A New Narrative Podcast Aims to Raise HIV Awareness Within Latinx Communities…

By Arianna Marsh | Harper’s Bazaar

In 1998, Pedro Julio Serrano became the first openly LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive person to run for elected office in Puerto Rico. Vying for a seat in the United States territory’s House of Representatives, he was ultimately forced to run as an independent due to homophobia within his party. “Later, I withdrew my candidacy, because I received death threats,” says Serrano, a longtime human rights activist who now works as the director of public affairs at Waves Ahead, a nonprofit that provides aid to Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable communities. “The brake cables on my car were cut. Someone graffitied the door of my apartment. It made me move to New York City in the United States, because I didn’t feel safe.”

While much has been achieved over the past 25-plus years when it comes to quashing sex-based discrimination, the HIV epidemic—and the stigmas surrounding it—continue to disproportionally touch minority and disenfranchised groups including queer Latinx communities. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019, Hispanic/Latino people made up 29 percent of the new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas, despite making up only 19 percent of the population overall. What’s more, cultural factors like the valuation of machismo prevent individuals from disclosing their sexuality and HIV status, and seeking testing, treatment, and support.

In an attempt to speak directly to Latinx communities, ViiV Healthcare, the only pharmaceutical company solely focused on HIV prevention, teamed up with entertainment studio Harley & Co. on a new podcast that not only provides information surrounding testing and treatment options—including where to obtain PrEP, a widely available medication that, when taken correctly, can help prevent contracting HIV—but also crucially aims to generate empathy and acceptance from those not directly affected by the virus.

“When you see yourself portrayed in a podcast, a program, or a show, it tells you that you matter, that your life matters, and that your story matters.”

Titled Love in Gravity, the scripted series includes six fictional stories from gay, bisexual, and queer Latinx and Afro-Latinx writers that feature characters living with HIV. Thoughtful and nuanced, each portrait aims to represent individuals and narratives typically left out of mainstream media, and spark conversations about HIV that might otherwise feel uncomfortable to those living with it, and their family and friends.

In one episode, tensions rise when soft-spoken Michel brings his first boyfriend home to a Mexican family reunion; in another, a man named Andres is forced to discuss his open relationship with his mother when she discovers his PrEP. “When you see yourself portrayed in a podcast, a program, or a show, it tells you that you matter, that your life matters, and that your story matters,” says Serrano, who in 2003 founded Puerto Rico Para Todes, a nonprofit LGBTTIQ+ and social justice advocacy organization. “This podcast also helps educate a broad array of people that might not have ever interacted with someone who’s openly living with HIV.”

Adds Sarah Hall, the podcast’s executive producer, “It really feels like the work of this moment is to find ourselves in each other, and stories are one of our most powerful tools for doing that. They are the doors and the windows into experience, they help us to cultivate solidarity, they make the unknown into something familiar, and all of that helps us to see ourselves and each other differently.”

Among the show’s impressive roster of collaborators is writer John Paul Brammer, who pens the queer advice column ¡Hola Papi! and is the author of the memoir ¡Hola Papi! How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons; Glee’s Kevin McHale; and Robin de Jesús, a three-time Tony-winning actor, best known for his Broadway roles in In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles, and Rent, as well as for his part in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 musical drama film, tick, tick… BOOM! “The podcast is such a great tool, because it’s entertainment but also serves a very specific community need,” de Jesús says.

In October, de Jesús and other Love in Gravity cast members performed select episodes live at the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS as one of ViiV’s many cultural initiatives developed to speak to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. Held in San Juan, the event aimed to highlight the impact of HIV in Latinx communities specifically, with a focus on Puerto Rico. “What I felt more than anything was pride,” de Jesús, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says. “There’s something different about performing for people face-to-face; ViiV recognizes the importance of community engagement.”

While new HIV diagnoses are decreasing in Puerto Rico, ViiV reports that nearly one quarter of newly diagnosed people meet the criteria for an AIDS diagnosis. (AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus.) What’s more, the territory has the worst PrEP-to-need ratio in the United States, meaning viral suppressant therapies are not reaching those in need of treatment. While a lack of funding, government prioritization—as a United States territory, Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in American Congress—and a decentralized and understaffed health care system are partly to blame, the role of recurring natural disasters is also paramount.

According to research conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, viral suppression decreased from 71 percent to 65 percent as a result of the impacts of Hurricane Maria in 2017, including transportation barriers, loss of electricity, the destruction of medical facilities, and a lack of basic supplies. Access to care was also reduced by 22 percent. Over the last four years alone, Puerto Rico has also experienced a string of deadly earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic, the monkeypox outbreak, and, most recently, Hurricane Fiona. “Crisis after crisis only compounds the problem and doesn’t allow for people to make sure that they can access the services and make sure that they maintain their suppression,” Serrano says.

