AIDS Advocate Maria Mejia Creates Community, On-Line & in Real Time
Text and Photos by Sean Black
An active volunteer with the American Red Cross, the Miami-Dade County Health Department, and Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami, Maria has served as a peer educator providing outreach, training, and testing to thousands. Along with supporting her local South Florida communities she has created a hopeful international presence through an on-line Facebook support group that already has over 1,700 members. The overwhelming response to the International Place for People with HIV/AIDS, and the People Who Love Us led to her recent addition of a Spanish-speaking forum, Grupo Internacional para Personas con VIH/SIDA, y las Personas Affectadas, which already has over 600 members. Maria uses social media to help change misconceptions surrounding the transmission of the virus as well as peacefully combat ignorance, hate, and bigotry.
Along with Facebook, she communicates through Twitter and has created numerous YouTube videos in both Spanish and English, sharing her life story and putting another face to HIV. Maria is a “social butterfly,” but without any of that label’s negative connotations. She is a delicately evolved Monarch who doesn’t just flit about—she soars.
Radiant in the “wings” of her gossamer blouse, Colombian-born AIDS activist, educator and blogger Maria Mejia looks mucho caliente when we meet for the interview. Her peacock-feathered earrings pop against her shiny, jet-black hair as she skillfully manages the five-inch stilettos of her russet open-toed pumps. “You would have never recognized me,” promises the thirty-eight-year-old, referring to her early teenage years protectively camouflaged as a tomboy in sweats, gold teeth, and a bilateral buzzcut signature of the 1980s. “I was a thug.”
Disguising for many years the beauty she reveals today, Maria is able to now candidly open up about the horrors of her painful youth, her toxic involvement with a street gang that led to her infection with HIV, and her allegiance to her Roman Catholic faith after a transformational journey of love that finally set this Spanish butterfly free.
“I am no longer that worm trapped inside of a cocoon,” states Maria, with gratitude in her voice. “I have been transformed.”
Nothing short of a miracle as the first two decades of her life read like an endless script from CSI: Miami. Consistently ranked as one of the worst cities in the country for violent crimes, Miami has been her hometown since the age of two. Beginning our interview Maria eases back into a folding desk chair as she recollects her traumatic childhood. Her emotional discomfort is evident as she shifts back and forth in the rigid metal seat.
“My first memory was at the age of three when I was sexually molested by a family member,” states a saddened and softly spoken Maria. “It was my first memory as a child—my innocence being taken away at such an early age.” To say that the adults in Maria’s life let her down is an understatement of large proportions. “I was a very angry person because of the abuse, the men in my life, particularly, were supposed to protect me and all they ended up doing was hurting me the most.”
Besides this abuse, Maria’s own father, whom she has since forgiven, was an exacerbating contributor to her mounting psychological pain. “My father was very abusive both emotionally and verbally towards me and my mother; there was a lot of screaming and fighting.” Maria remembers the vicious words that would accompany her father’s erratic mood swings. “He would tell me that I was nothing and that I would end up like my twenty-nine-year-old stepsister Yolanda who was brutally murdered in 1980. I was only seven years of age when they found her body stuffed inside the trunk of a car.” The pain of this incident along with her father’s hurtful words will never fully go away, she shares.
Unable to deal with the turmoil of her broken home life, Maria was a persistent run away. She was in and out of youth halls and foster care programs. “I was a juvenile delinquent who was a menace to the other children. I would encourage them to runaway with me.” Continuing her path of rebellion at fourteen, Maria joined a notorious gang that will remain anonymous for her protection. “I was broken. I lived that lifestyle with them because they were the closest people I had to a family.” Maria felt safe, but was unaware that her first boyfriend, the leader of the gang, was using IV drugs, which led to her contracting HIV.
For years, unaware of her infection, Maria continued her spree of self-hatred, surviving the best she could while vacillating between bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide. By the age of seventeen, no one in the foster care system was able to handle Maria. She was forcibly returned to her mother’s house, a place she had deliberately avoided for years. “I had no more options, no one wanted me. My own mother was afraid to let me back into her home. She was frightened of the person I’d become and that I would be a bad influence on my younger brother, Alex.” Maria remembers overhearing the conversation at the door between her mother and the police officers who escorted her home. Referring to when she becomes a legal adult, one of the officers said, “Botala para la mierda,” which translates roughly to “throw her to the shit.”
