By Raymond R. Beltran
Smiley Rodriguez was only five years old, living in Puerto Rico, when a man snuck into her mother’s bar while they were asleep. She vaguely remembers any specific details about that night, except that the windows at the bar were old fashion, double-doors made out of wood, no glass. At the time, Smiley was living in poverty, and her mother was a cook working from one restaurant to the next, then finally finding a job in a local bar where they also lived. The man crept through the archaic-style window without having to break any glass or wake the mother. He stepped over to the couch where the five year old slept, climbed on top of her and raped her.
To this day, 39 year old Smiley Rodriguez does not remember the face of the man that has since had a devastating impact on her life, nor has she ever reported the incident to her mother or any officials. While leaving the scene, the rapist probably did not know, or care, that what he was leaving behind was a child branded for life by the idea of defeat, self loathing, and a future ravaged by molestation, prostitution, drug abuse, and AIDS.
“I don’t remember his face, but I remember [the incident] like a picture of what happened to me that night,” says Smiley. “I guess I knew who he was, so I blacked out his face. I never told my mother because I was real afraid of her, and I always blamed myself ... I always felt that their was something wrong about sex. I never felt comfortable. Mentally, it really messed me up a lot.”
Today, Smiley Rodriguez is a survivor of many obstacles related to poverty, lack of education, and being a foreigner living in the U.S. Having come to the realization of her homosexuality, with a history of prostitution and drug abuse when she migrated to the east coast, Smiley is beginning a new life of activism in the lesbian and HIV/AIDS community in San Diego where she says she feels more comfortable to be who she is, a lesbian living with the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
When Smiley had turned seventeen, she was already a wife, a mother, and still a citizen of Puerto Rico. Escaping an abusive husband as well as her father, a well known murderer having killed his wife and unborn child, Smiley fled to New York City to begin a new life. Leaving behind a six month old child, who was lost in a custody battle, the U.S. wasn’t what she had expected it to be at all.
Not knowing how to speak English, and having been acquainted with what Smiley calls survival sex in Puerto Rico, she began her life as a prostitute in order to make enough money to eat, pay her bills, and rent a place with her aunt. Her dreams of getting an education, a career, and returning to Puerto Rico to gain custody of her daughter were turning into a reverie that was quickly drifting from the reality of her life in the U.S.
“I guess because in Puerto Rico I saw a lot of advertising about the U.S. I didn’t know English and there was so much crime and everything. I got raped so many times, and beat up,” she says staring down at the floor. “If we are going to talk about prostitution, it has a different meaning for me than other people. No, I never enjoyed what I did. For me, I feel that prostitution is any exchange we do for sex or intimacy. It doesn’t have to be drugs or money; it can also be other things to. It doesn’t have to be in the streets either. It can be to get food, milk for the kids, or even to pay for college. Prostitution is the oldest profession and does not discriminate against anyone, men or women, young or older, of any nationality. There’s a lot of survival sex out there. It’s not just about drugs. It’s a circle. A person can get introduce to drugs from his/her clients after having been in this profession others have to do the drugs to be able to work.”
While living in the ghettos of South Bronx, New York City, it was inevitable that Smiley would be introduced to some of the most harsh drugs available. She began smoking marijuana with people she met while taking English courses at a local high school. Soon after that, marijuana became a habit that her aunt was not able to tolerate. Smiley was evicted from the home and spent much of her time living in many different cracks of urban NYC, “trains, parks, benches, boxes, etc.” She dug for food in trash cans, and began networking with others living on the streets in search for more addictive and hazardous narcotics, heroine and cocaine. Mixed in with the underground drug scene, she spent much of her late teenage years in and out of prison for possession of illegal substances, prostitution, and various other crimes, and the jail sentences began to look like salvation from homelessness and feeling the need to hide her homosexuality.
“Jail was where I had my first lesbian relationship. For me it was a new world. I always had feelings, but I couldn’t express myself until I went to jail where I felt normal ... to be able to get accepted. But for many years I had to play normal in the real world when I didn’t feel normal. We’d [her girlfriends and herself would] have to pass notes, hide and have people watch out for us. It was a thrill for me. Excitement! I went back to jail-many times, always for drug-related charges. I did anything from shoplifting to prostitution, to violent crimes. I’d go in three months, come out for two weeks, and go back in for six months. No programs at all. All I learned was new ways to do my business.”
In 1985, Smiley Rodriguez was diagnosed with HIV. At this time, she was a 21 year old living her life in the height of a serious drug addiction. She weighed 119 lbs and would intravenously shoot up ten to twenty bags of heroine daily. She was spending thousands of dollars on cocaine, pills, alcohol, and they would be taken simultaneously. Although she knew the consequences of being HIV positive, she says that at the time she was too intoxicated to care, and all she remembers is that people would no longer share needles with her. For Smiley, life remained like this for the next few years.
