There are hundreds of thousands of Latinxs living with HIV in the U.S. Alexa Rodriguez is one of them. The undocumented immigrant from El Salvador was 21 years old and living in Texas when she was diagnosed. It was a discovery that she tells FIERCE came as a complete shock. Particularly because the person who gave it to her was her boyfriend, whom she trusted. He had initiated the idea of forgoing condoms during sex, despite the fact he secretly knew of his own status.
Of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S., 220,000 are Latinx.
According to DoSomething.org, more than a third of the Latino population diagnosed with HIV receive detection testing too late. Within a year of becoming diagnosed, their illness typically advances to AIDS.
Since her initial diagnosis in 1998, Rodriguez has managed to maintain her HIV status through a careful medical regiment. It’s a positive note that she had never imagined possible the day her test results came back positive.
“The first thing [I thought when I was diagnosed] was ‘dead,'” Rodriguez says. “I mean, I had no information about it. I felt betrayed by the person I loved.”
For Rodriguez, the news was so shocking and devastating that she decided to return to her home country of El Salvador so she could prepare for her death.
Twenty-years later, however, she’s back in the U.S. and living her life to the fullest.
Fear, discrimination and societal stigmas surrounding the virus can increase the likelihood of being infected with or transmitting HIV.
Studies have revealed that people who suspect they have HIV, or who have been diagnosed with it, will often avoid seeking treatment, counseling and further testing out of fear of having their status found out. Undocumented Latinxs are also less likely to seek treatment because of concerns related to arrest and deportation.
For Rodriguez, these fears became magnified the moment she received her diagnosis. She admits that she left the clinic as soon as she learned about her status, and didn’t wait to hear about treatment because she didn’t want her friends, who were waiting for her, to suspect anything.
Those fears were heightened once again years later, in 2009, when she chose to return to the U.S. while seeking asylum from police officers and gang members who had abused her.
Fortunately, many Latinas living in the U.S with HIV or AIDS have stories that have not been marked with a tragic ending.
Almost twenty years have passed since AIDS was declared as a “severe and ongoing health crisis” in the Latino community. For years after the virus’s discovery in 1981, medical experts and researchers viewed it as a death sentence. Thanks to medical advancements, these days a person with HIV can live a lifespan similar to an average, non-infected individual.
This is certainly the case for Rodriguez, who has come to view her life and story as one worth sharing. These days, she uses her experience as a trans woman living with HIV for two decades to work as an HIV counselor and to advocate for trans women with the Trans Latin@ Coalition. In 2012 she was granted a green card, and this month she’ll fill out her application for U.S. citizenship. Her HIV status can no longer legally affect her citizenship.
She admits the process of coming to terms with her diagnosis was possible because of the many people she saw living with HIV and thriving. For her, perseverance has been essential to survival.
“There is a hope. There is a second chance to live,” she says. “Find someone in your community, someone you trust. Don’t suffer in silence.”