When I was a young child I had polio. I grew up with a brace on my right foot, I had a limp. With all that, and being skinny and awkward, I was laughed at. But being stigmatized for having HIV is different. You don’t grow out of HIV.
I first found out I was HIV-positive when I was pregnant with my son. I was listening to a radio station and they were doing a special on HIV and AIDS—I didn’t know that a mother could transmit HIV to her baby through breastfeeding. I decided right then that I had to get tested, because I also knew a person could get HIV from having unprotected sex.
My behavior wasn’t that wild, but I did have sex before I got married, and I had sex after I was married, and not with my husband. Being Catholic, there was a lot of guilt and shame about that. Then, my partner, Ray, developed an AIDS-related illness. He died when my son was about eight months old. It wasn’t until I became more HIV-educated that I realized I didn’t give him HIV, that he gave it to me.
As Ray was dying, I realized I had to tell my family, because there was nobody else there for me. But first, I had to tell my older child, my daughter. This was around 1993. She was only twelve and she was scared out of her mind. She’d seen Ray die and she thought I was going to be next—we all did. I had to reassure her that I would outlive everybody, though I had no idea what was going to happen.
I was supposed to die young. I always said I would die beautiful, on the pillow with my Mexican hair, just like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. I wasn’t supposed to be with my son when he was sixteen and rebelling. I didn’t want wrinkles, saggy skin, everything falling. I wasn’t going to see my daughter get married, or see my grandchildren.
My son, Raymond, always said when he turned eighteen he was going to get a tattoo. He came home one night, and he said, “Wake up!” He turned on the light, put his arm up, and showed me my name: “Nancy” across his whole forearm. He said that he always wants me close to him, and he doesn’t want to lose me. No shame, no embarrassment. That’s a huge honor—even though I’m still not that happy about the tattoo.