When it comes to supporting Puerto Rico, both Serrano and de Jesús stress how important solidarity and investment is. “Americans need to invest in Puerto Rico and understand our goals, aspirations, and our history in order to make sure they do it correctly,” says Serrano, emphasizing the importance of support from Puerto Ricans living Stateside. “And it cannot just be when tragedy strikes,” he continues. “We do great things with little resources and with our hands tied behind our backs. For example, there are a lot of states that do not have a bill of rights for people living with HIV, but Puerto Rico does. If America starts looking at us, it might learn something.”

“It really feels like the work of this moment is to find ourselves in each other, and stories are one of our most powerful tools for doing that.”

“When you’re a colony, you’re consistently framed as the one that’s needing help when in actuality, the U.S. has taken a lot and not given,” de Jesús adds. “The first step towards solidarity is learning more about the history between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, visiting Puerto Rico, being respectful tourists, and providing for the local economies.”

Ultimately, ViiV’s grassroots approach to improving the HIV crisis in Puerto Rico and within other Latinx communities is what sets the company apart from others. As Marc Meachem, ViiV’s head of U.S. external affairs, explains, representation of the diverse communities impacted by HIV is reflected in their culture work, the diversity of their clinical trials, and beyond. For example, Meachem shares that through the organization’s Positive Action for Latinx Men initiative, ViiV is “engaging with local communities across [Puerto Rico] and funding critical work of local organizations to expand their reach.”

“The work they are doing is crucial, because they come to Puerto Rico, they listen to us, they work with us, they hire us,” Serrano says. “They make sure that our voices are heard and that we’re taken care of.”

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Devastation Impacts LGBTQ Residents Twofold…

By Tiana Randall | Teen Vogue

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, dropping more than 30 inches of rain across the region. The storm devastated the island, wiping out electricity and infrastructure just five years after Hurricane Maria left an impact that Puerto Rico still has yet to fully recover from. As many on the island still reel from the effects of Fiona, some in the LGBTQ community — who often struggle in Caribbean societies — have been left particularly devastated as they deal with discrimination, lack of access to resources, and trouble getting life-saving medications.

«We’ve been living crisis to crisis,» says Pedro Julio Serrano, human rights activist and director of Empodérate at Waves Ahead, a community-based organization that aids people LGBTQ adults, including those living with HIV. 

During the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS in San Juan from October 8-11, the stories of the Island’s HIV positive LGBTQ community were told to attendees from across regions as part of a live performance of the Love In Gravity podcast — a show dedicated to shining light on the experiences of queer Latinx people living with HIV. The podcast, produced by Harley & Co and presented by ViiV Healthcare, tells stories about this community that reflect the universal experience of love. In shining light on the island’s HIV positive population, local advocates reflected on the ways that recent storms have hindered their ability to help, and how the power of community has stepped in to provide mutual aid.

Serrano says that Puerto Rico’s ongoing crises — economicgovernmental, and health — are amplified for queer people living with HIV, particularly in the aftermath of a devastating storm. For Serrano, Fiona’s aggression only emphasized the island’s delay in recovery from Hurricane Maria and other environmental incursions. Due to FEMA’s reported mismanagement of federal funds and unrest at the local level, «it just crystalizes the colonial status of Puerto Rico and how we cannot make decisions on our own, in our own land.» 

“We don’t see the community-based organizations that are doing the real work getting that [federal funding] and those resources to make sure we rebuild from a community-based standpoint,» Serrano continues. For Waves Ahead, that means people living with HIV risk not having access to their medication, along with the proper communication and education surrounding the virus.

«Sometimes we get companies and entities from outside Puerto Rico [that] come here and they just want to come in and do things without consulting us, without understanding our culture and history,» Serrano says. But according to Serrano, ViiV Healthcare, which says it’s the only pharmaceutical company that is solely focused on HIV, has been intentional in listening to the locals and organizing with the queer community in mind. Viiv is one of the producers behind the Love in Gravity podcast. 

Marc Meachem, head of U.S. external affairs at ViiV says, “we wanted to engage with local activists on the island who are engaged in their community to help spread the word and check in on how the community is doing.”

In the days after Fiona hit, Waves Ahead organized outreach toward their participants. «We made sure all had their medications, plus we distributed warm meals two weeks after the impact. Food boxes were also distributed,» Wilfred W. Labiosa, Executive Director of Waves Ahead says. 

Still, Serrano says continuing to provide these services as physical spaces recover poses challenges. According to the New York Times, in the aftermath of Maria, at least three popular queer establishments were forced to shut down, leaving even fewer places for regulars to socialize and feel connected to a larger community. Now, with Fiona’s destruction, the queer community is once again left without some of these safe spaces, Labiosa says.