“Sometimes it’s a real struggle. Especially when you are alone ... I was really drunk and high, and a woman came by the sidewalk. She was with another woman and was giving out some stuff. I noticed people were going over to her to get something. I crossed the street to find out what she was giving out. I mean I always looked for free stuff. I went over to her, and she starts talking to me. I remember her talking to me, asking me how I was doing and who I was. She found me a place to stay for the night with the help of someone who is very special to me today. For me, the women that did outreach [for people like] me saved my life, and she is my guardian angel. I never knew anyone that cared for me. So, I went to detox the next day.”
Since that day, Smiley Rodriguez has transformed herself into a motivated individual with extensive training, education, and experience within HIV communities from the east coast, moving to Massachusetts where she educated herself, to San Diego where she lives today. She attributes the transformation to the group CLV (Comite Luchando por Vidas). This organization is supposedly based in Massachusetts and is committed to rehabilitating those who live, work, and use on the streets. What attracted Smiley to them, and what ultimately lured her into rehabilitation, was the style of approach of the individuals in CLV. She says they were very personable, they didn’t make her feel less than human, and they spoke to her as Smiley, a woman trying to survive just as everyone else. She incorporates these types of techniques that she was approached with and applies them to her activism today.
Since 1990, Smiley has been mentally preparing herself to take on the war with HIV/AIDS. She began her activism in Springfield, Massachusetts with an organization called Arise for Social Justice that concentrates on social/political issues dealing with ‘minorities.’ After acquiring outreach and organizing experience through that, she took her activism in a more personal direction. She earned her long awaited GED at Owl Center in Springfield, and among several other institutes she earned many certificates allowing her to reach out to other HIV/AIDS victims. One was a Hispanic HIV/AIDS Educator Certificate from the American Red Cross. Following her education was an extensive career in voluntary activism beginning as a sex industry outreach volunteer with the AIDS Alliance Bridge Team, a jail/prison committee member of the Western Massachusetts Alliance of Latinos to Overcome AIDS, and a an executive board member of Casa Latina Inc. in Northampton, Ma.
Recently having moved to San Diego, Smiley has been diagnosed with AIDS, and she continues her career as an outreach worker.
“We used to do outreach work with women who are high risk. We need to go to the streets to be a bridge to help them. We need to guide them and accept them the way they are. They [CLV] were real positive, and we appreciated it,” she says. “I think San Diego is not like in New York. People in New York are going to the streets whether they’re prostitutes, or not. I don’t see that here. It’s a whole process. To connect, [people] have to meet with them where they’re at.”
Smiley is currently working with the San Diego HIV Consumer Council. The HCC functions as an advisory board for the San Diego County HIV Title I/II Planning Council to direct allocated funds specifically for the needs of the HIV/AIDS community. She frequents Christie’s Place, A Support Center for Families Living with HIV/AIDS. There, volunteers and staff serve the community with childcare, babysitting, educational workshops and seminars, clothing, emergency food, and much more. Plus, they are the only outreach center of its kind to be supported by funds through the Ryan White Care Act.
One of Smiley’s first concerns for San Diego is the public’s misconceptions about lesbians and HIV/AIDS. She admits that there has been a number of incidents where she’s been turned away for health care, or said not to have been a real lesbian since she has AIDS. The misconception is that lesbians have sex with other lesbians, hence, lesbians couldn’t possibly have AIDS. Lack of education in with this pandemic reflects the many falsities and suspicions with which it arose. Initially known in 1981 as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), AIDS has gone through an evolution of rumors, and Smiley suffers through one right now.
“For me, it’s been harder than for gay men. There is no HIV information for lesbian women, because they think lesbians don’t get HIV. So, there’s no services for us. I dealt with rejection on the east coast when I became pregnant. My doctor didn’t want to see me. Here in San Diego, it’s been very positive. People are more educated and they accept you. They don’t put you in a little box.”
Smiley says she’s more comfortable in the San Diego community, which HIV/AIDS has a prevalent rate of 64% of the victims being in Central San Diego and 11.3% in North County, the two largest percentages in the entire county. 92.8% are males, but these are estimations of only people that have been tested. In joining a valid war, Smiley volunteered in last week’s Gay Pride Day celebration in Hillcrest.
To combat the misconception about lesbians and HIV/AIDS, Smiley is working towards building an organization called Women’s Voices. It will focus solely on the women’s HIV/AIDS community, and lesbian issues will be addressed. Although, it hasn’t come together yet, the website is under construction at www.geocities.com/women_voices, and Smiley invites possible members to contact her at email@example.com.
Smiley Rodriguez has earned a Statewide Community Recognition Award from the AIDS Action Committee and a Statewide Award from Partners in Prevention. Both awards issued in Massachusetts in 1998.
“The women on the streets are still at high risk. They feel the way I felt. It’s harder for any women on the streets who’s doing drugs to turn to any agency. You have to feel good about yourself in order to go forward, and when I was out there I just had no self-esteem,” she says. “I think what helps is to be active in the community and not to forget the past.”