March 7, 2008

Off the Streets: A Resident of a Tijuana AIDS Hospice Tells Her Story

Stories Against the Silence: HIV/AIDS in the Latino Community

By Adolfo Flores
New America Media

Editor’s Note: HIV in the Latino community profiles Marcella Lopez Bravo, a patient living with AIDS at Casa Hogar Las Memorias - the only AIDS/HIV hospice in Baja California. Latinos only make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 18 percent of new HIV cases in the United States. “Stories Against the Silence: HIV/AIDS in the Latino Community” aims to bring awareness to this growing but silent epidemic.

Just 20 years ago, Marcela Lopez Bravo’s mother went into labor with her. Bravo’s aunt Margarita, 15 years old, accompanied her sister through the hills of Guanajuato in search of a doctor, but they couldn’t make it. So Margarita had to be the midwife of her niece, bringing her into the world. Lopez tells the story of her dramatic birth with pride, as though she herself remembers.

Now, López lives with HIV, tuberculosis and herpes in Casa Hogar Las Memorias, where her aunt Margarita died of AIDS.

López began to use drugs at 13 and since that moment her life changed forever. The relationship between her family deteriorated and she left home. She lived for four years on the street – four years that left her worn out and with a broken spirit.

At 16, she was admitted to the Center for Integration and Recuperation for Alcoholics and Drug Addicts (CIRAD), since she was addicted to crystal methamphetamine. It was in this rehabilitation center that she met José Rafael. The two began a relationship, lived together and Jose Rafael passed the HIV virus on to López. They had sex without a condom and at first had no idea that he was HIV-positive. It wasn’t until a friend that worked in Social Security told Marcela that José Rafael was HIV-positive that she realized it.

She felt betrayed and went to ask José Rafael. He wasn’t home, but his mother was. When she told her what she’d heard, José Rafael’s mother told her not to say anything to her son and bought her a large ice-cream to supposedly comfort her.

“How am I not going to tell him, it is my life,” López responded.

When she saw José Rafael she told him that he had betrayed her. He began to cry – telling her that he didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to loose her. She continued her relationship with him, but they fought for months to come. Three years ago, José Rafael died in her arms.

“Sometimes I think about him a lot,” she said.

During the year in which she lived with José Rafael – she met Arturo, a friend of his that also used drugs. Two months after José Rafael died, they began a relationship. Arturo knew López was HIV-positive, she remembered, even so – they had sex without a condom. Although Arturo used drugs, he didn’t like that she did and many fights were born from this. In the seventh month of their relationship, she became pregnant and was expecting a girl. Arturo denied the unborn child was his and left López.

She is still resentful of what Arturo said.

“He came to see me on the street with my stomach,” López said. “He told me it wasn’t his.”

López began to live on the streets of Rosarito and continued to use drugs during the pregnancy. One Sunday afternoon she went to a bar, La Escondida, looking for her friend Carlos. But in his place, she found Jason – an American of 28 years with grayish blue eyes.

Jason entered López’s life like a light in a very dark world that little by little continued to grow. He saw her dirty, hungry and one month pregnant. He told her that she had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen in his life. He offered her drugs and food. López with hunger for both went with him. But Jason didn’t give her drugs, only food and a mobile home so she would have a roof over her head. He asked her not to use drugs and to check into rehab.

Jason and López started having sex with a condom. Jason knew that she was HIV-positive. Three weeks later she ran away to continue her life on the streets. Even so, Jason found her and made her return home. Since Jason was from California he would go every weekend to visit her. Many nights they would park in a ranch watch the stars. But López’s life didn’t change for the better.

When she was seventh months pregnant she began to have strong stomach pains. She went to the Red Cross where doctors informed her that the girl had come in dead. She never saw her daughter. The second day the doctors told her to sign some papers and was then taken to jail for three days, arguing that she had killed her daughter with drugs. She already had a name for the daughter, she was to be named Julie July, but never came to baptizing her.

“Living on the streets isn’t nice,” she said, “you have to put up with a lot of things.”

During the years she lived on the streets, López would sleep in a garbage dump, where she would spend days sitting waiting for someone to walk buy and giver her money for food. She thought of going home, but couldn’t stand the thought of leaving drugs.

One night a girlfriend took her to prostitute herself to earn money for drugs. She said she only prostituted herself three times and that she used protection. Her customers would pay her with drugs and money.

“Doing it with someone you don’t love isn’t nice,” she said looking at the floor. “I did it out of necessity, for money.”

One of the drugs used to pay her made her ill. She wouldn’t stop vomiting and she felt dizzy. She got to the point that her friend took her to the Red Cross, where they injected her with penicillin.

Apart from withstanding hunger, she also withstood danger. One night a man she didn’t know very well asked her if she wanted crystal. She accepted the offer and they got high on crystal meth together. While she was under the effect of the drugs, the man raped her. She fought him, but her efforts were in vain.

“All for being on the street,” she said, “having a house, a room and everything.”

One rainy day, Jason asked López to sign herself in at a rehabilitation center. That same day he took her with all of her clothes to admit herself at the center. Upon arriving there, she had regrets and asked that they turn back. Jason got angry and took her home. That was the only time he got angry with her and also the last time he saw her.

Saturday and Sunday passed without Jason seeing her. She cried because she felt she had lost the person that had brought her such happiness. It was then that she made a decision: She asked a friend to take her to the Rehabilitation Center for Sick Alcoholics (CREA) in Rosarito.

According to López, her battle towards rehabilitation wasn’t only with drugs, but also surviving mistreatment that she experienced in CREA. When a nurse told López to take off a necklace that Jason had given her for her nineteenth birthday. López refused and it was then that the first of many blows. She was then tied up and left on the cold floor. So cold that her hands fell asleep and turned purple.

The women were forced to carry buckets of water up and down a flight of stairs without rest or water. Even the director would hit the women there, she said. López will never forget a woman who tried to escape from the rehabilitation center, but failed. The director left her face purple and bloody.

Three months later, López got sick from tuberculosis and was transferred to a health center. She couldn’t walk and her immunities were low. Her mother picked her up and took her to the hospice “Las Memorias,” where she’s been since June of 2006.

She has a strong guilt and regrets having hurt her family. She blames herself for the death of her grandmother, who cared for her aunt Margarita while she died due to AIDS. She tells that when she told her grandmother she was HIV-positive, her grandmother died of sadness a short time after.

“[Let’s just say], that I killed her knowing that one day I would die,” López said.

She never forgot the day her mother found out she was HIV-positive. It was Mother’s Day and López had gone home to give her a gift. Her sister knew she had HIV and told her mother. That day, her mother asked her if she was HIV-positive.

“Yes,” López told her, clarifying that it was the most difficult moment of having HIV.

Now, López is weak with a voice that can barely be heard. She takes retroviral medicines that make her weak and dreams of going back home with her family to fix her relationship with them.

“The most beautiful moment that I could live would be that my mother would come and lay down with me and comfort me,” she said.

The series first ran in Spanish in “El Nuevo Sol,” a publication for Spanish-speaking college journalists at California State University, Northridge.

Return to the Frontpage