Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brett Stockdill is a queer, HIV positive activist, teacher and scholar in Chicago. He is an Associate Professor in Sociology, Women's Studies, and Latino & Latin American Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. His four-part series, "Living in the Borderlands," will be running every morning this week. You can start the series with the first post, "The Odyssey of the Utterly Fabulous Mario Sierra
"God bless the world" -- Mario Sierra*
As Mario came to grips with being HIV positive, he continued to make decisions to not only improve his life, but to support friends and family and struggle for social justice. In the 2000s, with the support of his various communities, he gained legal residency and then citizenship, fortified his relationship with his family of origin, and dove deeper into grassroots activism.
Mario's family of choice - gay and straight, foreign- and US-born, multiethnic - played a crucial role in his path to citizenship. His tightly knit Venezuelan émigré community in Los Angeles generously offered emotional and legal support in this process.
Mario's gay friends also assisted him with outsmarting the patently discriminatory ban on HIV positive immigrants. Daniel, an HIV positive citizen, connected Mario with Nestor, an HIV negative undocumented immigrant, who pretended to be Mario and took an HIV test that was a part of the Green Card medical exam (until 2010). "Mario" tested negative.
With these and other hurdles crossed, Mario became a legal resident of the United States. After 14 years, Mario was able to travel to Venezuela to visit his entire family without fearing that he would be unable to return to the US. He became a citizen in 2009.
Over the years, Mario provided emotional, financial and informational support to family and friends in the United States and Venezuela. As is common among LGBTQ folks, Mario often took on the role of informal social worker within his family.
For example, in the wake of his sister Nita's husband's HIV diagnosis in 2006, he provided emotional support and information about the biology of HIV/AIDS, medications, and transmission risks. In turn, family members, particularly Nita, confronted their own homophobic prejudices to express unconditional love for Mario. He explained that coming out as a gay man to family and friends, "has been an amazing journey. Some of my family members are having a hard time. But I feel that I can truly love them without a mask on. I feel free and big."
This family building was grounded in breaking the silences around homophobia and HIV/AIDS - a core theme in Mario's story. Bravely speaking out - and reaching out - forged stronger bonds of solidarity that in turn nurtured personal and social change in adverse conditions.
In the 2000s, Mario grew increasingly active in protesting racism, homophobia, xenophobia and militarism. Both before and after he achieved residency/citizenship he took individual and collective action to promote the values and practices that the United States professes, but routinely fails to enact - peace, equality and justice for all people. Along with millions of others around the world, he marched peacefully in the streets to protest the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We need to get out of all these US created conflicts," he said. "We need to come out with a different approach to mend the damage we have created in other countries. War brings hate and more hate. I don't want my tax money to be used for WAR... We should stop saying 'god bless America' and say 'god bless the world.'"
Mario also advocated for both immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights. In 2007, when he was 41, he attended an immigrant rights rally where he faced off against members of the racist, anti-immigrant organization, the Minute Men, one of whom spit on Mario - Mario responded, "I love you."
In 2010, he attended rallies opposing Arizona's harsh SB 1070 legislation that promotes racial profiling of Latin@s and the criminalization of immigrants. Over the past three years, he was active in the struggle for gay/lesbian marriage and protested California's homophobic Proposition 8 that denies lesbian and gay men the right to marriage. In recent years, Mario became an active participant in alternative cultural communities that utilize performance activism to promote "green awareness" and other social issues.
At 43, Mario performed in a multiethnic dance piece in front of thousands at the 2009 LGBTQ March on Washington commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion (the event that sparked the Gay Liberation Movement). Rather than become hardened in the face of adversity and inequality, Mario has over the years shown tremendous generosity, compassion, and solidarity.
Illuminating the Borderlands, Reimagining the World
"I try to reach out to other people."
Like anyone's story, Mario's is unique. But Mario's odyssey also sheds light on the life experiences of over a million people living with HIV, over ten million undocumented immigrants, and tens of millions of LGBTQ people in the United States. Additional interviews reveal that a yearning for sexual freedom and love figures into the immigrant dreams of other HIV positive, undocumented, gay Latinos in Los Angeles.
Like Mario, racism, xenophobia and homophobia compounded their experiences living with HIV/AIDS. Inhabiting the intersections of multiple dehumanized communities, these men travel in a dangerous and multi-layered landscape of bigotry and injustice. Mario's ability to survive and thrive in this terrain reflects a broader culture of resistance among gay undocumented immigrants living with HIV.
As the odyssey of Mario Sierra reveals, life in the United States is perilous for sexual minorities, immigrants, Latin@s, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Systemic inequalities render the American Dream elusive for many.
Yet the journeys of Mario and many others also illuminate the daring, the passion, the perseverance, and camaraderie of those living in the borderlands of multiple forms of prejudice and discrimination. Their cultivation of rich support networks and alternative families, their fundamental humility and dignity, as well as their commitment to freedom all dispute common myths about our relationships to borders and the people that cross them.
If we listen to their stories rather than the fear mongering sound bytes commonly heard from the mainstream mass media and politicians, we may indeed come to the conclusion that LGBTQ people, undocumented immigrants, people of color, and people living with HIV/AIDS are human beings who collectively advance the development of our society rather than hinder it.
Like Jesus Christ, Mario has travelled to many places, struggled with self-doubt and shame, and endured persecution. He has treated other people with respect, and he has cared and advocated for, in the words of Matthew 25:40, "the least of [his] brothers and sisters." At the age of 12, he helped two teenaged Peruvian women seeking work to cross the border into his country. Now in his mid-40's, Mario has crossed many borders and forged a community of family and friends in Los Angeles. He has also been engaged in key struggles to make this country live up to its claims of democracy, freedom and equality. He continues to challenge himself - and society - to grow.
"I try to look out of myself," he said. "Not to concentrate just so much on me, but looking out to other people that may be HIV positive or not that need help. And try to reach out to other people... I try to enrich myself through things that I want to accomplish not only for myself but that can help other people, meaning society."
In a country where fear and bigotry often hold sway, Mario's story offers us an utterly fabulous alternative path that embraces both difference and unity and moves all people toward self-determination and social justice.
*Names of people and places have been changed for privacy/safety reasons
Living in the Borderlands Series