Though we both live and work in Chicago, Rosa E. Martinez-Colón and I met at the US Conference on AIDS in Washington, DC in 2015. I knew right away that her AIDS work with the Latinx community in the Humboldt Park neighborhood had to be featured in my book Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community. Her experience right now, though, is both familiar and very different.
On March 15 the Governor of Puerto Rico decreed a new law, effective immediately, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, I was wrapping up the project in Puerto Rico, where I had worked for the past year, and was getting ready to go back home to Chicago. It was not to be. Things spiraled down from that day on, and today, 48 days after, I am still in Puerto Rico, away from my daughters, my husband, my family. Sure, I am fine and healthy, but away from my loved ones, which makes this quarantine a bit harder.
Needless to say, I have had plenty of time to reminisce and it is inevitable that I think back to the AIDS pandemic. I know that comparing these two epidemics has been a hot topic; some have been very vocal about comparisons, and I respect that. In my mind, however, it is something you can’t not do. We should learn from previous experiences and not using the lessons learned from the AIDS pandemic to inform our response to the current situation would be detrimental.
Let me go back in time for a moment. In 1990 I was 23 years old and without much knowledge about HIV. I got involved with CALOR (Comprensión y Apoyo a Latinos en Oposición al Retrovirus, founded in 1990 in Chicago) and helped it grow from a support group to a full-fledged organization. Those early days were brutal: the challenges of getting correct information, the learning to protect yourself and others, the misinformation that created terror among people. Who that has been in this field for so long doesn’t remember when family members would have loved ones living with HIV/AIDS eat with different utensils, disinfecting everything they touched, and sometimes even avoiding touching them? And how about the government’s response, or lack thereof? Those were trying times.
But we learned. Almost 40 years into the pandemic, there have been great advances, and with proper medication people are living longer and healthier lives, generally speaking. We still have a lot of work to be done as minority groups continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. But the days of traveling from hospitals to funeral homes are long gone.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Inadequate government response has resulted in the death of too many people already. Misinformation is abundant which contributes to an increase in people’s fears. There are no medications that can be used to combat Covid-19, and some of the ones that were being considered were determined to be potentially toxic. Minorities are being disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. In so many ways, some things have not changed.
What has changed arouses mixed emotions in me. The social distancing is awful. The inability to hug those we love, the constant fear of being exposed to coronavirus can take a toll on you. The stress that going out to get food and other essential products creates in me (and I am certain in many other people) is exhausting. Whereas before one would not think twice about going out for a grocery run, now an outing is a whole production that leaves me mentally and physically drained.
And then I fear for my loved ones. My sister, for example, who had SARS back in 2003 and has other underlying health conditions that make her more susceptible to being infected, is still working in Chicago, and her employer has not taken definitive measures to protect its employees. My friend who is HIV positive and is still working. She has not disclosed her status to her employer because she fears she may lose her job. Day in and day out she goes to work and prays that she is not exposed to Covid-19. Mind you, neither one of them are “essential workers” which makes their being exposed by their employers even more ridiculous.
Back in the 90s, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, I never hesitated to hug my friends and loved ones. Every Saturday in our support groups, I loved welcoming them and hugged and kissed them, anticipating an evening where we would cry hard but also laugh just as hard. Today, it has been 48 days since I last hugged someone. And I miss that. I can’t wait to be able to do it again; to be able to see family and friends and embrace them in a tight hug and kiss them and tell them how much I love them. For now, I have to make do with Zoom, WhatsApp or FaceTime video calls. I have to send virtual hugs and kisses. But there will be a time when we will be able to do that in person again.
And I hope that we are better prepared for the next pandemic. I hope we will look back at the HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 pandemics and say “it was hard; it was heartbreaking, but we have learned and now we can respond better.”
Let not all these deaths be in vain.
A native of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Rosa is a founding member of C.A.L.O.R. (Comprensión y Apoyo a Latinos en Oposición al Retrovirus), a grassroots effort for Latinos impacted by HIV in Chicago. For 30 years, Rosa has continued her activism in the social services field. Most recently, through her company Nativa Strategies and Solutions, LLC, Rosa directed a project in Puerto Rico focused on providing trauma-informed services to children and adolescents that suffered trauma as a result of Hurricane María.
While in Puerto Rico, Rosa has maintained a close relationship with Ministerio en Jehová Serán Provistos and Casa Ismael, two AIDS Service Organizations, for which she has served as Board Member and Consultant.
Rosa holds a Master of Science in Public Service Management from DePaul University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Management from North Park University. She is currently pursuing certification as a Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence.