I came to the United States with a half-empty suitcase, one hundred and eleven dollars, and a stubborn determination to get an education. One afternoon back in Colombia, my mother had told me that the only thing she could do to give me the education that I wanted was to send me away. She said, “You are going to struggle a lot and the odds of failure are high, but at least you’ll have a chance.” One of the strongest memories I have of Colombia is the feeling of hopelessness and fear. The combination of fragmented capitalists expansion, endemic social exclusion, and political corruption generated an endless civil war that left the country in a state constant economic, social, and political crisis. Colombia was also a place plagued by pervasive homophobia. Stories of gay men being sodomized and lynched by policemen in the outskirts of cities were common and terrifying.
When I first came to the United States, I alternated jobs at jewelry factories with temporary work as kitchen help for college cafeterias across Rhode Island. It was as a kitchen boy that I had my first contact with Brown University. I remember the first days of school when students returned to Brown at the end of the summer. I kept running back and forth from the dining area to the kitchen at the bottom of the main dining hall, “the Ratty,” carrying trays full of leftovers. Brown was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, a combination of solid red bricks and pure dream. It was a dream way out of the reach of a young Hispanic immigrant struggling to survive on his own.
Six years later, I find myself at the same dining hall where I first worked at Brown. I am having breakfast with my mother on commencement day, and I am part of the 2005 graduating class at Brown University. The journey from kitchen boy to Brown graduate is a story of endless hours of hard work, the courage to follow my dreams, and the discoveries I made through the journey. The most important of these discoveries has been my commitment to the empowerment of those affected by social exclusion and inequality.
My journey to Brown was not an easy one. By the end of my senior year at Central Falls High School, I had been accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design, a dream for most of the students in the Art-Portfolio class. At Central Falls, college was only another unattainable dream, another source of frustration one would joke about to get through the day. That year, I was not offered a scholarship to attend RISD, and I decided to enroll at a public art school in Boston, the Massachusetts College of Art. There, I focused all my energy on strengthening my portfolio to reapply to RISD, and by the end of the spring semester I had been accepted with a full scholarship. After my first year at RISD, I needed a summer job and I took one as a counselor for Steppingstone Summer Camp. I never imagined camp was going to change my life forever.
Camp Steppingstone provided a safe environment for children between the ages of five and fourteen years old who had been affected by AIDS and HIV. Our campers were mostly American ethnic minorities, children of low-income families. Some of them had already lost their parents to AIDS, or they were severely ill themselves. Anger, isolation, and pain often dominated their emotions, but these feelings did not entirely consume their tenderness and ability to enjoy life. By the end of the summer, I felt frustrated by my inability to change the lives of my campers and confused about my priorities in life. I had always believed that HIV did not discriminate. Yet, my experiences at camp showed a strong correlation between the HIV infection and the socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity of the individuals infected. Even within the same minority group, it seemed that HIV was always selecting its victims among the most vulnerable and disenfranchised individuals, such as single mothers.
By the end of camp, I had questions that RISD’s art curriculum could not answer, so I cross-registered for three academic courses at Brown while continuing my artistic training. Through my classes, I did research on welfare states in developed nations, immigrants’ cultural and economic assimilation, and the deterioration of democracy in Colombia. By the end of the semester, I decided to transfer to Brown as a full-time student to pursue research on racial discrimination, social exclusion, and inequality and their impact on health and education outcomes among inner city youth.
After years of work in HIV and AIDS, I have come to understand HIV as a virus that thrives in communities where people have been disempowered at the social, emotional, and political level. As a sexually transmitted infection, HIV becomes the physical manifestation of social forces that exist beyond the physical body, but which are embodied in the physical experience of living with potentially deadly infection. Stigma and isolation fuel HIV as much as substance abuse and trauma. Among gay men, HIV infection is enmeshed with homophobia, which in its essence is an experience of violence. Among women and men who survive sexual abuse, HIV infection is often the manifestation of violence itself, trapped within the body and the experience of traumatization. In this context, testing becomes the first essential step to break the cycle, to identify the infection, to face one’s own vulnerability, and muster the courage to live.