Strengthening the Spirit
Otero-Rivera leads the fight against HIV--in Puerto Rico.
by qvStaff Roldán
Otero-Rivera is a man whose strength and dedication are truly
inspirational. His work and leadership in the field of HIV prevention
and services for those who are HIV+ have benefitted and helped
thousands of people in his homeland of Puerto Rico. He has worked
with many agencies, including his present position as the vice
president for the Fundación SIDA de Puerto Rico.
Currently living in Bayamón, Puerto
Rico, 39-year-old Rafael organizes public policy around HIV prevention
in Puerto Rico's LGBT community as well as the general community.
He is also on the National Community Prevention Planning Group
(CPG), a group dedicated to the prevention of HIV in Puerto Rico.
Rafael came out at the tender age of 18,
which was very young at the time. "But even when I was in
the closet, I tried to dismantle it!" he says.
Rafael was lucky enough to have full support
from his family after he came out. "After coming out to
my parents, they became my life," he says. "They supported
me because they knew that I had found my identity and that I
knew who I was. But it wasn't easy. My family was very religious
and my dad was a captain in the National Guard, so both of those
issues made it difficult for me to come out. We had psychologist
and psychiatrist appointments, but in reality, even though I
attended, I knew it wasn't for me. It was more for my family
who needed to deal with the fact that they had a QV son."
In the 20 years since he has come out, Rafael says he has witnessed
many positive changes for Puerto Rico's QV community. "When
I first came out, there were very few QV places that existed.
Most people in Puerto Rico were very 'macho.' That has softened
over the years with America's influence, though we continue to
be somewhat 'macho.' In years past, there were no streets where
we could walk and hold a partner's hand, but now there are some
areas where you can, and it doesn't matter to other people. Before,
when they called us names on the street, we had to hide. Now
we respond. We've realized that we have a space and a right to
be who we are."
Rafael continues, "I think all of
these changes have come because of HIV. It has helped us to strengthen
our community emotionally and educationally. We have learned
that if we don't defend ourselves, no one else will-no one else
will speak up for us."
HIV certainly changed Rafael's life. After
he was diagnosed as HIV-positive 11 years ago, he became inspired
to get closely involved with the issue. He explains, "When
I first found out I was HIV+, I dealt with my own personal issues,
but I also saw a need for all those in the country who were HIV+
and QV. I felt that I, as an HIV+ individual, could use my experience
to effectively spread the prevention message to the community
Though Rafael says the HIV situation in
Puerto Rico has improved, the problem is far from being resolved.
Rafael explains, "The biggest problem (with regards to HIV)
is with drug abuse through injection because many people are
sharing needles. There is one organization that has begun to
offer needle exchanges and that has been successful. As for the
QV community, the numbers aren't as high. A bigger problem is
actually among young people-both straight and QV. They seem
to feel as if they don't need prevention. It's almost as if they
are saying to the older people, 'You had the opportunity to practice
unsafe sex, and now I want that opportunity. too.'"
Rafael is very concerned for the youth.
His advice to young QV individuals is, "To strengthen yourselves
emotionally because even though we've moved forward, it continues
to be a difficult process to be a young QV person-especially
coming out. They need to focus on education. In Puerto Rico,
if you don't have an educational background, you don't have the
capacity to succeed in life. It's easy for the community to ostracize
you. This occurs regardless of orientation. I'd say young people
need to defend their space because the older vanguard movement
is not there. They need to pick up where we left off."
And for those out there who are HIV+, or
who have just been diagnosed with HIV, Rafael encourages them
to find a community of support in order to build strength. "First,
an individual must strengthen himself emotionally," he says.
"Through my own experience as an HIV+ individual, I understand
that. It's necessary to be compliant with medications to strengthen
one's immune system. One needs to develop a support network.
I feel it is important for people to participate in support groups-I
was in one for three years. Support groups help you grow and
strengthen all aspects of a person's life-not just dealing with
HIV. The support group I was involved with was great. We went
to Costa Rica to run a facilitator's training. We also produced
and wrote a play based on our experiences and lives so that we
could share our experiences with other QV HIV+ individuals and
their families. These activities strengthen the spirit and the
will to survive."
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