[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ight here, right now, let me just heave out a sigh: Ahhhhh…..
Good. Feel better. The angst of the Big City of L.A. is behind me! I’m in Ojai (pronounced OH-hi), but I call it, “Omnipotent Ojai.” It’s a petite California town nestled in the Topatopa Mountains of Ventura County, not far from Santa Barbara. I’m cuddled-up here at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, on a women’s retreat with my Florida friend, Maria Mejia.
I could write chapters about Maria. But let’s just say that this feisty broad is a head-on activist. Infected with HIV at sixteen (it was her first sexual experience with a boy), she has devoted her life to the community. She’s Global Ambassador of The Well Project, an interactive organization dedicated to supporting HIV-positive women, and she speaks around the planet about HIV prevention and treatment. Maria, forty-two, currently lives in Southern Florida with her wife, Lisa.
Last year, Maria co-authored the book, From A Warrior’s Passion and Pain, an account of her twenty-five year battle with HIV. She vlogs and blogs, volunteers for the Red Cross, is an HIV educator for Jackson Memorial Hospital, a co-chair for Women and Minorities Outreach for Dab the AIDS Bear Project, and a member of Janssen Pharmaceuticals digital advisory board. This dynamo has been featured in many campaigns, and she’s appeared in magazines, on billboards and television. Maria has spoken at conventions, including the CDC’s campaign, “Let’s Stop HIV Together,” The Stigma Project, and the Office of Women’s Health’s National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NWGHAAD). Ms. Mejia is in the early stages of founding a nonprofit in her native country of Colombia, as well.
Upon our arrival yesterday at the resort, on the bedroom bureau was a welcome note, along with milk and cookies. Yum. Last night Maria and I went browsing and carousing around charming downtown Ojai. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of Channing Tatum, who just moved here! No such luck. Bollocks. When we returned to the Inn, we found our beds turned down, with soft gentle music playing on the radio. That’s class. By the by, the Inn supports more than one hundred local charitable organizations.
Maria and I met in Florida last year when I was speaking at the Broward House, an all-encompassing AIDS organization in Fort Lauderdale. We haven’t had much time to get to know one another, so this was my opportunity to delve right in. This afternoon Maria swam in the Olympic-sized pool and I took a Yoga class at the Fitness Center. A young attractive instructor volunteered to carry my gear back to the room for me. When we arrived, Maria wasn’t there. I invited him in and we chatted. He was very sweet, but more on that for another column.
This evening, Maria and I order room service and we chow-down here on the oversized balcony of our luscious room. The grandiose view before us is impossible to describe, kids. It’s not quite sundown and we face lush mountains dotted with green foliage and large flourishing trees—so serene.
Ruby Comer: I’m so exhilarated that with your busy schedule we got to do this retreat! You are certainly a person I look up to, Maria. Whom do you consider a hero in the epidemic?
Maria Mejia: Oh…Ruby. Thank you. [She looks off momentarily.] OMG, I have many heroes! [Maria rapidly rattles names.] Larry Kramer, Peter Staley [A&U, July 2015], Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014], Dawn Averitt [founder of The Well Project], Ryan White—he’s my angel, Dab Garner, Hydeia Broadbent, Josh Robbins, Mondo Guerra [A&U, January 2013], Jack Mackenroth [A&U, November 2010], Mary Fisher [A&U, February 2001], Elizabeth Glaser. I love all my fellow activists! [She smiles…]
I’m curious—whatever happened to your first boyfriend from whom you contracted HIV?
He died of AIDS.
What an awakening that was for a young teen—Zowee! When did you first hear about the epidemic?
I believe it was 1986. I remember seeing images of Michael Jackson and Elton John with Ryan White. I remember seeing on TV emaciated gay white men in beds dying. It was then called GRID. Then there was Kimberly Bergalis, who said she got it from her dentist. Several years later I was infected, which was 1989 and then I was diagnosed in 1991 on April 18 at the age of eighteen. Magic Johnson came out in October of that year.
I recall his coming out as if it were yesterday, Maria.
I knew about [the deaths of] Liberace, Rock Hudson, and Freddy Mercury. I never thought it would happen to me, Ruby. In my mind, this was a gay man’s disease, for prostitutes, IV drug users, hemophiliacs, and for people who received blood transfusions.
[I seriously gaze into her mesmerizing, dark exotic eyes.] How can we better reach out to the communities who have the highest rate of infection?
I don’t only focus on the LGBT or Latino communities. I focus on Humans, as this is a condition that affects us all. I have a gift to be able to reach all cultures, races, sexual identities, religious people, and atheists. I educate them and give them the information. Once I tell my life story, they usually listen.
Yesterday while we were eating frozen yogurt at Bliss….I still can’t believe that they had one flavor sweetened with stevia. I was in heaven. It’s about time. They’re trendsetters. I hope other yogurt places take heed, as usually most popular places are loaded with sugar and artificial crap. Anyhow, moving on. You were telling me about the abuse and trauma in your childhood. How did you come through that?
Well, it was not easy! Forgiveness was very important. I forgave everyone who hurt me, including myself. I worked on my self-esteem and became the caregiver of my grandparents after my HIV diagnosis in 1991. This taught me that I was someone and not the useless whore I was told I was going to be as a child. [I shake my head in disgust.] I also worked on my spirituality. If a person wants to change, they can. I never want to be viewed as a victim. I…am…a…survivor.
Applause, applause. Tell me again how long you lived on the streets?
From the age of thirteen until I was seventeen-and-a-half. It was very traumatic, Ruby.
I talk about this in my book. I survived the streets. [She cracks a half-smile.] I learned to survive in any circumstance….
I admire your strength, Maria. What’s currently your challenge in living with HIV?
I try not to complain. I come from an era where we were dying. I deal with daily fatigue and my immune system is always hanging on a thread no matter how long I’ve been undetectable. I take Truvada and Tivicay daily.
Do you boost your immune system in alternative ways?
My mother owns a health food store and it’s part of our culture to combine traditional with alternative. I take vitamin IV infusions. I also take CoQ10, selenium, milk thistle, fiber, vitamin C, B 12, vitamin D, probiotics, and NAC [N-acetyl cysteine]. I juice and eat very healthy! I also drink a lot of water daily. I exercise and meditate, too.
Happy that you take care of yourself, Sister. What truly revs you, darling?
Well…the USA has 50,000 new infections every year—and this does not need to happen. HIV is not a death sentence anymore, but it is a…life…sentence. I will continue speaking my story all over the world. I will continue working for women and girls globally through The Well Project. I will continue helping those that feel their life is over. And most importantly [she pauses, stands up, and announces to the silent hills] I will continue to save lives!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].