"qvTriumphs" is a new qvColumn that spotlights Latinos who have faced difficult challenges in life but have turned themselves completely around in a positive and productive way. Their stories give the rest of us an opportunity to learn from the challenges they have been through.

Coming Out of the Dark
Living life was no easy chore for Tony Espinosa and living life day by day was a true challenge, until he saw the light.

tony espinosaHe has friends who say, "Espinosa is many things." With 35 years worth of experiences in this life, Tony Espinosa can be described by lots of labels: faggot, HIV-negative, Chicano, HIV/AIDS activist, clean and sober. But in his youth, Tony could have been labelled a sex worker/drug addict/alcoholic who roamed from place to place without a home of his own. Back then, he would go on week-long speed runs (drugs), then "detox" with Valium, Sinequan, Nyquil and Olde English.

The first (of many) times he was arrested, he did not disclose that he was QV and was placed in a mixed cell in County Jail where the violence was crazy. So the next time he was taken into custody, he disclosed that he was QV just to see if anything different would happen. Tony was clueless about the sophisticated system whereby arrestees are separated in the Los Angeles County Jail system; rival gang members are separated from each other, QV men are separated from the general population, etc. At the time of his second arrest, and after disclosing his sexual orientation, he quickly learned about this coding system. Tony was dressed in an orange jumpsuit: "That's what they put us fags in" while all of the other arrestees were dressed in navy blue. He acted tough to discourage the others from harassing him, although he feared being messed with. Eventually, Tony made friends in the QV tank where his cell mates would pass time voguing and dancing. "We'd cut our uniform shirts into little halter tops and tie our hair back. We had our little 'Flashdance' action goin' on."

Three days before his 29th birthday, he remembers strolling up and down the make shift prison cat walk, and singing the Patsy Cline song, "Walking After Midnight," but there was no moonlight for Tony. He knew he was stuck; his only goal was to experience his birthday, score a big baggie of dope, then die. The adrenaline rush from street life was over; he was tired of it and beneath the surface, he was hurting. Tony started to feel a need to break the boundaries and a desire to no longer be intoxicated. On February 19, 1993, Tony finally got himself clean and sober after nearly 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse.

By 1996, a harsh reality kicked in-all of his close friends had died from AIDS. Tony decided to get involved in a bereavement support group. "I cried a lot then, but I don't look at it as admitting defeat. Life isn't about winning or losing, it's about learning, healing, and growing. What better place to cry than in a group where people understand?"

After the support group, his mind drifted to memories of his past more and more. "I was aware that something major had changed," Tony says. Suddenly, he felt a strong need to get back in touch with his Chicano roots. He remembered how during the '70s he used to wear huge bell bottoms with patches on either leg that said "Viva la Raza" or "Chicano Power." Then he thought about the present: "Why is it that people think you can't be down with the Raza and be a fag at the same time?" he asked. "Culture and sexuality are connected. We need to stand up for that and be proud," he said.

Today, Tony laughs about a lot of things from his past, yet there is a look in his eyes that says he takes the past seriously because it transformed him.

One of the most poignant elements of Tony Espinosa's present life is that he has gone beyond his own sobriety. Six years ago, Tony stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, and he is still clean and sober here in 1999.

Today, he is a Research Assistant at Children's Hospital and works on two HIV risk behavior projects-one that targets Latino men and another one that focuses on young women who inject drugs. In addition, Tony is the Project Director of Peer Projects at Clean Needles Now (CNN), which is a needle exchange program. Last summer, Tony collaborated with researcher Rafael Díaz, author of the much talked about new book, "Latino QV Men and HIV." While working-or whenever he can, likes to share his stories in the hope that they make a difference in the lives of young Latinos: "I can use my past. When I'm working with Latinos who are on drugs or working the streets. We can relate because we see ourselves in each other."

In addition to working, Tony also attends college (earning terrific grades) and volunteers for L.A. Shanti's Prevention Program, an activity which allows him to teach and learn at the same time. He is determined to help young QV men work through their emotional wounds, and to help them heal and transform themselves.

"We need to have more positive role models for our youth, especially Latino youth. I like to share my stories with my kids (the youth from the programs) so they can see that it's possible to transform a negative life into a positive one."

Ildiko Tenyi is the Public Relations and Outreach Manager at L.A. Shanti, one of the country's oldest and most respected AIDS Service Organizations. She can be reached at: itenyi@lashanti.org.

by Ildiko Tenyi

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