HIV survivors Jerry Rivera, Jose Ramos and Manny Ahorrio received Vida/SIDA's ( Life/AIDS ) first annual resilience award at the Vida/SIDA World AIDS Day commemoration in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood Dec. 1.
About 60 people attended the candlelight vigil at La Casita de Don Pedro, a community walk and a fundraising dinner at La Casa Puertorriquena.
A project of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center ( PRCC ), Vida/SIDA Bartolo Hernandez de Jesus HIV/AIDS Initiative focuses on promoting culturally responsive health care/resources that enable health affirming behaviors within Chicago's Puerto Rican/Latino community.
"This year we are doing something different with this vigil. Instead of being solemn we are celebrating those who are living with HIV and honoring those who have passed due to HIV/AIDS with a Celebration of Life poster," said Jorge Cestou, Vida/SIDA project director.
Following Cestou's remarks Jose Lopez, executive director of the PRCC, spoke about the history of "La Casita de Don Pedro" and the reasons why Vida/SIDA was founded. "We really needed to understand AIDS and that people could live with AIDS and if they died from it they shouldn't be stigmatized. The stigma was that this was a gay disease so we had to take on the homophobia in our community ... to be fully committed to dignify every member of our community regardless of their sexual orientation. That became a major theme of the work that we did," said Lopez. "So it's in that spirit we are celebrating tonight. In many ways tonight is a celebration of life."
Dr. Roberto Sanabria, founder and member of PRCC's board of directors and director of Equal Opportunity and Access at Northwestern University, served as the evening's emcee. Sanabria also spoke about the history of Vida/SIDA and the positive impact the organization has had on the community over the years.
Juan Calderon, director of Vida/SIDA and chief operations officer of PRCC, spoke about Vida/SIDA's new initiatives. "I'm happy to announce that we are expanding our services with multiple partnerships," he said. "We are partnering up with Northwestern University's IMPACT program to provide services to young gay men ages 13-17 in Chicago. That is a funded program through the Chicago Department of Public Health.
"We also expanded our HIV-testing services in Pilsen. We have also initiated a partnership with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago to provide 15 units of scattered site housing for Latino youth and families across the city of Chicago."
Upon receiving their awards from Cestou; Rivera, Ramos and Ahorrio shared their life testimonies including how and when they found out they were HIV-positive.
Rivera shared that dancing helped him deal with the mental and emotional aspects of his HIV status. "I didn't know how to get past my status and dancing was my outlet," said Rivera.
Ahorrio noted that he is a veteran of the U. S. military and has a degree in culinary arts. "I've followed all of my dreams. HIV shouldn't stop you from following your dreams," said Ahorrio. "Don't let HIV conquer you, conquer HIV."
Ramos explained that at first he let his HIV-positive status consume him but that's not the case now. "We need more programs like this [Vida/SIDA] because they are so important for the communities they serve," said Ramos. "As for HIV there is going to be a cure. We just have to have faith and keep moving forward. "
The 2013 Vida/SIDA annual report highlights were shared by Sandra Candelaria, Vida/SIDA's director of women's programs. Candelaria shared that Vida/SIDA served over 1,200 clients in 2013, 1/3 of those were female and less than one percent were trans* clients. Next year, Candelaria noted that Vida/SIDA will be expanding their outreach to the trans* community. The report included information about the disparities in HIV among ethnic and sexual minorities, the Vida Health Center, various prevention initiatives and housing services.
See www.facebook.com/vidasida and www.prcc-chgo.org/category/vidasida for more information .