Of all the laudatory adjectives that one might rightfully use to describe Richard L. Zaldivar, the first one that comes to mind might be “persistent.”
In 1993, Mr. Zaldivar’s dear friend David Ruiz seroconverted. In response, Richard founded The Wall Las Memorias Project, a groundbreaking community health and wellness organization dedicated to serving Latinx, LGBTQ, and other underserved communities in Los Angeles, California. (More on that later.) Inspired by a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Lincoln Heights community of Northeast Los Angeles, he also came upon the idea for a memorial, commemorating the lives of Latinx LGBTQ folks who died from complications due to AIDS, a space where cultural barriers to HIV/AIDS education and outreach could be addressed and overcome. Richard organized the first annual Noche de las Memorias (Evening of Memories) for World AIDS Day 1993. That night, he shared his vision for an AIDS monument, a place of remembrance and healing for those still here, a tool to start a conversation in the Latino community about HIV/AIDS.
His plan for a monument immediately encountered obstacles. The first obstacle was, sadly, institutional homophobia. “Upfront Latino politicians and the City of Los Angeles would say ‘I support your work,’ but in the background. They couldn’t give their support and they didn’t feel comfortable. Some of the city councilmembers were afraid to support us or they were homophobic.” Opposition came even from the LGBTQ and HIV communities. Since Zaldivar’s plan entailed using public funds, “Many in the HIV community fought against us because they feared that providing money for the monument would take money away from them, away from their projects.”
Perhaps the most painful opposition for Richard came from a small group of “right-wing Catholic folks who opposed the project and were very homophobic. They did their best to organize against us. We even got some death threats.”
Born in 1952 to a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother, Richard is a deeply religious Catholic. “As a gay man who came out late in life, I struggled with reconciling my faith with being gay. But I realized that God had created me, and I was able to separate the institution of the Church from my relationship with God.” It was his faith, his relationship with God, that enabled him to go into the churches in East Los Angeles that were most adamant in their opposition to the monument, and begin to open a dialogue about HIV and LGBTQ people. Because he was able to approach these church people with respect, he was able to reach out to Latino mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, ministers and priests, educating them, building goodwill in those churches and in the communities they serve. He has said that he never felt he had to leave God behind to be a gay man or a forceful advocate for society’s dispossessed. “We really need to involve the entire community for true change,” he said.
He recalled one such meeting for a Mother’s Day dinner with clients (gay men) and mothers who lost their children to AIDS. “I had this old two-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary that I took to the meeting. I set it in the middle of the table we sat around. I talked with them about Mary’s love for Christ and compared that to the love they felt for their sons. They were deeply moved. I came to think of them as ‘Mothers of The Wall Las Memorias.’”
Finally, after eleven years of reaching out to and educating the community, cajoling politicians, and scrounging for funding, Richard’s vision of an AIDS monument became reality. His work garnered $400,000 from the State of California and another $150,000 from the City of Los Angeles to construct the monument. On World AIDS Day, December 1, 2004, The Wall Las Memorias was dedicated in Lincoln Park, with over 1,500 members of the community in attendance, making it the first publicly and privately funded AIDS monument in the nation. The monument, designed by architect David Angelo and public artist Robin Brailsford, takes the shape of a Quetzalcoatl serpent, an Aztec symbol for rebirth. The monument consists of eight wall panels: six murals depicting life with AIDS in the Latino community and two granite panels that contain the names of hundreds of individuals who have died from AIDS. The monument also includes a serene park setting with benches and an archway set in garden areas for personal meditation. The site of the monument was chosen for its rich cultural and artistic history with the Latino community and its proximity to the local AIDS Treatment Center at County USC Hospital, the Rand Schrader AIDS Clinic.
That’s the power of persistence!
The Wall Las Memorias Monument is currently undergoing a $850,000 renovation, funded with support from Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo and from Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Hilda Solis. The renovation project, led by Perry Cardoza of Nuvis Landscape Architecture, calls for a new irrigation system, fresh landscaping which will include fifteen fully grown trees, new walkways, and state of the art LED lighting. The renovated monument will be rededicated December 1, World AIDS Day. The event will be part of a week-long celebration which will include an Ecumenical Service on November 28 honoring AIDS caregivers and Las Posadas, a Latino traditional community holiday celebration on December 4. The week-long celebration will include: live musical entertainment happening in and around the monument site, community resources, and the special rededication ceremony with elected officials, community leaders, healthcare advocates, and others. Along with the rededication of the site, The Wall-Las Memorias will also unveil more than 300 new names of loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS collected from the community and engraved onto the monument. The list of names is updated every December 1, World AIDS Day.
Service to the community has been the hallmark of Richard’s life for more than forty years. “It all goes back to my Catholic upbringing. I was raised to give back, to be of assistance, to emulate Christ. That has informed everything I’ve done.” His initial way of giving back was through politics. Early in his career, he worked with the Los Angeles City Council and the City Attorney’s Office; he also served on the Los Angeles County HIV Prevention Planning Committee and as Co-Chair of the Public Policy Committee of the Los Angeles HIV Commission. He was elected to the L.A. County Democratic Central Committee (1974–80) and the California Democratic State Central Committee (1974–84). In 1980, he was elected to the National Democratic Convention as a delegate for Senator Edward Kennedy. He joined President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and was recognized by the President at the 2016 White House LGBTQ Pride Reception. In 2020, he was elected again as a convention delegate, this time for President Joe Biden.