«We have community-based organizations that are very good at providing medication in Puerto Rico, but there are some people who have transportation problems, don’t have adequate housing, or don’t have the resources to get their meds,» Serrano says. «Even though the services are there so many people are not able to access them due to the infrastructure problem.”

But the impacts aren’t just physical. Labiosa says that the organization, both before and after Fiona, prioritized providing mental health services to participants, alongside their other medical interventions. For 74-year-old Diane Michelle, an Afro-Boricua transgender woman living on the island, this is particularly important. 

«[The storm] has impacted me emotionally, specifically my mental health; I can’t believe that the heavy rains of Fiona impacted so much of the island. We are not ready for another,» she says. 

Michelle says the storm has made the role the queer community plays in supporting one another crystal clear. «Although we acquired so many experiences as a community, we continue to be marginalized and moved to the side,» Michelle says. “After the hurricane, many haven’t supported, contacted, nor maintained their cordiality for a better way of living…the only mobilization that I see is from community-based organizations.”

That’s where storytelling comes in. According to Harley & Co managing director Sarah Hall, using the Love In Gravity Podcast to spread stories about people living with HIV is a form of mutual aid. The production that was put into place was meant to recognize that the faces of Puerto Rico should be «visible all the time,» according to Hall. «With the hurricane, we felt like after disaster stresses systems, it’s often the places where we see mutual aid. And, people don’t consider artists a part of that — rightfully, they think of the most immediate things, they think food, water, power, but I think there’s always a place for art in recovery, resistance, and resilience.”

Puerto Rican local and RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 contender, Alyssa Hunter seemingly agrees. «We need more people to start caring more about the health of Puerto Rico and with LGBT [communities] because the government doesn’t take the gay community seriously, especially with HIV,» she says. 

Hunter hosted and performed at the USCHA convention, working with the Love In Gravity podcast for the benefit of her community was «an honor to be a part of because it brought people from all over the world to this tiny island for one thing.» 

“The [LGBTQ] community has had to fight, we are always fighting, and as LGBTQ people we always have to keep moving forward,» she says. For Alyssa, working on teaching young kids about HIV and carving out safe spaces for her community has to start in the streets — something she’s hoping to achieve through her participation with the podcast.

As physical entities were shattered in the wake of Fiona, locals and community organizers have worked endlessly to make sure the voices and faces of the LGBTQ youth are kept alive. Love In Gravity’s stories have brought art as a use of mutual aid to expand access to critical information like housing access, HIV prevention, and queer safety back to the forefront.

«We are the community and we need to stick together,” Hunter says. “That’s why we have pride and podcasts like this — to speak our voices.”

Exigen traslado de mujer trans a cárcel de mujeres e investigación sobre abusos en su contra…

Ivana Fred Millán y Pedro Julio Serrano, activistas de derechos humanos, volvieron a exigir al Departamento de Corrección que trasladen de inmediato a una confinada trans a un complejo correccional de mujeres. De igual forma, exigen que se investiguen, de manera independiente, los abusos denunciados por Aurora.

Este reclamo surge tras las denuncias de maltrato en contra de Aurora, confinada trans, que se hicieran la semana pasada en un reportaje de Manuel Crespo Feliciano en Las Noticias de Teleonce.

«El relato de Aurora es desgarrador. Los abusos que cometen en su contra son inhumanos, ilegales e inaceptables. No hay razón alguna para seguir negándole el derecho de cumplir su condena en una cárcel de mujeres, como dictan los protocolos, como obliga la ley y las decisiones judiciales sobre el confinamiento de personas trans. Aurora tiene que ser trasladada a una cárcel de mujeres hoy mismo», aseveró Fred Millán.

Serrano y Fred Millán recordaron que «en abril de este año, la secretaria del Departamento de Corrección y Rehabilitación, Ana Escobar Pabón, se había comprometido públicamente a trasladar a Aurora a una cárcel de mujeres; pero esto no se ha hecho. Todo lo contrario, la trasladaron a otra cárcel de hombres y la han aislado de la población en general, cometiendo abuso cruel e inusitado».

«Aurora ha denunciado abusos sexuales, amenazas, agresiones y confinamiento en solitaria. Es hora de que se detengan estos abusos y se investiguen. El Departamento de Corrección tiene protocolos para ubicar a las personas trans en cárceles de acuerdo a su identidad de género. Es hora de que hagan cumplir esos protocolos en el caso de Aurora y de cualquier otra persona trans que se le esté violando sus derechos», dijo, por su parte, Serrano.

Como portavoces de Puerto Rico Para Todes indicaron que cumplir con ese protocolo para personas confinadas trans se trata de vida o muerte, ya que en el pasado se han dado casos lamentables como el de Penélope Díaz, una mujer trans que fue asesinada mientras estaba recluida en una cárcel de hombres.

Por último, indicaron que «las alegaciones de Aurora son alarmantes. Las denuncias de maltratos, abusos y hasta el confinamiento en solitaria deben ser investigadas de inmediato por entes independientes al Departamento de Corrección. Es hora de que Aurora vaya a una cárcel de mujeres como le corresponde».

Salud anuncia que no se cambiará procesamiento de medicamentos para el VIH bajo el plan Vital…

Por Primera Hora

El secretario de Salud, Carlos Mellado López, informó este miércoles que la agencia no implementará cambios en el procesamiento de medicamentos para los pacientes del virus de inmunodeficiencia adquirida (VIH) que poseen el plan médico del gobierno, Vital.

Según aseguró en comunicado de prensa, “se mantendrá el modelo actual de compras y provisión de medicamentos para los pacientes VIH del plan de salud de Puerto Rico”.

La afirmación la hizo luego de que el activista de los derechos humanos, Pedro Julio Serrano, alertara de posibles cambios en la provisión de medicamentos a las personas que viven con VIH tras el trabajo que realizara APPIA en las pasadas semanas de levantar la voz de alerta y comenzar reuniones que lograron este desenlace.

Alegó que el mencionado “cambio” lo impondría la Administración de Seguros de Salud (ASES), con la implementación del Programa de Reembolso de Medicamentos de Medicaid (Medicaid Drug Rebate Program, MDRP en inglés). Detalló que la acción afectaría “de manera adversa la compra y distribución de los medicamentos antirretrovirales para el tratamiento de VIH”.

Pero, Mellado López explicó que se realizó este miércoles una reunión “productiva” entre el componente salubrista del Departamento de Salud en la que se acordó mantener el actual procesamiento de medicamentos. En la reunión participaron la directora de ASES, Edna Marín; la directora del Programa de Medicaid, Dinorah Collazo; la secretaría auxiliar de Salud Familiar y Servicios Integrados, Marilú Cintrón; la directora del Programa Ryan White Parte B/ADAP, Norma Delgado, y el coordinador de ADAP, el Héctor López de Victoria, entre otros integrantes del Departamento.

“Los pacientes pueden estar seguros, vamos a continuar con el modelo actual de provisión de medicamentos de VIH a pacientes del plan de salud de Puerto Rico. Además, incluiremos en el modelo y acuerdo entre el Departamento de Salud (Ryan White/ADAP) y la ASES los inhibidores de proteasa para que ADAP (Programa de Asistencia para Medicamentos Contra el Sida) mantenga el ofrecimiento del medicamento como lo ha hecho durante los pasados 15 años a los pacientes del plan de salud de Puerto Rico co-elegibles a ADAP y ASES le reembolse el costo a Ryan White”, adelantó el galeno.

Actualmente, los pacientes VIH del plan de salud de Puerto Rico obtienen sus medicamentos VIH en una red cerrada de 45 farmacias a las cuales los medicamentos son distribuidos a través del Programa Ryan White y comprados a bajo costo por ADAP.

Serrano explicó, además, que el ADAP del Departamento de Salud provee y despacha los medicamentos que no se encuentran en el Formulario de Medicamentos en Cubierta (FMC) bajo el Plan Vital. Además, hay un acuerdo que permite que este programa de asistencia compre los medicamentos que deben ser cubiertos por ASES a bajo costo, y luego ASES les reembolsa, lo que redunda en un ahorro para el programa.

Preocupa cambio que afectará provisión de medicamentos a personas que viven con vih…

El activista de derechos humanos Pedro Julio Serrano se mostró preocupado con el propuesto cambio en la provisión de medicamentos a las personas que viven con vih.

El cambio que impondrá la Administración de Seguros de Salud (ASES), con la implementación del Programa de Reembolso de Medicamentos de Medicaid (Medicaid Drug Rebate Program, MDRP en inglés), afectará de manera adversa la compra y distribución de los medicamentos antirretrovirales para el tratamiento de vih.

«El gobierno está presto a implementar un cambio que podría poner en riesgo la salud pública, pero está a tiempo de corregir. De hecho, confío en que el Secretario de Salud, Carlos Mellado, haga lo correcto pues ha demostrado empatía y solidaridad ante nuestros reclamos. Si las personas que vivimos con vih no tenemos acceso a nuestros medicamentos dejamos de ser indetectables, lo que complica nuestro panorama de salud. Es urgente que el gobierno actúe, de inmediato, para mantener intacto el plan de suministro de medicamentos», dijo Serrano.

