DACA, Immigrant Rights and the 'Larger Compassion' of the HIV Community

A Conversation With Richard Zaldivar of The Wall Las Memorias

S L O W K I N G [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

At the 2017 U.S. Conference on AIDS, I had the pleasure of conversing with Richard Zaldivar. He's the executive director and founder of The Wall Las Memorias in Los Angeles, which he describes as "a social justice model that works in the prevention of HIV/AIDS and also in building leadership in our community."

In the week before the conference, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. An estimated 36,000 people who have participated in DACA are LGBT; we know some of them are living with HIV, and surely there are other DACA recipients who are not LGBT who are also living with HIV. Even before the DACA news, the political climate had led many immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, to avoid going to the doctor and doing other things that people need to do to maintain their health due to fear of detention and deportation.

We talked about these times we're living in -- the importance of immigrant rights in HIV/AIDS, including DACA, sustaining our roles as people in the HIV workforce and movement, understanding stigma -- and why it's important to speak up and fight back.

JD Davids: First off, please introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your organization.

Richard Zaldivar: I thank you so much. I really appreciate this opportunity. My name is Richard Zaldivar. I'm the executive director and the founder of The Wall Las Memorias Project in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, The Wall Las Memorias Project constructed the first and only publicly funded AIDS monuments right in a city park, on the east side of Los Angeles, right in the middle of this Hispanic community.

We do a lot of HIV prevention, testing, substance abuse, mental health. We work with the faith-based community and have so for the last 15 years.

But, I think what's very unique about The Wall Las Memorias Project is that we work with a number of social justice groups and organizations and causes. We're very engaged with the Muslim community. We're very involved with workers' issues, various unions and different civil and human rights.

JD: How do you describe the times we are in, and what we need to do?

RZ: Because of where we're at with the gentleman in the White House, many folks will take a step back. And many of my brothers and sisters -- and they're not all Latinos -- who happen to be Dreamers, who happen to be from the immigrant community, are frozen in time because of the ignorance and the hatred spewed by this administration.

Just the simple of idea of saying that the president's going to suspend DACA, which provides an opportunity for children who came across with their parents from different countries -- they could come from Mexico, from Central America or from Russia -- has been a shock to our community.

There's no greater time than now that we have to unite as one community. If we don't understand the plight of the Dreamers, if we don't understand the plight of the immigrant population, we have to think about where we come from in our history. Think about young people -- those who are at risk for HIV, those who are HIV positive -- and then you will be concerned if there's an increase of raids or detention of young people -- or people -- who are undocumented who may be HIV positive -- and whether or not they're going to be able to get their medications while they're in detention centers. Or the trans community, to be able to get their medications while they're in detention centers.

This is a great alarm to many of our communities. But we in the HIV and AIDS community have to have a larger conversation about this, larger compassion, and resolve that we're not going to give up on any of our fights for any of our communities. We really, truly are one family.

JD: It's so important to support the rights of all people affected by HIV, which include many people who might be immigrants or who are in communities with many immigrants. But also, as allies -- as I am, as someone who is a U.S. citizen -- we need to express it in ways that encompass the whole humanity of people involved.

For example, some sympathetic legislators or others are saying: "Well, these DACA kids were brought here as children or babies. They didn't know. It's their parents who did the illegal act. And so, these kids can't help it. They should get to have rights because of that." We in the HIV community are familiar with this sort of misnomer of the "innocent victims." Because we may have experienced, or remember when people would say, "These babies were born HIV positive to these parents ..." who were thus implicitly the guilty ones.

So, we've seen this before. And we know that putting these divisions into it is has, among many other negative things, bad public health outcomes.

RZ: Absolutely. And just the simple fear, the issue of the fear that our community's going through at this time; nowhere in our world should a human being have fear of being who they are and being a participant in this universe. Just the fact that we have leadership in Washington that's spewing hate and bigotry -- if it's not one group of people it's another group of people -- it's not OK.

We cannot allow this to become the new normal. And so, wherever we go, what we have to do as a community is learn more about the plight of all of the different sectors that make up our community here in this country, and then to educate ourselves, and then participate in social justice to change for equality and justice for all of our people -- this is extremely important.

Our folks are doing a great job in strategizing, and trying to make sure that they continue to represent the issues that we're all supportive of.