A lifelong L.A. Dodgers fan, Richard worked with management to create “Strike Out AIDS” at Dodger Stadium in 2001. The initial event drew a crowd of over 42,000, each of whom received a special 32-page bilingual commemorative Strike Out AIDS supplemental program. The event now occurs annually.
Mr. Zaldivar’s most significant contribution to the Latinx LGBTQ community, and his most enduring legacy, is the community health and wellness organization, The Wall Las Memorias, which he founded in 1993. “Nobody was addressing Latino HIV/AIDS issues at the time,” he has said. “In the early 1990s, when people talked about HIV/AIDS and Latinos, there were some services being provided to the Spanish-speaking community, but nothing was provided to English-speaking Latinos.”
Under his leadership, the organization has created culturally competent programs to reach out to Latinx and other underserved populations; they have developed HIV, substance abuse, and mental health prevention programs in a holistic and spiritual manner. The Wall Las Memorias serves low-income and hard-to-reach communities throughout Los Angeles, educating community members on the importance of HIV and AIDS, substance abuse prevention, mental health stigma reduction for LGBTQ transitional-aged youth (TAY), transgender women health and wellness, non-binary health and wellness, and community building in the marginalized communities. The organization has created a safer place in those communities for dialogue, community building, education and prevention services for this devastating epidemic. To ensure that the public health infrastructure is inclusive of all communities, all programs and services at The Wall Las Memorias are provided free of cost and are available to all members of the community, including free HIV testing and counseling.
Their men’s health services include HIV testing and counseling; “Re-Act Now,” a program that empowers Latinx gay, bisexual, and queer men ages 18-24 to address issues pertaining to mental health, stigma reduction, substance abuse prevention, and HIV/Hep-C education utilizing the power of queer art, drag, music, and culture; “Young Advocates for Action and Sustainability (YAAS),” a program that promotes health, wellness, and leadership among young gay, bisexual, and queer Latinx and African-American men ages 15-29; and peer-led community support groups for men who identify as gay, bisexual, queer, or questioning for the purpose of building brotherhood, creating change, and nurturing leadership skills.
The Wall Las Memorias also serves transgender persons with healthcare referrals, counseling, and linkage to hormone therapy. Their Trans Health Program aims to reduce the health disparities experienced by transgender women of color. They provide free HIV testing, linkage to care, and preventive health resources such as PrEP and PEP. The group hosts a weekly transgender women’s support group called “She Her Hers.” The peer-led group promotes healthy living through culture, faith, health, and wellness. The organization also serves non-binary, gender non-conforming, and questioning individuals; their “Enby Entities” support group provides space for building community, creating change, and nourishing leadership.
“Our goal,” Mr. Zaldivar said, “was to create a wrap-around service that provides HIV testing and counseling, but also addresses other community health issues, like substance abuse, racial and gender disparities, homophobia and transphobia and providing leadership development to young LGBT community members. We currently have a staff of thirty-five people dedicated to serving the whole community.”
Although The Wall Las Memorias’ facility was closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was able to continue their services virtually utilizing Zoom for their support groups and education services. “The only service we offer that actually suffered during COVID was HIV testing because, of course, testing cannot be done remotely.” The group responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by maintaining an updated list of local resources and services and offering assistance navigating through these resources. They also instituted the “Stop the Spread: Protégé Tu Familia” community-driven campaign to educate community members about COVID-19 dangers and safety practices, offering free resources to community partners in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles, San Gabriel Valley and beyond. For example, Protégé Tu Familia held a town hall on July 28 to discuss how to protect ourselves and our families from the Delta variant and to share rental assistance resources and review tenant rights. “Just like HIV, COVID-19 disproportionately affected Latinx and other communities of color. We were able to continue offering those communities culturally competent information about the virus and how to stop its spread.”
Mr. Zaldivar is especially adamant about providing culturally competent information about PrEP in Latinx and other communities of color. “If we want to see more Latino men and other men of color on PrEP, new prevention campaigns are needed that target them,” he said. He has called for more PrEP capacity-building training for healthcare professionals who work in communities of color and more training is needed in small cities and rural areas, which are usually the last to have access to and implement new practices.
Persistence and resilience have shaped Richard’s life from an early age. As a very sickly child with asthma, with two alcoholic parents and few friends, he experienced shame and isolation growing up. He managed to kick his own alcoholism in 1989. Getting sober, Richard gained the confidence to enter public advocacy. He has spent more than thirty years advocating for the underserved, often in communities and places where no one else would go, and often in the face of hostility from homophobic politicians, religious leaders, and ill-informed community members. “Again, it goes back to my Catholic upbringing. When I see an injustice, I have to act.”
The Wall Las Memorias invites you to the Rededication Celebration over the weekend of December 1, 2021, at the Monument in Lincoln Park. They also invite community members at large to submit the names of loved one’s lost to AIDS complications. New names will be engraved onto the name panels on the monument and revealed during the weekend celebration. The names submission process is currently free of cost and open to community members from throughout the country. For more information and to submit a name, please log on to: www.thewalllasmemorias.org.
For more information about photographer Tommy Wu, log on to: tommywuphotography.com; Instagram: @twpmood. Make-up/hair: Christina Moré; Instagram: @makeupbychristinam. Assistant: Griffin Riley; Instagram: @darkcrustacean.
Senior Editor Hank Trout interviewed Martina Clark for the October cover story.