In 1995, when I was 10, my mom, 2 year-old sister and I got on a one-way-flight from Acapulco, Guerrero to Nogales, Sonora. The next day, we met other families, mostly other mothers and their young children, and we made our way on foot to the frontera of Nogales. There, we met the coyote, a human smuggler, who gave us instructions on how to jump and climb a wall of steel, wire and concrete standing about 30 feet high.
Somehow, it happened safely, and we continued through the desert by foot until we were greeted by another coyote who took us to a safe house. There, we waited until my father, who migrated a year earlier, was able to pay the coyote tens of thousands of dollars. Upon payment, we were released from the safe house and placed on a plane to meet our family in Chicago.
As a 10-year-old, how was I supposed to know what was going on? I remember being mad at my parents because I was leaving my friends and school. San Luis San Pedro, Guerrero, is a beautiful small town; I remember running free, eating delicious mangoes, enjoying warm winters, spending my free time at the nearby river and taking trips to the beaches. I remember leaving a childhood where I knew who I was and where nature was my friend.
But I was 10—was all of that really the case? As an adult, I understand the struggle that my parents underwent. The sleepless nights they thought of our future. My dad’s back-breaking labor on a daily basis to put food on the table. How my mom washed other people’s clothes to bring extra cash to pay for our school supplies.
As a child, I was blind to the truth. The reality was that we lived in poverty; in a place full of crime and drug cartels, little access to clean water and a school without electricity. Many may think crossing the border is a huge risk not worth taking, because thousands of people have died attempting to reach the American Dream. But what would you do if you were one of those 11 million people escaping crime, drug wars or poverty?
I am forever grateful for my parents’ decision to take a leap of faith and begin that journey up north.
My first five years in Chicago were hard—and the worst years of my life. I was forced to integrate into a culture and I didn’t speak English. I couldn’t relate to my peers or initiate conversations. I had no friends. I lost a sense of who I was.
As a result, I found comfort in eating and gained lots of weight. For the next several years my daily routine consisted of going to school, where I sat silently in the back of the classroom, and coming home, where I ate and watched TV. I was a chubby Mexican pre-teen, who didn’t speak a word of English, had no friends and was hiding my pain and loneliness.
Although we made it to this land of opportunity, I was miserable and depressed. I also couldn’t speak to my parents about how I felt because they were working 40-60 hour weeks, saving all their money to pay the migration debt.
As a teen, I began focusing on school and learning English, as productive distractions to the fact that migrating to the U.S. left a cultural impact on me. Still feeling lost in high school, I started looking for a sense of community and acceptance and found it by joining my school’s Heartland Alliance AIDS Ride Team. There I was finally getting the resources I was seeking where I could learn more about myself.
I finally found a sense of community, but I felt more disconnected from my family—because I didn’t know how to tell them I was gay. After all this time, I found a place I could build friendships, but had no idea how to share my self-discovery with them. Latino families aren’t always the best when discussing “taboo” subjects, such as sex or homosexuality.
Sadly, joining the AIDS Ride Team wasn’t my only method of self-discovery. I found that through the Internet, I could be myself and also remain anonymous. I started chatting with others online, who acknowledged everything I felt and was going through. I learned I wasn’t the only person in the closet, and there were many people in similar situations around the world.
After searching for acceptance, I finally found it through strangers. After meeting in person with some of the people I communicated with online, we would eventually become sexually active. This did not last long. After awhile, I felt used and disgusted. I had found a piece of me that I wanted to protect: my identity as a young, Mexican, gay man.
Two weeks before my senior prom, I came down with flu and was so ill I told my prom date I may not be able to go. Eventually, I gathered some strength and went to prom, high school graduation and all of the graduation parties. I was also dating a great guy my age! I was his prom date and we had a blast together. But, we both decided to get tested, because we were both concerned about potential STIs.
Our STI tests came back negative, but we were told to come back two weeks later for the HIV test results. I went in three weeks later for my results. I was sat down privately in a room, and I knew something was not quite right when a staff member came in with a folder.
