After her HIV diagnosis and clinical depression in 1994, Claudia Medina wanted to help other people living with HIV/AIDS. Born in Colombia, South America, she began by volunteering in Toronto, where she had lived ever since the age of 5. She joined the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation’s (PWA) Speakers Bureau and became a caseworker at PWA. Dissatisfied for years with the level of HIV awareness and support in the Latino community, Medina recently co-founded Latinos Positivos, a network for Latino people living with HIV/AIDS.
What drew you to the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (PWA)?
PWA helped me recognize that after diagnosis [with HIV] you can have a life, you can have a future. When a position was vacant, I applied for the job so that I could give back the help that I got when I was newly diagnosed.
You’ve said that you suffered from depression after your diagnosis. How did you know you were depressed and needed help?
When I was diagnosed, everything was gray and blurred. You know that you are depressed when you can’t get out of that—when every day, every single hour of the day, you are living in that. As a mother, playing with my son—who was very young at the time—laughing with him, doing things like that were important. When I realized that I couldn’t even do those things anymore, I said, “OK, I really need to do something about this.” I was also noticing that I was alienating the people around me. When you’re depressed you seclude yourself and you don’t want to deal with life. So you push away the people who are close to you.
What helped you get past the depression?
The main thing I needed assistance with was getting on antidepressants. I also needed to talk about my diagnosis with a counselor—to discuss what it meant for my life and my future. That got me through. It also helped keep me motivated—and so did my emotional connection with my son, who was very young at the time. He kept me motivated to struggle through the depression and get out of it—to do something positive with my life. But depression is an ongoing disability. It’s not something that goes away fully—it can creep back.
Is dealing with depression different for members of the Latino community?
I think the Latino community still attaches a stigma to living with depression. I’ve received this kind of treatment from my own family. It’s a message that you’re not a strong enough woman to handle things. We have strong maternal ancestors who have been through much harsher times than we have in this generation. And the whole idea is that Latina women have been through rough times but haven’t [become depressed], haven’t given up on life. The message is, “You’ve just got to move ahead.” And the stigma about seeing a psychiatrist is strong. Western society as a whole has been able to recognize [the need for psychiatrists and therapy for depression]. But we have a little more work to do in the Latino and Caribbean communities.
Why did you start Latinos Positivos?
When I was tested and diagnosed, there wasn’t any support for me as a Latina woman. Unfortunately, there was no viable AIDS movement in the Hispanic community. So [several of us] co-founded Latinos Positivos in December 2007, because we were just getting tired of not seeing an enhancement in services provided to our Latino people living with HIV. I see people who have [had HIV] for over 15 years, and they are coming here [to PWA and Latinos Positivos] for the first time. That scares me, because there hasn’t been anything prior to [our work].
How does the Latino community deal with HIV/AIDS?
The Latino community here in Toronto has a long way to go to before it is completely supportive and educated on HIV and AIDS. I’m shocked by what I hear Latino people in Toronto say, how they talk about people who are HIV positive. The judgment that is placed on people living with HIV is unbelievable. To this day there are still Latino people that say, “Oh, HIV just happens to gay men.” In the Toronto newspapers we see [positive] women’s faces, we see the faces of [positive] men who are not gay. So why is the message not getting to the Latino and Caribbean communities? I feel it stems from how we’ve been brought up and how religious beliefs come into play. For instance, “If you are a good Christian, nothing like this will happen to you,” which is the complete opposite in my story. I became a born-again Christian when I was 16, and it still happened to me. I was a straight woman with my second partner and it still happened to me.
How has Latino Positivos been received thus far?
PWA has been very supportive. They allowed me to do this as a community development aspect of my job. We talked about Latinos Positivos and out of that came the idea of starting a support group. We also have an educational video, all in Spanish, of people who are living with HIV. A number of HIV-positive Latino people, including me, tell our stories and talk about living with HIV.
How does the future look for this work?
A lot of the Latino people living with HIV are new immigrants here, and now they are beginning to want support. The beautiful thing is that they are willing to put energy into the community, and they want to educate others. It’s really exciting—something that I have been waiting to see for years. We’ve definitely been experiencing growing pains, just like every network or small organization. I am very touched by all of the people in the network who have made it what it is.
For more information: pwatoronto.org.
Editor’s note: Several errors in the previous version of this storyhave been corrected in this version. These include the acronym for theToronto People With AIDS Foundation and a detailabout Claudia Medina’s life.