordonez decided to run away from home and do what he’d never done before—travel the world. “I took my mom for dinner [just before I left]. And I knew that that was a good-bye dinner. I didn’t tell anybody [that I was planning to leave the country],” he recalls. “I just disappeared.” (His three best friends drove him to the airport. After his disappearance, his brothers ended up having a long chat with one of these three friends, who in the end had no choice but telling them the truth.)
Ordonez knew that he was going to miss his family, but he packed three suitcases and $9,000 (the limit that you could bring in to the States at the time, as a nonresident), and went to San Francisco. During his ten-day stay in the City by the Bay, he got his first tattoo and dyed his hair black. But after a few days, he found himself running into the same people. And so he traveled to Chicago where he stayed for yet another couple of weeks. He loved it, but his heart was set on New York City.
“I love Madonna,” Ordonez says with a smile. “And I saw this movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, and I said [to myself], I have to go to New York, desperately seeking, hmm, Robert.”
In New York City, he started doing “drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll”—dancing, and drinking, tattoos and piercing, as signatures of his rebellion. “Tattoos are beautiful. They make you unique and decorate your body,” Ordonez explains, showing me the ink on his arm.
“I was doing all these things,” he adds. “I went to Roxy and Splash [bars in New York City]. I was there all the time, hooking up with guys. And you know what? Unfortunately nobody would ask [about my HIV status].”
One night, at Roxy, Ordonez met someone who made him reconsider his options in life. “I told him I was HIV,” Ordonez says, “and he told me, ‘You know what, you should take care of yourself.’” When Ordonez mentioned that he was against taking AZT, the other guy pressed on, encouraging him to go to GMHC and “see what happens.”
The encounter turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Ordonez. “That guy scared me [in a good way],” the artist says, nowadays. “He was like an angel.”
Ordonez did end up at GMHC, and not a moment too soon. He got his blood work done. The results were worrisome—his HIV diagnosis was about to turn into an AIDS diagnosis unless he started treatment right away.
So Ordonez decided to go on medications, but starting on a regimen turned out to be easier said than done. That’s because he had allergic reactions to most of the anti-HIV medications. Some meds would cause him to break out in rashes from head to toe; others, to throw up “like crazy” or get dizzy. “I had to stop [taking] medications,” he says. “I went to hell and back trying to find the right meds.” So, finally, in 1999–2000, doctors put him on Trizivir, a three-in-one medication that seemed to work.
Ordonez also went to support groups several times a week, but found them rather depressing. And yet, while attending these support groups he got to meet nice people, and also made friends. That was important, especially for someone who was relatively a newcomer to the city.
Looking back, all these experiences have helped shape Rob Ordonez into the person he is today—an artist and activist whose name resonates in artsy and fashion-centric circles in New York City. Looking back, he’s enjoyed his “amazing journey” and the chance to follow his dreams. “Maybe the best thing that has ever happened to me was HIV,” he says. “Because before [my HIV-positive diagnosis], I wanted to die. Afterwards, I wanted to live. [My seroconversion] was like an eye-opener.”
Rob Ordonez might have become a New York City artist and activist, but he has always been, always will be, a part of the Latino community. And, hence, he has a unique perspective of how to talk to members of his community about the machismo culture maybe forever associated with this community, and also about how that culture might relate to HIV and AIDS.
“I think most Latinos, young people in general, are afraid to get tested for HIV,” Ordonez says. And when they test positive for HIV, “they keep it a secret until they get sick, because they [fear that their families would kick them out].”
The artist also believes that the machismo culture helps promote the fear of coming out and that, in turn, increases one’s chances of getting involved in behaviors that might end up leading to an HIV-positive diagnosis.
“That’s what happened to me until I was twenty-five,” Ordonez says, referring to how the macho culture affected him. Nowadays, Rob Ordonez looks back and almost smiles, thinking of those early days. Nowadays, he is undetectable, and thriving as an artist. He’s also a Visual AIDS artist who does his part fighting the epidemic by telling his story or creating HIV-inspired art, in hopes of educating others about the virus.
Maybe, at one point in time, Rob Ordonez was desperately seeking himself, desperately seeking to come out and be himself. During the process he rediscovered hope, the will to live, the freedom to be himself, and also to create art. He also discovered the power of love. This past September, Rob Ordonez started a new chapter in his life—he married the love of his life. And his large family came to celebrate the union. And on December 20, 2016, two decades after his HIV diagnosis, he opened a bottle of champagne and celebrated life. After all, “El tiempo Es el major regalo de Dios” or, as the Spanish saying goes, “Time is God’s best gift!”
Visit Rob Ordonez online at http://robertordonez.yolasite.com/ or on Visual AIDS, at https://www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/rob-ordonez.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.