Actualmente, el Programa de Asistencia para Medicamentos Contra el Sida (Aids Drug Assistance Program, ADAP en inglés) del Departamento de Salud provee y despacha los medicamentos que no se encuentran en el Formulario de Medicamentos en Cubierta (FMC) bajo el Plan Vital. Además, hay un acuerdo que permite que este programa de asistencia compre los medicamentos que deben ser cubiertos por ASES a bajo costo, y luego ASES les reembolsa, lo que redunda en un ahorro para el programa. Los nuevos cambios suponen que ASES deberá asumir costos mayores sin el respaldo del programa de asistencia para las personas que viven con vih.

«Este cambio, de aprobarse, pondría en riesgo nuestra salud y nuestras vidas. Sí, nuestras vidas, porque si no tenemos acceso a medicamentos, se complica nuestro panorama y podemos desarrollar la condición que nos puede llevar hasta la muerte. Aquí se nos juegan nuestras vidas», dijo Serrano.

Por último, el portavoz de Puerto Rico Para Todes agradeció y se solidarizó con el trabajo que ha hecho la Asamblea Permanente de Personas Afectadas por el vih (APPIA) al destapar esta situación y reclamar al gobierno transparencia para que se garantice un proceso que permita que los medicamentos sigan llegando, sin obstáculos, a las personas que viven con vih.

Lamenta ataque de odio a club LGBTQ+ en Colorado…

El activista de derechos humanos Pedro Julio Serrano lamentó, hoy, el ataque de odio perpetrado esta madrugada en la discoteca Club Q en Colorado donde han muerto ya cinco personas y hay más de 18 heridos.

«Despertar con la horrible noticia de que ocurrió otro ataque de odio es desgarrador. ¿Hastá cuando? ¡Basta ya! Las personas LGBTQ+ somos seres humanos que merecemos vivir en paz, equidad y libertad. Mi solidaridad con los seres queridos de las víctimas y con los sobrevivientes de este ataque vil, mezquino e inhumano», aseveró Serrano.

El portavoz de Puerto Rico Para Todes recordó que una masacre similar afectó severamente a Puerto Rico hace más de seis años cuando 49 personas fueron asesinadas en Pulse en Orlando, donde 24 de las víctimas fatales eran puertorriqueñas.

«Nos ha tocado de cerca ese odio que arrecia, que se ensaña, que nos caza por culpa de la retórica de odio de los grupos fundamentalistas, de los políticos que nos usan de balones politiqueros para adelantar sus agendas divisivas. Es hora de que detengan esa guerra que nos han declarado a las personas LGBTQ+, pues solo queremos vivir en igualdad de condiciones. Ya basta de tanto odio —basta», concluyó Serrano.

Exige investigación independiente sobre irregularidades en caso de Kevin Fret…

El activista de derechos humanos Pedro Julio Serrano exigió, hoy, que se investiguen —de manera independiente— las irregularidades que se han ventilado públicamente sobre el mal manejo del caso de Kevin Fret.

«Es inaudito que empecemos a conocer de las irregularidades que se dieron al inicio de la investigación del asesinato de Kevin Fret. Es harto conocido que las primeras 48 horas son cruciales para poder esclarecer cualquier crimen. De lo que se desprende públicamente, la Policía fue negligente en su investigación inicial. Si a eso se le suman las violaciones éticas que se le imputan al agente investigador, estamos hablando de una posible negligencia criminal», aseveró Serrano.

El portavoz de Puerto Rico Para Todes exigió, además, que se investiguen las alegaciones por la fiscal del caso que del Departamento de Justicia, en aquel entonces, se ordenó paralizar la investigación.

«Estamos en un país donde ‘se le fabrica un caso a cualquiera’, como dijera la entonces Secretaria de Justicia, Wanda Vázquez, y resulta que bajo su mando se dieron instrucciones para paralizar una investigación de un posible crimen de odio. Aquí hay que llegar hasta las últimas consecuencias para determinar si hubo negligencia criminal y procesar a los responsables de ser necesario. Ya basta de amapuchar. Hay que hacerle justicia a Kevin Fret ya», concluyó Serrano.

Pedro Julio Serrano llora la muerte de mujer asesinada…

Por Metro

El activista de los derechos de la comunidad LGBTTQ+, Pedro Julio Serrano, reaccionó este domingo a la muerte de Iraida Hornedo Camacho, la fémina que fue hallada asesinada de varios impactos de bala junto al expresidente del Frente Unido de Policías Organizados (FUPO), Diego Figueroa Torres.

