Michelle Lopez is a 45-year-old resident of Brooklyn, N.Y. Originally from Trinidad, she has lived in the U.S. for 28 years, and has been living with HIV since 1990. In a personal letter to Black women, written for ESSENCE.com in honor of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (March 10), she recounts her story as a survivor of sexual abuse and rape, and as an AIDS advocate keen to share her perspective.
To My Sisters Far and Wide:
I am taking the time to write to you because of my true belief that I am my sister’s keeper. I may not be a beauty queen or the minister’s wife, but as a Black woman, I have endured much that is common to a lot of women in our community. I feel compelled to tell you about my experience. This is my story.
I arrived in Brooklyn from Trinidad at age 17 with my aunt Jacqueline. Hoping to quell my rebellious nature, my parents sent me to America in 1984 to live with her. The day I arrived, the air was frigid, and there was a snow storm. But despite this cold, my heart was red with rage because of the anger and hurt I felt towards my parents for sending me away from them.
What my parents did not know was that I was rebellious because I did not value myself. You see, at the tender age of seven, I was sexually molested by my three god-brothers. This continued until I was 11 years old. I told no one because I wanted to protect my younger brother, who at the time was living with my godmother’s family. At the age of fourteen, I attempted suicide for the first time, and when I was sixteen, I tried again and went into a coma. I awoke three days later in a cold room with my mother at my bedside and a priest standing over me saying that, if I had died, I was going to hell and God would never forgive me.
That year, my aunt Jacqueline was visiting Trinidad for Carnival, and she offered to bring me to live with her in Brooklyn. My parents thought this was the best thing that could happen for me because they were afraid that I was going to lose my life to the streets, or that I would try to kill myself again. But two months after arriving in New York City, my aunt was evicted, and I had to get a job as a domestic worker. My older sister, who also lived in New York, advised me that domestic work “is what us West Indian women must do to survive.” My life was downhill for a time – I survived a gang rape, and I had a son with a man who was a drug dealer.
But then in 1989, I met Clyde, the father of my daughter Raven, and things started to look up for me. It was a cold and rainy morning, and I was walking through the streets of Harlem, wet and hungry. Clyde was standing at a corner looking good. Two months later, I was living in Harlem with Clyde, and I had sent my son to live with my parents back in Trinidad. I was madly in love and was pregnant with Clyde’s baby. I felt like I was on top of the world. For the first time in my life, I felt safe and I felt special. Clyde took care of me. He provided for me and promised he was going to marry me.
Twenty-two years later, both my daughter Raven and I have been living with HIV, which I contracted from Clyde, and passed on to my daughter during pregnancy. But in spite of my diagnosis, my dear sisters, I got the opportunity to go to school, earn my degree as a public health educator, and I go to Church to thank God every day for sparing my life and for granting me the opportunity to be able to raise my two children. I choose to write this letter to you all because I feel obligated to say to you: Don’t leave your lives in the hands of another.
I’ve heard many sisters who are living with HIV say that their partner gave them the virus. But many times, something is given to us only if we choose to accept it. Every sister I know who is living with this disease (myself included) did not ask for or accept HIV from her man. We had no idea that HIV was in the midst of our relationship, so I say we can’t point our finger and blame the one who gave it to us. We need to protect ourselves. Also, let’s be real: It’s not as if we’ve made it easy for someone to disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner.
Today, I live with HIV, diabetes, and HPV, but they don’t define me. I’m a mother, a daughter, and a community activist. I love to help those in need, and I don’t let HIV slow me down. I am the treatment educator at a health center in New York, and I work with individuals living with the virus, including Black women of all socioeconomic statuses, education levels, and professions. I educate my community on HIV treatment options. I help the homeless who are infected, and in need, get the care and treatment they deserve. I work with a team of clinicians, and I sit on the board of directors of local and national organizations.
In short, I beat the odds, and I work every day to help sisters take care of their bodies and be proactive in taking steps to prevent becoming infected with HIV. If my story teaches you anything, I hope you’ll do the same. Know your HIV status. Know your partners’ HIV status before taking the relationship to the next level. And if you are living with HIV, know that it doesn’t have to define who you are.
Michelle is planning on being one of the over 20,000 delegates at the XIX International AIDS Conference that will be held in Washington, D.C. from 22-27 July. The conference is returning to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years. It brings together leaders in science, community, and government, who will come together to formulate a path forward with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For more information, visit www.aids2012.org.