One month is not enough: how we keep the conversation going about Latinx people living with HIV

“Keeping the conversation [going] is what I do,” Miguel Jacquez, the Latinx outreach coordinator for Legacy Health, said with a laugh.

Though Latinx Heritage Month came to a close on Oct. 15, AIDS United spoke with Jacquez about how we can continue to uplift members of the Latinx community throughout the year. His work is focused on the intersections of HIV stigma reduction and risk behaviors such as bullying, domestic violence and social issues.

“I have a program that I do called ‘Como Soy.’ I recruit people to come in and do a photoshoot and, while they do their photo shoot, I have a one-on-one stigma reduction conversation with them. And we talk about many different things.”

During this particular conversation, the person Jacquz was photographing talked about using drugs.

“He was talking about his meth use, his drug addiction, going through recovery, being homeless and finally, when nobody wanted to deal with him anymore, he felt like he had hit rock bottom. When they would see him, people would turn away from him. He just said to himself, in the middle of our photo session, ‘What did I win when I lost? I found myself.’”

Jacquez was so moved by this quote. The purpose of these photo campaigns is to destigmatize HIV, but to also destigmatize other topics that continue to be criminalized and demonized. Jacquez wants people to see quotes like this and understand that people go through so many different things that don’t get talked about due to fear of being outcast or denied.

“Loss is a horrible thing to experience, whether it’s death, and automatically people think the equivalent to HIV is death and that’s just a stigma. People live with HIV now,” he said. “Also, loss of family. What will people think of me if I come out as HIV positive? Am I going to be kicked out of the family? Are people not gonna talk to me anymore?”

These are all issues people living with HIV face every day. One subject of Jacquez’s photoshoots chose to keep his HIV diagnosis from his family for almost seven years because of these fears.

“And his quote on his campaign was ‘Putting myself first has made me a happier person.’ Because in order to be a happier person, he felt like he had to have this conversation with his family in order to move on with his life. I have [his photo] by my desk to remind me why I do the job that I do.”

Jacquez makes it a point of his work to talk about things people may not immediately associate with living with HIV by hosting a group called ‘Amistades’ with people in the community. This group is a status-neutral group focused on destigmatization. For example, Jacquez actively educates people on Latine, the gender inclusive conjugations of Spanish words.

“[Spanish is] very masculine, very feminine. So now having to learn the Latine version of the language is like learning Spanish all over again because, you know, we want to be inclusive,” he said. He also encourages people in his support groups to talk about mental health or any other topic they feel safe discussing. Jacquez makes it a point to ask his group members what they want to talk about in order to foster these important conversations and destigmatize topics.

He also makes it a point to address stigma outside of his group settings.

“I’m constantly on social media pages, like the Houston page, the LGBTQ pages and I just pay attention to conversations that are being held in different topics and I just pay attention to what people are saying, as far as you know, if it’s stigmatizing or not.” He even sends people direct messages on different platforms to create conversations.

For other organizations seeking to continue the conversation around Latinx inclusion, Jacquez suggests looking to holidays. For example, with Valentine’s Day coming up, Jacquez suggests talking about love, sex or the different kinds of relationships a person can have in their lives. For Latinx Heritage Month, Jacquez profiled a different Latinx person every day.

“That presence of a person who is like you and represents you is important for people because that is the empowering piece to see, someone who represents the kind of person that you are,” he said. “It’s important that people like me who enjoy doing this work keep this conversation going.”