You may have heard of Ariel Sabillon. The 21-year-old college student, originally from Honduras, is now facing an HIV criminalization charges in Florida for non-disclosure. But Sabillon is so much more than that. Like most people in similar situations, his story began long before the day a former partner reported him to the police.
I met Sabillon at the U.S. Conference on AIDS (USCA 2018), where we had this conversation. We understood so much about one another, both being from Central American countries that are currently facing levels of violence almost unthinkable to many people, and that is one of the things that led both our families to flee to the United States.
We spoke about being HIV-positive Latinx queer immigrants, stigma, HIV criminalization, and how we've found refuge in #centralamericantwitter.
Ariel Sabillon: So, college was really interesting, because there were a few things happening before I got to college. One was my HIV diagnosis.
GA: Which you found out in ...?
AS: In the summer before my senior year of high school -- which actually didn't bother me too much. I was just like: "OK. I'm HIV now. That's fine." I was like, "Oh!" Like, crap.
GA: So you were already sexually active?
AS: I was very sexually active. Yes.
GA: And I'm just in shock, because in high school I was quarantined. I couldn't go out because my family was like, "You can't go out and hangout with people who are not Jehovah's Witnesses."
AS: My family? My parents separated when I was in the 8th grade. They got separated. So, I went with my mom. My older brother went his separate way. He got his own house. And my little brother stayed with my dad. And my little sister went back and forth.
And my mom worked long days. So, she was never home. So, even if she said, "You can't go out," like, who are you to tell me I can't go out? You're not even here, so .... Not that she wouldn't. I mean, she let me do whatever. So, yes. I was very, very sexually active during my high school years -- almost to the point that it was not healthy.
So, it wasn't like surprising to me, but I was obviously in shock, and it took a minute for me to get used to it. But I was very devoted to my school. I ran cross country. I applied for scholarships. I have a full ride to Florida State. Everything is paid for, for me. I haven't worked in like two years.
AS: So, everything changed. Because I became naturalized right before Obama went out. So, I became naturalized so I could vote in the election. I've always been very political. And I was like, I have to fill my paper out. Let me do it so I can vote. And then that happened, and I was just like, oh, my God. I don't know what to think anymore. Everything that I thought about the U.S., it's wrong, obviously.
And then, it was just difficult. I don't know how to explain it. It was just like I was a minority. People didn't speak my language. I was so used to speaking Spanglish all the time, and, like, my food.
I'm also from a working-class neighborhood. And most people in college are not from a working-class neighborhood. So, I was very misrepresented.
And for two years, my freshman and sophomore year, everything was paid for; I was fine financially. But I just didn't know how to navigate college. I was failing my classes. I got really bad grades -- or, bad grades for my standards.
And then there was the whole HIV thing, and I just -- I wasn't telling people about it. And then I was having a lot, a lot, of sex. But I didn't want to be having a lot of sex. I was just doing it to feel good, I guess, like, to feel validated.
And Mami was so proud of me, too. She was like, "Oh, my God." Our relationship had healed by then. We had mended. We had open conversations and we became really good friends. And we're really good now.
But she was so proud of me. And I didn't want to tell her, "I fucking hate this; I want to go back." Like, I hated it. I hated it. I hated it so much. Just, like, everybody was rich. I felt like everybody was rich. Everybody was white. Everybody was not like me.
And the queer community, the gay community, it was mostly white boys who didn't really care for the politics that comes with being gay. Does that make sense? There's this whole movement, this whole, like. ...
GA: I used to call them "the Plastics."
AS: It felt very much like that. And I think the turning point through all this, when everything was piling up, piling up, was when this guy reported me.
GA: Oh. To the school?
GA: Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I'm from California, and being in the Bay and LA, I'm very sheltered. I'm very much in a bubble. So, it's different for me than to say that you're from Florida, you know?
AS: So, in Florida, you can be in prison for 30 years for having sex without telling your partner that you have HIV, that you're HIV positive. You will become a registered sex offender and that will be in your record. You know? So, it really fucks you up. It's ridiculous.
I was just so depressed -- not just because of the HIV, I guess, but just because I felt so alienated from the larger college community. I was just so different.
I think that kind of started changing when I met my best friend now, Gabriel. Gabriel is a drag performer. He's Cuban, Miami Cuban. And we became really good friends. And we started talking. And one day, I just confided in him a lot. I was like, "Yeah, I'm HIV positive."
And he was like, "Yeah. I am, too." And this was shortly before the guy reported me.
And we had conversations about, like, "OK. Do you tell your partners?"
And he's like, "Yeah, I do. Because the law, whatever it is."
And I told him, "Oh, I don't always, you know, disclose."
