Maricela, the representative for the HIV office at the Ministry of Health in San Marcos called me in her excited, rolling voice this Tuesday to tell me that I had to come to a meeting on Thursday.
"Oooo Elizabeth, its just, this is what we've been waiting for!"
It was to be between the Ministry, myself on behalf of Peace Corps, and a group called "Vida Nueva." Over the last year, Maricela has been making contacts with all of the individuals who are registered as HIV-positive in San Marcos. Little did we know, they had been contacting each other to form a group, which they have named "Vida Nueva," or "New Life."
I had no idea what to expect. Actually, I've been working in HIV education for a year and a half, and I had only ever met one person who has the virus. He is a truly astounding educational speaker who we hosted at an HIV event this time last year. Yet, I knew going into the meeting that most individuals are not as self-aware nor have the support networks they need to be living "positively." I braced myself.
Smiles on, Maricela, her assistant, and myself made our way for the central park to meet them. They didn't want to meet us in the hospital for fear of the hospital staff; as I later learned, they are often ignored, or blatantly asked to leave from district hospitals. We offered to meet in a cafe - no thanks, they said, we prefer a place where we can't be overheard easily. I'm feeling more nervous.
Three of the members - a 27 year old woman, the president; 55 year old mother of 8 in traditional Mayan dress, the secretary; and a man in his late 50s approached us. Laughing as they made their way over to us, they greeted us with open arms, ready to talk.
For the next half hour, Maricela and I discussed how we could help them with materials and trainings. Their main goal is to educate teenagers on safe-sex practices, stigma and discrimination and self-esteem, as well as provide a support network for their members.
Then, it was their turn to speak. I learned that these individuals have to travel 3-7 hours each week for treatment. Treatment is not available in San Marcos, and it costs roughly 2,000 Quetzales ($250) dollars per month. No one can afford this. Discrimination in the hospitals and health centers in San Marcos is rampant. Many of the members feel they cannot tell their own family about their condition for fear of being killed or injured. They make up for excuses as to why they are vomiting or passing-out at work; secondary affects from their anti-retrovirals.
While all of this information grounded me into a reality I had only ever read about or received trainings on, what really impacted me was the smiling, laughing, and embracing. These were a group of people unafraid of their future. Passionate. In control of their lives. Warm. Loving.
That is exactly it - loving. That is what they embody, most of all. Yet, they are afflicted by a virus that is usually passed by sexual contact; an act that should embody the physicality of love, but now threatens to take their lives away. I couldn't help but be affected by their enormous capacity for positivity.
I am torn by sadness because I will only get to work with their group a handful of times before I have to leave. I will be forever grateful, however, to have met them. We are holding a workshop soon, and I will write a post about that event, so stay tuned!