"The time to act is now."
It is the prevailing theme of the 2015 World AIDS Dayone which reverberated throughout Vida/SIDA event held at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center ( PRCC ) Dec. 1.
The standing-room-only audience packed into the PRCC in solidarity with that motive as the lights were drawn down and they each held candles aloft in silent remembrance of the 36.9 million people globallyaccording to the World Health Organization ( WHO )who are living with the disease and the 34 million who have died since it's onset.
"Today is a really important day for us to remember those people that have passed, for the people that we serve in our community and the people who are struggling," said Dr. Mayra Estrella PhD, MPHDirector of the groundbreaking organization which was founded in 1988 ( the same year as the very first World AIDS Day commemoration ) as a health clinic and then prevention initiative of the PRCC's Pedro Albizu Campos Alternative High School.
Without asking for initial funding, whether privately or from the State, Vida/SIDA has since blossomed into services and programs that include a health center, community education and outreach, behavioral intervention, transitional housing and programs focused upon cis and transgender women.
According to Quality Assurance Coordinator Sandra Candelariawho presented the 2014 annual reportVIDA/SIDA has provided HIV and STD testing, prevention and intervention for MSM, LGBTQ youth, the transgender community, heterosexual men and women and those at risk from substance abuse. Four out of every five people tested were Hispanic or Latino/a.
"Eighty percent of all positive rates that we encountered in 2014 at Vida/SIDA were male MSM," Candelaria said. "That's really important because it proves the population is at high risk and we still need to put in extra effort to focus on [them]."
"We face a terrible probleman epidemic," said PRCC Executive Director Dr. José E. LÃ"pez. "We need to challenge ourselves to take on this problem as a community issue. It is not just taking on and grappling with HIV/AIDS, it is grappling with the very idea of human sexuality."
Born one year after Vida/SIDA began its mission, 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa acknowledged the historical inspiration of the community.
"I would not be an elected official standing here today as an openly gay alderman if it had not been for the work that so many people did many generations before I was born," he said. "As people that have lived and been pushed on the margins, we are told to be passive be quiet, to accept the cards that have been dealt us. But the reality is that, unless we come together and raise our voices we're not going to get the resources and the opportunities that our community deserves. We have got to take action to take care of this world and ourselves."
In his keynote speech, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah, M.D., J.D noted that World AIDS Day is an "opportunity for us to recommit to taking the next set of actions required to carry forward the work that has been done and really bring an end to HIV."
"We are at a place in which we have more tools and knowledge than ever before with which to fight HIV," Shah added. "More than any other disease HIV is really a mirror of our society that we hold up to each and every one of us. It celebrates and shows us what can be accomplished when a group comes together to advocate for itself, what can happen when you take a disadvantaged group of people, organize them and have them agitate for political status. But, like any other mirror it also shows us the truth. It shows us where our stigmas exist and where, in our society, people continue to hold narrow-minded and bigoted views. It can't be escaped. The reflection is just the truth of who we really are."
Shah challenged the audience to each think about what they could do in order to improve that reflection and "to reduce the stigmaprobably one of the biggest battles ever faced with respect to HIV."
"On a day like this we obviously celebrate everyone that lives with AIDS and HIV," Lopez said. "We honor and dignify those who have died for it and we as a community are stronger if we learn from that and are able to become more human and more humane."
Milani Ninja emceed the event, which also included performances by Naysha Lopez, Serena Fiierce and Frances D'Alessio as well as a Latino MSM forum that Ninja, Paisley Williams, Ahmed Chaudhry and Steven Herrera moderated.
For more information about about the work of Vida/SIDA, visit www.facebook.com/vidasida. For more information about the PRCC, visit www.prcc-chgo.org .