And he was like, Papi, you know you have to.
And I was like: "Yeah, I know. I just, like, you know? I'm just insecure about it, I guess. I don't; I don't want to -- I deal with a lot of insecurities already. This is like another thing to add to that."
And then that happened. After that happened, I went to Honduras. I was just so stressed. I was like, oh, my God. And then going to Honduras brought a lot of trauma, too.
GA: So you were on break already, right? You were on break, on vacation, from your studies?
GA: What would you want people to know? Someone who's HIV poz and a young person like you are? What kind of advice would you give to another young person who is HIV positive?
AS: Don't apologize. Don't feel bad for yourself. And never apologize for being poz to your partners. You're just -- you're poz; that's it. This is it. There's many things about you. This is one of them. So, I would be, like, you know, don't feel like someone's doing you a favor accepting you.
GA: Or dating you, or something.
AS: Yeah. They're not doing you a favor. I mean, if they are, it's not because of that. That's just, it is what it is. It's not really a big deal.
GA: Actually, being Central American, myself, and having read your article, I thought that was very empowering to read about another person who is Central American, who is poz, who is first generation, and who's overcoming all of these other obstacles, as well. And I think that that, to me, is what also stood out in the article -- on top of what you were going through and how you were able to navigate that.
But that's one of the reasons why we have Central American Twitter, right? And we have these new platforms. Because, you know, we are the next generation of Central Americans. And I think that it's really, really important that we empower ourselves and that we continue to learn about each other's struggles.
AS: Yeah, I agree. And I think, I think there's a lot of trauma, even within us. Like, my friend; he's from Nicaragua. And a lot of the time he's like, "I just can't sleep."
I'm like, "Why can't you sleep?"
And he's like, "I can't stop thinking about what's going on. There are students being killed for doing what we're doing here." And it's almost like you have that privilege and you feel guilty about it in a way. It's like it's just so much privilege to be able to do what I'm doing.
And then when I went public about my status. There's this organization called Rise Up to HIV; they're like a social media platform. And they posted my story, and whatever. And people from Honduras were writing to me, and they were telling me about what they go through.
And they still write to me. They have me on Instagram and stuff. And we talk a lot about how they want to fucking leave. Like, they feel trapped, you know? And it's sad that they feel trapped in their own country and that there's a lack of investment in the youth. Not just that -- we're killing our youth, and we're not taking care of them. And, a lot of the time ....
GA: It's the worst feeling to get those messages from home country, and then they start messaging you. It's something like they want legal advice, or they want to know what you can do.
The truth is I feel powerless, especially with everything going on. But, at the same time, I feel like with Central American Twitter -- and I bring that up just because it's such a platform, you know? It's such a place where ....
AS: Of course, yeah. It really is. It's where all the discourse is happening.
GA: Exactly. It's where discourse, where these conversations, are happening. And I think that's really important for us and for our identity, especially when you're bringing up this idea that we've been conditioned to hate ourselves. And it's sort of decolonizing that -- or whatever you want to call it, you know?
Finding that support and community, regardless of borders and nations and the skin that we inhabit. There's that familiarity with just being able to talk to someone and say, "They kind of understand what I've experienced when I was a little kid, when I didn't even have a word to put into these labels. I just had the feeling and the sensation they get it." You know? I think that's really important.
AS: Yeah. I think there's so much stuff to unpack, you know? I try to tell my family, but they're like, "Uh-huh; I guess." They're obviously not educated about these things just yet.
But they feel it. They sure feel it. They know what I'm talking about. My grandma, she remembers that. It's been, since I said that, it was like 13 years. And she remembered me being oppressive towards her, because she's more indigenous. She remembered that. You know what I mean? So, it obviously affected her. It's obviously something that affected her.
And people still make fun of her. Our own family members still talk down to her. And no one criticizes them. No one is there saying, "Um, maybe we shouldn't talk this way about ourselves."
Why do we hate ourselves so much? Why is my sister feeling bad for the color of her skin? Why?
I was so super into being an American in high school. And then in college I'm just like ....
Obviously, I don't hate America. I just don't like the institution, as a whole, of what America is. I don't know how to explain it. You know what I mean? It's like we don't fit into that national narrative.
And I don't want to fit into that national narrative. I think most people of color don't want to fit into that national narrative. Because we know we don't belong there. And this White House has very clearly proved that, with everything that they've done -- which is just a continuation of what they've always been doing, just more blatant.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Giuliani Alvarenga is a UC Berkeley alumnus who double majored in English and gender & women's studies. He is a Sidley Austin Pre-Law Scholar and wrapping up his two-year clerkship with Munger, Tolles, & Olson before he begins law school.