April 11, 2008
González and her son Shaquille
Although injection drug users accounted for a majority of new infections in Puerto Rico, the commonwealth has no needle exchange or other harm reduction programs, and no coherent or coordinated HIV prevention policies aimed at injection drug users. Gloria González, who will be honored on April 17 at the Times Center with a Keith D. Cylar Award (for more information and tickets go to cylarawards.com), says that in her hometown of Fajardo, the mayor has an agreement with an agency in Philadelphia: "The mayor believes that all is needed is detox," González said. "He thinks he has a done a great job by establishing an agreement with an agency in Philadelphia to which he ships injection drug users who are homeless. Let's think about it: Fajardo has an equestrian park, beautiful beaches, ferries which depart for Culebra and Vieques. So, he cleans the streets, he sends them to Philadelphia."
Instead of viewing drug addiction as an isolated problem that needs to be shipped off to another place, González, an HIV-positive former drug user who works with injection drug users in Fajardo, sees drug use as "one branch on an immense tree" that leads to HIV infection and other problems. These other branches include the lack of economic opportunities, illiteracy, employment, stigma, family and mental health.
As winner of the Cylar's U.S. AIDS Activist Award, González receives $10,000. She hopes to use the money to develop a comprehensive center where all of these different issues can be addressed in order to help injection drug users.
"We need to be able to hold the hands of drug users throughout the process," González said. "It may start with not injecting once or going to detox for twenty days. But then what? You go back into a community where there is stigma, where you are stigmatized because you have used, because you can't read or write, and where you have Hep C or HIV. You have been denied care in the local hospital because you were homeless and positive. Now you are able to take a shower, but you are HIV-positive. You still can't read. You are still poor and live in a town where you are looked down upon. The stigma remains."
'HIV came to kill me, but it has also given me life'
When González received a call from Housing Works President and CEO Charles King telling her she that she had won a Cylar Award and that it came with a $10,000 prize, she thought it was a crank call. "I honestly thought it was a joke," she told the Update, through a Spanish translator. Even after Housing Works Vice President of Development Robert Cordero called back to explain, González was skeptical and asked that the award letter be faxed to her. When she got to Bill's Kitchen—a non-profit agency on the island that provides nutritional supplements and meals to persons living with HIV/AIDS where she volunteers—her colleagues denied that a fax arrived. "I thought to myself, 'See, I knew it was a joke—too good to be true.' But then everyone started applauding and congratulating me."
In addition to the lack of prevention among injection drug users, Puerto Rico has a broadly mismanaged ongoing AIDS crisis. There have been protests in the U.S. demanding oversight by the Human Resources and Services Administration, and an investigation into the mismanagement and fraud that has led to a crippling of Puerto Rico's AIDS health care infrastructure.
González got HIV through drug use. She was diagnosed with HIV and Hepatitis C after her skin turned a tell-tale yellow. Still, González continued to use drugs for a year after being diagnosed, but eventually got into a 12 step program. She has been sober for 15 years. "HIV is what got me out of the world of drug use," she said. "HIV and I, we live together in harmony, because HIV came to kill me, but it also has given me life."
After five years of sobriety, González felt comfortable going back to the shooting galleries and street corners where she had once gone as an addict, in order to reach out to her peers. Worried about a relapse, she started simply, delivering food and clothes to the people she used to live with.
But González, who has a 12-year-old son, soon felt she needed to do more. "I was sitting in my car. The air conditioner was on, full blast, it was nice and cool in the car. My nails were flawless because I had just gotten a manicure, and I felt clean with my freshly washed hair—the whole works. And then I saw her. I was stopped at a red light and I saw her. Skinny, bones sticking through her skin. Skeletal. I knew she was smelly even if she was outside, standing a little bit away, and I was inside. And I could see the lesions, veins popping and track marks that ran up and own her arms, if not also her legs. I saw myself."
González threw herself full-force into her fight for AIDS treatment, prevention and housing for injection drug users in Puerto Rico. While many Puerto Ricans look at active drug users with shame, González works with them as a community, providing hope and goods such as food, water and clothing, which for them are luxuries.
For González, the Cylar Award represents a decade-long commitment to fighting AIDS in Puerto Rico. "This is my passion, it is my pain. I was there. I know what it is," González said. "I do not want glory. What I want is to work for my people and that is on the streets."