Hoy lloro a una gran mujer que murió a manos de un macharrán. Otro policía que asesinó a una mujer y luego cobardemente se suicidó. Iraida irradiaba amor, era empática, solidaria (…) Descansa, querida Iraida. Seguiremos luchando —en tu nombre— para que todas las mujeres puedan vivir en paz, equidad y libertad. #NiUnaMás #NiUnaMenos”, escribió Serrano en Facebook.

Serrano indicó que Hornedo Camacho fue una líder, al abrir espacios de estudio y trabajo para personas trans.

Una gran amiga, un ser humano ejemplar”, añadió.

Los cadáveres de Hornedo Camacho y Figueroa Torres fueron encontrados ayer, sábado, en el interior de una guagua en la urbanización Villa Nevárez, cerca de la antigua cárcel Oso Blanco, en Río Piedras.

Actualmente, las autoridades investigan el caso como un feminicidio y suicidio.

Qué 25 años no son ná…

Hoy cumplo 25 años de activismo por los derechos humanos.

Aunque llevo 35 como líder comunitario, un 14 de octubre de 1997 hice mi primer acto a favor de nuestros derechos.

Fui a deponer solo a una vista legislativa para oponerme a un proyecto discriminatorio.

El país que somos es diferente al que teníamos hace 25 años.

Hemos crecido, evolucionado, avanzado.

Antes éramos criminales ante el Estado, pues criminalizaban las relaciones entre personas LGBTTIQ+.

Ahora somos el lugar #20 de 56 estados y territorios en materia LGBTTIQ+.

Hemos tenido avances significativos, pero también retos que aún persisten.

He escogido 25 fotos que representan este camino andado —las alegrías, las tristezas, la esperanza, la lucha, el amor.

Agradezco a mis mentoras, a mi familia que me ha amado incondicionalmente, a mis amig@s que han batallado junto a mi.

Sobre todo, estoy agradecido a toda persona que ha creído en mi y que ha apoyado cada gesta.

Aunque todavía falta mucho por lograr, podemos mirar atrás con orgullo, con satisfacción, con esperanza.

Nuestra lucha es una justa —por el amor, la justicia, la equidad, la libertad, la dignidad.

Solo le pido a la vida 25+25+25 años más para seguir luchando.

Pero, sobre todo, pido que podamos vivir en paz, en equidad, en libertad.

A fin de cuentas, la equidad es un hecho inevitable.

Puerto Rico será para todas, para todos y para todes. 

After Fiona, Needs for People With HIV and LGBTQ People in Puerto Rico Remain Dire…

By Juan Michael Porter II | The Body

This month, media attention given to Puerto Rico’s ongoing plight paled in comparison to the pomp and circumstance surrounding the corpse parade of England’s former monarch. Watching this coverage unfold, one might think the United States were still subjugated colonies of Great Britain, even as one of this country’s own territories received only marginal concern in the wake of a devastating storm.

Queen Elizabeth II died on Sept. 8, resulting in wall-to-wall coverage that had nothing to do with national interest. Ten days later, as news channels breathlessly covered the run-up to Elizabeth’s funeral, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, unleashing catastrophic flooding and landslides, knocking out power across the island, and putting the health of thousands of people living with HIV (PLWH) at risk.

Immediate Needs in the Wake of Fiona

Pedro Julio Serrano, a human rights activist and president of the LGBTQ+ social justice organization Puerto Rico Para Todes, told TheBody that as of Sept. 22, 70% of the island was without power, 40% was without running water, and “the government has been incapable and criminally negligent in not making sure that we have the proper resources to recover.” (As of Sept. 27, almost 10 days after the storm hit, half a million structures were still without power.)

Fiona’s violent incursion occurred one day before the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, from which the island has not completely recovered. Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery has been stalled in large part due to mismanagement of federal funds, government corruption, and a refusal to invest in on-the-ground community-led organizations.

Serrano explained that these losses disproportionally affect PLWH, many of whom lack employment and transportation due to HIV stigma and homophobia. He quoted the saying, “pueblo pequeño, infierno grande”―literally translated as “small town, big hell”―which is a reference to how, especially in less-urban areas, everyone knows everyone’s business. Because of Fiona, Serrano said, many PLWH may have lost their access to medication, services, and “the only place that they can fully be themselves without facing discrimination.”

With an eye on helping historically marginalized communities, Serrano stated that for people on the U.S. mainland who are eager to help, it’s best to donate money directly to local community organizations on the island—and to avoid donating to international groups like the Red Cross, which might not use the funds as intended by the person making the donation.

Local organizations that TheBody has confirmed are helping provide services across Puerto Rico include:

  • Fundación Pisadas de Amor, a nonprofit that assists older adults and connects them to essential services.
  • Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, a social justice organization that fights for equal rights and inclusion of LGBTQ+ communities across Puerto Rico.
  • Taller Salud, a feminist organization that improves women’s access to care and reduces violence within the community.
  • True Self Foundation, which promotes social mobility, educational access, and comprehensive well-being in LGBTQIA+ communities.
  • Waves Ahead, an organization that provides mental health services as well as HIV testing, case management, and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention education to older adults, female-led households, people without sustainable housing, and PLWH.

