On Dec. 1, the Puerto Rican Community Center (PRCC) and Vida/SIDA celebrated World AIDS Day with a candlelight vigil in the afternoon and a commemorative show at The Baton Show Lounge in the evening. The earlier event saw well over 100 participants as they marched from the TransEmpowerment Center at 2753 W. Division to La Casita de Don Pedro at 2625 W. Division St. for a short rally.
Before the vigil kicked off, PRCC Executive Director Jose Lopez set the tone by speaking on four trans women who were pioneers in the Chicago Puerto Rican community as he stood in front of a gigantic painting of them by artist Cristian Rolvan. Lopez noted that without the fourMs. Ketty, Marixa, Jeanette and Valentinothe community would have been ravaged by HIV and ignorance.
After the vigil Lopez spoke at length about the history and purpose of PRCC and Vida/SIDA: "We've been doing this [celebrating World AIDS Day] since 1988. We are one of the only communities that acknowledges World AIDS Day."
Lopez said, "When AIDS came, it struck as a plague in the community and we were in denial. AIDS was worse in communities of color…[including] the Puerto Rican community and the Black community. Death has an entirely different meaning in this community. When I was a little boy in Puerto Rico, it was a tradition to sit with the deceased for twelve hours with the coffin open on the same table where we ate. With HIV, those coffins were closed."
He continued, "The President, Ronald Reagan [implied that] at the time, 'AIDS is a gay disease,' and you don't need to be concerned about it.' In the world and in the Puerto Rican community, there was a lot of mis-information about the disease…[such as] you can get it by touching or kissing someone. But in our community, we had our own homophobia to face... We believed that AIDS is God's punishment. We said there is something wrong with this picture and we challenged it...we took it on."
Lopez further noted the ground breaking efforts by noted epidemiologist Steven Wakefied (whose studies on health inequities helped frame much of the health and wellness work under taken by the PRCC), Ferd Eggan ( a member of ACT UP) and Bartolo Hernandez de Jesus (a founder of Vida/SIDA).
Lopez closed his remarks by asking all who were present to "see this moment from a serious point of view. We celebrate for people who have lived and died and this is the only way to keep them alive...is to celebrate them."
The event at The Baton may have been a celebration with male and female performers taking the stage, but many participants nevertheless leavened the excitement and joy with poignancy. After her rousing performance, Lisa Cruz spoke about how hard it was to find out that she was HIV positive back in the '80's and how the therapeutic choices were not only few but highly toxic. Her story of survival and perseverance brought the crowd to its feet. Performer Neal Debonair disclosed that he is HIV-positive and further admitted that this was the first time he had admitted the news to anyone except his mother, who was sitting in the audience. Eve Stiles incorporated her status as an undocumented immigrant in her musical performance, while noting the importance of PrEP and an awareness of mpox. She also laughed that her rousing performance was her stage debut.