By Samantha Melamed
In March 2002, Nancy Santiago learned she was HIV positive. That July, she tried to take her own life. But by December, she was being featured in the Inquirer as an example of the growing number of Latinas being infected with the virus.
Today, Santiago, 55, has spent a full decade telling her story as the face of HIV in Hispanic Philadelphia. “Wherever they need a voice and a face for the Latino community, I’m out there. I don’t care who knows that I have it. I have it under control; it does not control my life. And HIV is not me,” she says. “I’m a mother of five and a grandmother of 10, and I’m a Latino woman — and I’m HIV positive.”
Last Wednesday, Santiago was sharing that message on Lehigh Avenue outside Prevention Point, the public-health organization and needle-exchange provider where she works as a cleaning lady.
There, she was promoting her latest HIV/AIDS awareness endeavor: She’s one of five local people being featured in Positivo, a first-of-its-kind traditional- and social-media campaign run by the social-justice nonprofit Galaei. The campaign sets out to recast what it means to be Latino and HIV positive or gay in North Philadelphia.
Elicia Gonzales, Galaei’s executive director, says the idea was born after Galaei conducted a survey of North Philly Latinos, and found that most people “are affirming of gay Latinos and also of HIV-positive people.” But at the same time, they found, “There’s this myth out there that Latinos are homophobic, and that there’s still a lot of stigma around HIV in the Latino community.”
So, they decided to reclaim the term “positivo” or positive, says Louie Ortiz, who helped develop the campaign, which includes a series of postcards, posters and T-shirts featuring local people who are gay and straight, HIV positive and negative. “When people see the ‘positive’ symbol, they tend to think HIV, and then death,” Ortiz says. “I thought, if we can reappropriate and attach new meanings to it, then when people see that sign and see the word positive, they can approach it from a place that’s more loving.”
Galaei is releasing a new postcard each week through Oct. 12, which is National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. Each includes a black-and-white portrait by Ortiz and a unique “positive” message. Santiago’s reads: “I am positive that caring for my family means knowing my status.”
The final postcard will feature Ortiz himself. He was “adamant” at first that he would not be featured in the campaign — but, it turns out, there just aren’t that many Nancy Santiagos out there. Many of the people Ortiz approached for the campaign declined to participate, or backed out at the last minute.
“Being a brown gay man, I’m always living in the stereotype that I am [HIV] positive, or that being positive is only a gay man’s issue,” Ortiz says. “So it was difficult to get young, gay men to be a face of [this campaign]. It wasn’t just a one-time thing. It’s going to be hanging up. It’s going to be on social media. Your friends, your family may have conversations around it.” To his relief, the feedback has been positive; friends and family told him the campaign was long overdue.
As for Santiago, this is well-worn territory. She says she can’t even count how many times she’s told her story. First, back in 2002, she told her children: Her daughters cried. One ran to the trash can and vomited. Her son punched a hole in the wall.
Then, before that first Inquirer article came out, she told each of her co-workers, one by one. She’s told reporters for the Al Día and El Sol newspapers. She’s told school assemblies and audiences at City Hall. She told the world in a 2003 ad campaign for the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium (TPAC).
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, in my opinion. I can imagine how many people might think, ‘Did she get it because she was using drugs? Or did she get it because she was out in the street, doing unprotected sex?’” she says. “I’m not down on nobody, but that’s not how I got it. I fell in love and trusted the wrong the person, and this person had AIDS. I say, ‘What do you think — grandmoms don’t get AIDS?’”
She says the stigma of HIV is still out there, especially among…
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