Concerns for Trauma and Care Access in Rural Areas

Wilfred Labiosa is executive director of Waves Ahead, a nonprofit that provides mental health and HIV services to historically marginalized populations. The organization has branches in San Juan, Cabo Rojo (in Puerto Rico’s southwest), and Maunabo (in the southeast).

During a visit to Maunabo in the wake of Fiona, Labiosa said that the devastation reminded him of “the precarious mental health situation all of us have been living with since Maria hit.” What compounds that strain is that many people in Puerto Rico’s mountains have been cut off by landslides or—even after roads are cleared—loss of transportation due to ruined cars.

Though 71% of the island’s population lives in urban areas, that still leaves a significant proportion of people in need, in areas that are difficult to navigate or reach. For example, Labiosa said that smaller pharmacies have already reached out to request that Waves Ahead send them supplies.

Thus far, Labiosa has not been able to visit Cabo Rojo―which is on the coast, 14 miles west of Sabana Grande―because its mayor is still trying to clear the roads. But he has been told by his colleagues that Waves Ahead’s location there was so badly damaged by the hurricane that staff were forced to relocate their operations to a local hotel. Based upon previous experiences, he believes that it will take months for the area to start receiving electricity again. But the good news is that they are still able to provide services for people in the area.

Alejandro Acosta, a sexual health advocate and contributor to TheBody, explained that people “in all of these mountains and towns are completely cut off from any services.” Acosta rode out Fiona in Sabana Grande, a municipality in the southwest that was devastated by Fiona. Since the storm passed, he has faced intermittent access to electricity and running water.

Acosta said that things were fine for his neighbors with HIV who had cars and jobs, and who were able to make the 40-mile drive east to the municipality Ponce to get their medications and visit their doctors. But he said he is worried about young people who lack transportation or “who might not want to go to an LGBTQ organization because HIV is still treated as taboo in Puerto Rico.”

Acosta explained that stigma, misinformation, and living “in the countryside without any knowledge of sexual health” means that some believe “there’s no monkeypox (or STIs) in Puerto Rico except in San Juan.” Even for those who know the facts, being isolated and afraid to reveal their condition deprives them of emotional support.

He said that, in the past, this has meant watching some people—including “at least two in their 20s”—die from complications of untreated HIV because they “didn’t want to engage in the treatment process.”

It is situations like this that are exacerbated during crises like Hurricane Fiona. But help has often been hard to find.

A Recent History of Failing Puerto Rico

In President Biden’s initial disaster relief plan for Fiona, 23 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities were excluded. Though the plan was updated on Sept. 24 to reduce that number to 10, Labiosa told TheBody, “It is incomprehensible that local governments on the west part of the island were not [immediately] included as recipients of emergency funds.”

When asked why Biden’s initial announcement excluded so many municipalities, he blamed racism, classism, ageism, and homophobia. Historically, corruption has also been responsible.

In 2019, the Center for a New Economy (CNE), Puerto Rico’s first policy think tank, published a report that determined that the bulk of [U.S. federal disaster funding earmarked for rebuilding after Hurricane Maria was improperly invested in mainland organizations. This, even though the Stafford Act, which guides how the federal government responds to disaster, states that preference should go to local firms when awarding emergency response contracts.

Contrary to this guidance, CNE found that by August 2019, far from investing dollars into Puerto Rico’s local economy, $4.89 billion had been awarded to U.S. mainland firms, compared to $0.66 billion that had been awarded to firms in Puerto Rico.

This failure to invest in firms with local ties to, or understanding of, Puerto Rico’s specific needs was also reflected in the initial humanitarian response to Maria’s devastation. In 2020, the U.S. Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reported that FEMA mismanaged $257 million in commodity distribution during the response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, with contract costs overrunning at “about $179 million and at least $50 million in questioned costs.”

In early 2021, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Wanda Vázquez was ousted from office after, among other acts of corruption, it was discovered that a government-run warehouse in the southern city of Ponce contained expired baby food and water dated from 2017, as well as other unused emergency supplies.

Labiosa told TheBody that Puerto Rico has not been rebuilt over the past five years and was therefore unprepared for Fiona because of this faulty leadership—which included allowing “private companies to get away with murder” by charging higher fees than their local counterparts, without delivering the promised work.

He also held the federal government responsible for “treating us like third-class citizens” and failing to “develop an infrastructure from the ground up by helping small community-based organizations to mobilize and bring aid.” Or, to follow the oft-quoted rallying cry from freedom movements, “Nothing about us without us!”