My hands were cold, my heart was beating fast and my eyes were staring at the folder. They sat down next to me and, with a calm voice, informed me I tested positive.
There was total silence from me. No reaction. Just as if my life flashed before my eyes. I cried. I cried a lot. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to do, how to feel or who I could tell. Luckily, that staff member was there to provide me with support and a much-needed hug. I still remember that supportive hug: their arms tight around me, assuring me everything would be okay.
I was 18-years-old. I was lost, confused, scared and angry.
There are no words to describe how I felt. I knew I couldn’t deal with this myself and confided in one of my sisters. When we met, I completely broke down. While she comforted me as I was crying, I told her I tested positive for HIV and am gay. She continued to hug me and told me it was okay.
I had never felt so free — for once in my life, I had the acceptance I had been seeking for years. I was able to use that strength as motivation, and I pulled myself together.
I did it—I finally shared my identity with someone I was close with.
Afterward, I was scared of going to my first doctor’s appointment and starting treatment. My case manager quickly equipped me with accurate information, explained the treatment guidelines and helped me deal with my many concerns. I’m not saying that my circumstances were the hardest or most unique. Or that I couldn’t find someone who understood where I was coming from. But, it was hard to connect with a case manager who hasn’t gone through these similar circumstances.
That’s when I was referred to a peer-to-peer support group, where I was able to learn about what HIV actually is and how it was affecting my day-to-day life. I learned what the virus was and the societal stress that comes with being HIV-positive.
For the first few months I didn’t participate in the support groups. I mostly sat, listened to others, and noticed how similar our experiences were. I slowly began to open up and share my story. When I spoke, I saw how many people nodded in agreement to everything I said. I was no longer alone and found a community.
I wanted to ensure other newly diagnosed youth received the same resources that were provided to me, and I eventually became a peer educator for the same support group that inspired me to move forward. People found my experience useful and would reach out to be linked with medical care. I was grateful for this and felt empowered to get more involved in the community.
I now work at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, overseeing their Salud y Orgullo Mexicano program, a peer-to-peer educational project that helps men of Mexican descent know their HIV status and links them to care.
After a few years of sharing my story, I began changing the way I viewed my own status and started living. Now I live positively and for myself. That once quiet and chubby kid in the back of the class ran the 2015 Chicago marathon with AIDS Foundation’s Team 2 End AIDS (T2EA). I will have also run in 12 major events by the end of 2016, including five marathons, four half marathons and a triathlon. I’ve also cultivated an incredible sense of community with my running partners.
I’m not going to lie; At first, it was really hard to live my life authentically and discover my passions, but disclosing my status was even harder. My whole family still doesn’t know, and determining when to tell them has been hard. I’ve shared my status with my sisters, but my parents live in Mexico and I want to have this conversation in person. Regardless, I know that they will accept me for who I am. Maybe after writing this, it will help me come out of another closet.
At 31, I have been reminded of all my identities. I am Mexican. I am gay. I am Latino. I am part of a community. I am HIV-positive. I am undocumented. I’m in a supportive, mixed-status relationship.
It’s really hard to come out of the shadows and face the world. I have also been pulled over by the police and asked for a driver’s license and gotten nervous when asked to write down my social security number. I’ve waited until the very last minute to see a doctor because I had no health insurance and I stayed at a job for multiple years out of fear of not finding other employment due to my legal status.
It’s scary to jeopardize everything you and your family have worked for, but we need to take care of our health, too.
Esta es mi historia, and I hope that my story reminds you that you are not alone and I’m part of your community too. I’m just one of those 11 million people living under the shadows, and I’m privileged to say I was granted Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrival a few years ago. I’m coming out of the closet as an undocumented person and I hope that my story reminds you que no estas solo.
Stay strong, and be proud of who you are.
Gilberto “Beto” Soberanis lives in Chicago, Ill., and is the Salud Y Orgullo Mexicano Program Manager at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. You can find him on Facebook or via email at GSoberanis@aidschicago.org.