Maria thankfully was done. “I wanted to straighten out my life.” After several months of being nourished back to health, Maria decided to put her life on track. She joined Job Corps, a program for economically disadvantaged youth and was soon relocated to Kentucky. Maria underwent routine medical screenings. After a number of weeks of disregarding notes to visit the clinic to discuss her lab results, Maria opted to go for an unrelated reason. “I couldn’t have imagined what I was going to be told. I feared that maybe I had lung cancer since I smoked cigarettes.” Maria remembers speculating possibilities but none like the one that she was to receive. “When I entered the room the infuriated doctor looked at me and inquired as to why I hadn’t responded sooner to his medical summons?” He had Maria’s full attention. “He didn’t prepare me at all. With a horrified look in his eyes he blurted out, ‘You have AIDS.’” Maria’s life flashed before her eyes. She remembers thinking, ‘I won’t ever get married and I will never have any kids.’ Maria was devastated. The year was 1991 when AIDS was mostly identified as a gay man’s disease. “How could this happen to me?” She then recalled stories in the media about Ryan White and Kimberly Bergalis, the young woman infected by her dentist in Florida. When she went back to her dorm she encountered another girl crying. “She was pregnant, and I remember giving her a hug. I then told her my news and she gave me a hug.” Maria decided to leave although the president of Job Corps welcomed her to stay, as she was not the only teenager in the program infected with HIV. Maria just wanted to go home to die.
“When I retuned my mother never used bleach, and we shared the same utensils,” she says. “She has always been my best friend providing me with unconditional love. She is my rock and tells me that she will not let me die. To this day she has never let me see her cry over my disease.”
Like her mother, Maria is Roman Catholic. “I have a very strong belief in God and I am very spiritual.” Maria is also a lesbian and has been out for eight years. She has been in a long-term relationship with her partner, Lisa, who is HIV-negative. “We pray the rosary together every night and thank God for finding one another.” Being Catholic, an advocate, and open about her sexuality hasn’t been easy for Maria. “I actually have been stigmatized more for being a lesbian than I have for being HIV-positive.” I have people congratulating me for the wonderful work I do and then ask why I taint it all with my lifestyle choice—and that hurts.”
Next to attitudes toward homosexuality, Maria feels the conservatism in Latino culture fosters some of the harshest attitudes toward HIV/AIDS. “Many Hispanics see it as a moral disease, and that it is a curse from God. Because of these stigmas and myths people infected with HIV in the Latin community choose to live in shame and hiding and that’s why I am putting my face out there. I want to show people there is another face of HIV, a Hispanic female, one that is Catholic and lesbian, too, by the way.”
Shortly after returning from Job Corps, Maria returned to Colombia with her mother to take care of her ailing grandparents, an opportunity she calls her saving grace.
“I got to find out what true family was all about: loving and caring. Through this process I realized that I wasn’t the one dying and instead could shower my grandparents with tenderness and affection.” Maria remembers bathing her grandfather and giving him his daily shave. She used his straight razor, mug, and brush, the things he was accustomed to his entire adult life. “I would gently lift his aging skin to get the closest shave. I would tell him, ‘Pareces un Dandi,’ which is a flattering compliment describing dapper Latin men from the days when my grandfather was in his handsome prime.”
She provided the same level of care for her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. “She loved red lipstick. I would apply it to her lips and then smooth cream on her face. It was comforting to her.” Maria was pleased to give her joy. “When I was done I would bring her to the mirror and say, ‘Look! How beautiful you are!’”
On special occasions Maria would dress her grandparents up and celebrate with them by playing Argentinean music by Carlos Gardel, the King of Tango. “Music made my grandparents so completely happy and, today, tango is one of my greatest joys. A gift I cherish from both of them.”
Maria’s painful past was shed in the home of her dying grandparents while a delicate replacement was set free. “I am not that person anymore,” tearfully concedes Maria. She is a rare species who, through loving others, has been granted the wings to fly.
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.