As the Island Struggles, the Mainland Response Stumbles

Puerto Rico’s history with failed federal investment hardly factored into recent national coverage, which lingered on images of washed-away bridges and devastation―or was supplanted by tabloid-style coverage of supposed rifts between Elizabeth II’s granddaughter-in-law and England’s funereal revelers—rather than focusing on people who are fighting to survive Fiona.

This included ignoring the need for humanitarian and medical aid, particularly for Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable populations, which include PLWH. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 17,300 PLWH reside in Puerto Rico, making it one of the top 10 U.S. states or territories with the highest rates of HIV prevalence.

Surprisingly, the silence regarding the needs of PLWH in Puerto Rico extends beyond the media to organizations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest HIV/AIDS nonprofit in the world. Though it operates a location in Carolina, Puerto Rico (in the northeastern part of the island), AHF took over a week to release any updates or messages about the island. This even as it tweeted condolences and thanks to Elizabeth II on Sept. 19, as reports of Fiona’s devastation were coming in.

On Sept. 22, TheBody asked AHF Communications Director Ged Kenslea about the radio silence and was told, “We were the first ones there with disaster supplies.” During a subsequent interview, AHF’s Regional Director of Miami and Puerto Rico Silvana Erbstein explained that as a result of Hurricane Maria, “We were more than prepared.” Their clinic was open the next day, and operations were “business as usual,” she said.

According to Erbstein, AHF’s Puerto Rican branch is located in the municipality of Carolina and was not as hard hit by Fiona as the south of the island. In terms of support, she said that AHF paid for two cargo planes to deliver supplies and generators to the island, which were used to help their clients as well as their local community partners.

When asked how southern Puerto Rico was faring, Erbstein stated that she did not know because AHF does not have community partners in that region―but she added that the organization planned to send “one of our [supply] containers to a big hospital there.”

In a separate interview concerning AHF’s decision not to post public information about the medical situation in Puerto Rico, AHF’s National Director for Communications and Community Engagement W. Imara Canady explained that the organization’s marketing team was waiting for “information that’s been shared from our medical team there,” but in the meantime, they “also do a lot of things through our social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter,” and that messages would go out “if not today, sometime this week.”

On Sept. 26, AHF Puerto Rico’s Facebook page released a video of staff members delivering supplies to a location in the south of the island. But the main organization has yet to acknowledge that Hurricane Fiona occurred on any of its other social media channels.

The Broader Push for Rights and Recognition in Puerto Rico

Whether it’s mainland silence, federal failures, or local corruption, Puerto Rico’s problems predate this current crisis. As an example, Serrano named homophobia within government services―a problem that persists even though former governor Ricardo Rosselló, who served prior to Vázquez, was forced to resign in 2019 after it was revealed that he had exchanged homophobic, sexist, and other offensive text messages with members of his inner circle.

For Serrano, addressing these issues includes holding police officers responsible for discrimination, violence, and harassment against the LGBT community, particularly “our trans brothers and sisters.” He also called for greater training in instances of same-gender domestic violence, which he said often ends with police officers walking away without providing assistance.

But he said that one cause for celebration is Puerto Rico’s “bill of rights for people living with HIV that allows people who are discriminated against [because of the virus] to file a complaint and seek monetary reparations.”

In 1995, under laws that govern the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, legislation was drawn up to protect people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS from discrimination. This legislation was passed in 2000 as Bills 522 and 523 with what Serrano calls “pretty wide-ranging” powers of enforcement. The bills are some of the first of their kind that Serrano has seen during his 28 years of living with HIV.

He said that law has already helped him: After falling ill with pneumonia, Serrano said his hospital tried to deny him access to his medications, but because “the law specifically says that if you are in a hospital institution, they need to provide those lifesaving medications, I was able to push back and say, ‘No. Give me my meds.’” Faced with his awareness of his bill of rights as a PLWH, the hospital complied.

That is why Serrano says it is important for PLWH to know what the laws say so that they can protect themselves. As Puerto Rico begins to rebuild itself yet again, he, Acosta, and Labiosa hope that people will remember the lessons learned from previous disasters, such as the essentiality of empowering local community organizations to lead the way; hiring local contractors to rebuild the island; and using existing laws, including Bills 522 and 523, to protect the rights and dignity of PLWH.

One hopes that the U.S. media cycle will learn some lessons from its dehumanizing approach to breaking news and white-centered stories. Instead, it appears as though it has already moved from a death in England to a new storm, Ian, bearing down on Florida—all while continuing to ignore the needs of its own citizens on an island well off the coast of the continental U.S.’s southernmost state.