New York City Latinos Remember Loved Ones on World AIDS Day

Gerardo Pineda, 51, was diagnosed with AIDS 20 years ago and celebrates World AIDS Day every year.

“I celebrate my life today because I live with HIV,” said Pineda, originally from Venezuela. “It’s not just a celebration for me, but for everyone who lives with the disease.”

Pineda, an outreach coordinator at the Latino Commission on AIDS, was one of two speakers Tuesday at “Memorial Latino Sobre La Sida,” a service at la Iglesia Catolica Cristo Rey in the Bronx for Latinos who have died from AIDS.

The Latino Commission on AIDS is a non-profit organization aimed at fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS within the Latino community and holds the event annually. The memorial was conducted entirely in Spanish and included a candle light vigil, prayer service and music.

“We use this interfaith service event as a way to engage the Latino community to start a conversation about HIV and AIDS,” said Daniel Leyva, director of the religious leadership program at the commission.  “We want to help people live with HIV and assist them in managing their disease so they can live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.”

The memorial is part of a yearly program by the commission, which provides education on HIV and AIDS to pastors of different churches and faiths. The organization has 30 churches that commit to following their education program.

“We work with religious leaders because we have the information and they have the community,” said Leyva. “This community is not very likely to listen to me if I just showed up, but they know their pastor. And they are going to listen to their pastor and they’re going to do what the pastor says if he tells them to take the HIV test.”

Leyva said many of the stigmas against people with HIV and AIDS came from religious entities. In response, the organization created a campaign to educate pastors and help them inform their parishioners about services and other resources.

“Many prominent religious leaders were saying people with AIDS were being punished by God,” said Leyva, who claimed he was embraced by his church. “But many pastors didn’t and still don’t agree with that. They believe God is loving and that it’s important to spread a message of love and hope, not separation.”

Pineda believes support from relatives is also necessary for individuals living with the disease.

“I talked to the audience about the importance of supporting their loved ones with HIV and AIDS,” said Pineda. “It was an emotional testimony because I know a lot of people with HIV who don’t have support from their relatives. It’s very hard for a person to live with AIDS and it’s even harder when their families aren’t embracing them either.”

Gerardo Pineda, 51, celebrates World AIDS Day every year since he was diagnosed 20 years ago. (Daniel Rodriguez / The Ink)
Gerardo Pineda, 51, celebrates World AIDS Day every year after being diagnosed with the disease 20 years ago.  (Daniel Rodriguez / The Ink)

Along with lack of support, Leyva says there aren’t enough resources to educate Latinos on HIV.

“The commission was created 25 years ago to provide educational resources to Latinos first in New York City, then New York State and then nationally,” Leyva said. “We provide resources to the Gay community, women, incarcerated people, churches and particularly to the Latino community that only speaks Spanish. There are very few services today that are truly bilingual for people affected with HIV.”

The “Memorial Latino Sobre El Sida” was initially bilingual, but 14 years ago it became completely Spanish because most of the attendees were Latinos who spoke the language. Leyva said the organization felt it was culturally appropriate to make these changes. He also said the event lasted too long when it was bilingual.

Leyva became involved with the movement when he tested positive for HIV after migrating to the United States from Mexico. He had no biological family in this country and felt compelled to help others.

“I had to do something,” said Leyva. “I knew what it was like to be alone and sick. This helped me connect with others with the same condition and allowed me bring others to service.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Latinos accounted for 21 percent of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States in 2012. The C.D.C. also found that of the 6,955 deaths related to AIDS in the U.S., Latinos accounted for 13 percent of the mortalities (927).

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday announced a $500,000 grant to help fund the New York City AIDS Memorial. The governor also committed $200 million to support HIV and AIDS efforts in the 2016-2017 budget. The state spends $2.5 billion annually to fight the disease. The New York Department of Health plan to eliminate mother-to-child transmission also resulted in no infants being born HIV-positive in the state last year.

For Pineda, he says he will continue to live life to the fullest despite having AIDS. “I am happy,” he said.

Leyva will continue to help spread knowledge about the disease to the Latino community.

“Since I’ve been given the opportunity to live, I have the responsibility to reach out to others and pay back a little bit of the help I received,” Leyva said. “The United States has been great to me and I think it’s important that we all contribute to the society where we all live.”