In 1994, back when the reality television genre was still doing interesting and productive things, MTV's The Real World introduced Pedro Zamora, a 22-year-old Cuban immigrant who was openly gay, living with AIDS, and working as an HIV/AIDS educator. Pedro was the first prominent openly gay person with AIDS in U.S. popular culture, and he brought national attention to the struggle.
Throughout each of San Francisco's twenty 30-minute episodes, viewers fell in love with Pedro Zamora. They were able to connect with him, attempt to understand his struggle, and see a more relatable depiction of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Pedro died the day after the last episode of The Real World: San Francisco aired. But in spite of his death, he left behind a new generation of people more willing to speak about HIV/AIDS issues and not be scared away because of their lack of familiarity with the disease.
Still, just because MTV viewers got to see some of Pedro's struggle played out on The Real World, that didn't mean that they could grasp the full depth of his story. The series briefly discussed Pedro's childhood, how he contracted HIV/AIDS, and how he deals with it on a day-to-day basis, but it tended to skirt over some of the less attractive details: the night sweats, the lack of immunities, the shingles, and the complexities of the poz dating world.
Enter Judd Winick, who adapted Pedro's story into a graphic novel, released in 2000. I wrote a few months ago about needing to pick a work of graphic nonfiction to analyze and study for my Graphic Nonfiction class, and I ultimately decided on Judd's retelling of Pedro's struggle.
Judd, a self-described "bed-wetting liberal" and cartoonist was one of Pedro's best friends on their season of The Real World. He took the most sincere interest in Pedro's lecture circuit work and, despite coming from very different backgrounds, the men connected and became close friends. When Pedro fell severely ill in August of 1994, Judd decided to take over for Pedro. Judd spoke at schools and community centers, sharing information about safe sex, the dangers of unprotected sex, and the struggles associated with living with HIV or AIDS. After Pedro's death, Judd continued the HIV/AIDS education lecture circuit for about a year before moving on and revisiting his intended career path: comics. He landed a syndicated cartooning gig and experienced mild success.
By 1998, however, Judd couldn't resist the nagging urge to document the story of his friendship with Pedro Zamora and continue focusing on HIV/AIDS education.
In The Advocate, he wrote about his decision to start compiling a graphic novel about himself, Pedro, and where their lives intersected. He wrote: "It didn't feel like I was accomplishing anything. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell. So I began to write about the two of us. I wrote about myself, warts and all, not as the completely open-minded liberal I tried to be on television. I wrote about Pedro's dealing with being gay and with learning that he was HIV-positive. I wrote about our friendship, and I described the journey we all took together through his illness and his death."
The book would become Pedro & Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned, a 180-page black-and-white story.