HIV Aids

How to Make an American Memorial

For those who don’t remember life in the early 1990s, here are some recollections. Murphy Brown was a hit TV show. Few people had cell phones. And after a decade without effective treatment, deaths from AIDS-related diseases continued decimating circles of friends and acquaintances. To add insult to mortal injury, there were vocal factions in the U.S., claiming to be speaking for God, who insisted HIV/AIDS was a judgment. Others wouldn’t talk about it, believing it was too horrible, hoping it would go away.

HIV/AIDS didn’t go away, of course, and while the medical community worked on treatment and the still-elusive cure, other groups went to work on reducing AIDS phobia and bringing HIV/AIDS awareness to their communities. One of those communities, Lincoln Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles, was and still is heavily Latinx and culturally conservative. Community members were reluctant to have a discussion about sex — let alone gay sex, much less sex that could end in disease and death. This community was, and still is, hard hit by the HIV epidemic. At the Noche de Las Memorias event on Sunday, community members and the team that created what would become the first, and so far only, publicly funded AIDS memorial in the U.S. said that the community that didn’t want to face HIV/AIDS eventually did. But it took a lot of work to get there.

Building Relationships Within Latinx and Faith Communities

In a panel discussion at the event, founder of The Wall Las Memorias Project Richard Zaldivar, and members of his original team, explained how the original vision of a monument in the middle of Lincoln Park started a much-needed conversation and eventually became a place of healing, of education and community engagement.

“Besides building a movement, it created a place for the faith-based community,” Zaldivar said. “[The Wall] was founded with two Catholic priests, which was unheard of across the nation. We created faith-based programs outreach to over 1,000 Latino churches in LA county, and built long-lasting and trusting relationships.”

Getting the buy-in of faith communities, as well as members of the surrounding community, was not instantaneous. Then there was City Hall. The monument, which became six wall panels with murals depicting life with AIDS in the Latinx community and two granite panels containing names of those who had died from AIDS, took 11 years to complete, and there were bureaucratic hurdles one might expect. There were no favors given from City Hall, and no corners cut. It took months to move a piece of paper from one desk to another. And just before the memorial was about to be unveiled on World AIDS Day 2004, the city demanded a security deposit of more than $100,000. The city just recently paid back the deposit with interest.

But the bigger hurdles were put up by the community, as well as right-wing zealots throughout the U.S. who got word of the project. People didn’t want anything associated with AIDS to be seen by children. There were death threats. Conservative radio show host Oliver North instructed his listeners to ask why an AIDS memorial was being built on public land.

Edgar Garcia, now the arts and culture deputy for LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, was on the neighborhood council and tried to get community buy-in for the project. “I was born and raised in Lincoln Heights. I couldn’t take a walk without seeing opposition pamphlets. People were calling my parents.”

Enrique Topete came to the project in 2003 to reach out to at-risk young men in the community and get them into services — by then, The Wall Las Memorias had become more than a memorial — and became the point of contact for people submitting names of loved ones for the wall. “I remember those city council meetings. I saw the fear. And seeing how vicious people could be. But I learned to be patient.”

Eddie Martinez was also hired to educate and organize community and develop prevention programs. “We were empowering men in their 20s and 30s [who] for the most part didn’t lose a circle of friends but came out when (HIV/AIDS) was a death sentence,” Martinez said. “We included the mothers in that process, and we saw how they could actually be supportive and loving.”

Many of those mothers were among more than 1,000 people who came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 1, 2004. Team members remember mothers running to the monument and putting their hands over the names of their children. “I saw the partners and the lovers behind them,” Zaldivar said. “And then I saw a lot of people from the community, a lot of gay men, a lot of families, who walked with their heads up. I said, ‘Thank you, God. We created change.'”

“It cost us money and tried our patience,” Zaldivar continued. “All that was not as relevant as many of our young people who ended up dying of AIDS because they were a Jehovah’s Witness and their family threw them out in the streets.”

A Monument With a Future

The Wall Las Memorias Project in a sense paved the way for other projects, including in New York City and proposed memorials in San Diego and Seattle. And The Wall Las Memorias also provides substance abuse and LGBTQ services throughout Los Angeles and supports an AIDS hospice in Tijuana, Mexico.

The memorial itself is getting a new look, and unveiling of new landscaping will happen in June. But lest anyone think the memorial is only a tribute to people who have passed, rather than a symbol of what still needs to be done, the team of The Wall Las Memorias noted that people are still dying, and that Latinx and transgender people are still disproportionately impacted. One audience member pointed out that several HIV-positive transgender asylum seekers have died in ICE custody due to reportedly inadequate medical care.

At the event, Cheryl Barrit, executive director of the LA County Commission on HIV/AIDS, said everyone stands “on the tall shoulders of the brothers and sisters that have passed. It reminds us that their legacy is a victory over HIV, over stigma, over homophobia, over transphobia, over misogyny, over anti-immigration and all the hurtful things happening around us.”

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