We in the community have to be strategic, too. But we have to make sure that our voice are heard at every opportunity and think about what happens if, someday, we don't have the kind of funding that we currently have, or if this current administration continues to go on the far right end in challenging our personal liberties. These are all of the fears that I always have as a person who has been engaged in community and politics for many years.

JD: What should people in the community do with our voices at this time?

RZ: I ask everybody in our community to continue to voice their opposition to the president's six-month's ban on DACA -- even though he says, "Well, let Congress take care of it." Just the fact that this guy who is an authoritarian figure in this presidency can say, "I'm going to restrict your lives in six months and put you out in the streets," is intolerable.

I ask the community to make sure that we all come together on this issue and other issues that are HIV-positive-community based; that the LGBT community base, the people of religious beliefs base speak up as one voice.

JD: And beyond speaking out, what should the HIV community be doing?

RZ: Well, I think that the HIV community should be doing something that The Wall Las Memorias Project has been doing for many years, and that is to build coalitions -- to build coalitions geographically, in their communities; to reach out to more traditional organizations and leaders; to form alliances with organized labor, with labor unions who are going through the same kind of fight in the area of workers' justice; to reach out to the faith-based community and not assume that the faith-based community doesn't care about these issues.

This is an opportunity to really build a strong network so that we support the Muslim community, and they support the LGBT community. There's going to be some communities out there that are kind of reluctant -- depends on what part of the country -- but that's part about building coalitions. You get to learn how to work with other folks, to understand them, understand their plight, be sympathetic, learn new ways to talk to people and educate them about our issues.

JD: We know that when you say the LGBT community and the Muslim community, there are those who are in both; there are many LGBT Muslims. Many of us live these overlapped lives. But institutions may separate us into pieces.

RZ: Yes. And especially the HIV community, the HIV prevention and the positive community. Those of us who'd lost so many people to AIDS, as it is. We built community. We know how to organize community. And we can get engaged with social justice issues and Dreamers, and engage our congressional folks and say, "Hey, we need to pass this legislation that's going to allow and legitimize." We're already legitimate, but it's taking away the power from the president to say: "No. The Dreamers are going to stay."

JD: As you said, many of us know these things because of the times we lived through. We lost so many. How do you work at Las Memorias and in your coalitions across generations when there are younger people who have lived through other things? What have you seen to help work another bridge, whether it's labor and community, as different generations?

RZ: It's important for us. It's always been very genuine. It's about compassion, and it's about love and understanding, and knowing that, when you walk into a church, they may up front say, "I'm not used to talking about these issues." Then we just say: "Well, we need to talk about them. And, by the way, do you need help with something?"

And so, we offer support. We offer a voice. By being good neighbors -- regardless of what we think their political persuasion is -- we continue to outreach, and create friends and build family.

You'd be surprised. Everybody wants to learn about other communities, especially in this current era. We've done that at The Wall Las Memorias Project for the last 24 years. And it's really amazing because we're called upon constantly to take part in protests -- whether they're the protests about gays in Russia or other countries -- and we do that because we think it's the right thing to do. Because they're our brothers and sisters, regardless of HIV status or regardless of their sexual orientation.

JD: How does an older organization such as yours connect with younger people who came up during a different era?

RZ: Our staff is a great reflection of all the young people that we have in the community; whether they're gay or bi men or the transgender community, young voices need to be at the table. We had a meeting yesterday with some folks from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] about the importance of mentoring younger people. We have a lot of great leaders in our community, young folks that are tremendous leaders.

I have mentored a Dreamer for the last year. And I'm amazed about his political knowledge, his skill, his savvy and his determination to continue school. But I also think that young people need to be mentored. It's critical.

When we also work with organizations and other causes, it's important for us to all see us as children of God -- the same God that has created other people that may not look like us or live in the same country.

JD: How does the history of politics and social movements in the U.S. inform the times we are in today?

RZ: I go back many years, and I remember when it was illegal to be a practicing homosexual. And a lot of young people cannot fathom that.

DACA is not an immigrant issue. DACA and the Dreamers are an American issue. Just like gay rights, just like the battle for HIV and AIDS: It's an American issue.

Is it something to be embarrassed of? Possibly, that we have to go through these fights.

I took my staff to the Lincoln Memorial, and I took them to the White House -- young people, for the first time in Washington, D.C., amazing leaders. I pointed at the White House and I said, "This is your house."

Every young person should know: This is their house. And this is their opportunity to raise their voices, to never give up from every fight but move forward and build coalitions to take back their power.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

JD Davids is the director of partnerships and a senior editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.