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+TALK

+TALK: JORGE DIAZ

Karl Schmid speaks with Latinx advocate, and Director of Prevention Programs for Bienestar, Jorge Diaz

The following is a transcript of the conversation between Karl Schmid and Jorge Diaz

KARL

How HIV turned his life around and saved him.

Hey there and welcome to Plus Talk on Plus Life, where we’re all about turning positive into a plus. Let’s jump straight into it. Today, my guest is Jorge Diaz. He’s the director of Prevention Programs at Bienestar Human Services. We’re gonna find out all about that and say, hello, Jorge.

JORGE

Hello, thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor and pleasure to be here.

KARL

It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you here chatting with us. I wanna dive straight in. For anyone who doesn’t know what Bienestar Human Services is, tell us about it.

JORGE

Well, we’re a nonprofit organization. We became a nonprofit organization about 35 years ago, five years after the HIV epidemic. And really our CEO and founder wanted to create a space for Latino gay men that were being impacted by HIV aids back in the ’90s, and create a space for them to be able to process what that meant. And now we’ve turned into a seven center agency, a multi-million dollar budget, providing mental health, prevention services, housing, food bank, a little bit of everything, and we go beyond just HIV.

KARL

Tell me about the specifics about what makes you guys special and different, especially when it comes to the Latino population in the LA area and in general, just the healthcare needs of these communities.

JORGE

Yeah, well, Latino gay men, Latino LGBTQ people were disenfranchised communities. We have a lot of issues, a lot of barriers. And so why we’re so different or important, I think that we cater to the Latin X generation and all of those folks who identify were born and raised in America, but we also have spaces for the undocumented experience. And I think that’s what makes us very unique is that when most LGBT undocumented folks arrive to LA, one of the first places they go to is Bienestar because we are brown, we speak Spanish. You go into our Hollywood office and you see the Virgin Mary statue there. And so I think we pick and choose what part of our culture we utilize to connect with community. And so I think that’s what makes us very unique and different.

KARL

How does it work? To your point there, if you’re undocumented and you arrive here in LA, how do I find your services? And what kind of services are you helping me with?

JORGE

Well, for those who are internet savvy, you can obviously just LGBTQ Latino Google search, and we will pop up, but we try to be at every gay bar, at every health fair, at every Home Depot, if possible, everywhere we feel people will come. And so what they really need to do is just find someone that knows about Bienestar or just walk into one of our seven centers to seek services. We have services for mental health, to accessing PrEP, to HIV and STI testing, to HIV medical care, to a food bank. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, we have therapists and counselors to address that. And so it’s really a wide range. We have a variety of services that is provided to not just Latino LGBT folks, but Latino folks in general.

KARL

Now, you yourself were diagnosed with HIV in 2001. How versed were you on HIV and AIDS when you found out about your status?

JORGE

Well, I think I was versed in the way that I followed the magic Johnson story, I followed Pedro Zamora’s story on “The Real World” MTV. I knew people who had passed away. But as far as being 21 in LA, in my inner circle, as a 21 year old, I didn’t really have any knowledge of anyone else living with HIV. And I wasn’t really versed on what it was like to live with HIV, nor all the X factors that played in part of becoming HIV positive. So I was aware of how you contract HIV, but I was unaware of the deeper issues that paved the way to HIV infection.

KARL

And how have you used the life skills that you’ve gained since your diagnosis? Whether it’s battling external stigma, internal stigma, cultural things, how have you used and built upon all of those to help others now?

JORGE

Well, I think that we all have a different narrative. We’re all different, there’s different things that happen to us that shape your narrative and guide what step you take. I think that for me, I just want to be able to show people that they have the power really to write the next chapter in their lives. And sometimes we look at HIV as a death sentence. We look at it as like the worst thing that could ever happen to you. I just wanna be part of a movement that shows people that even though HIV has entered your life, that you can really change the surround and make something great and positive from such a difficult experience like becoming HIV positive.

KARL

And I’m guessing it’s that attitude that resulted in 2013, you were named one of the 100 heroes by PAUSE magazine for your work as an HIV advocate. What does that mean to you to be recognized like that?

JORGE

My colleagues and friends and I, we go into this field because it’s our passion, because it’s our calling. I don’t think any of us go into it for the recognition, for awards. PAUSE magazine and Adelante Magazine for me is like runway on “The Devil Wears Prada” For me, PAUSE magazine is such a powerful piece of literature. It really talks and educates people about HIV, but it also highlights activists and leaders throughout the country. And so when I got the call that I would be one of the 100 heroes, it was pretty extraordinary and it was pretty amazing. And I’m very blessed and privileged to celebrate those kinds of milestones. I know not everyone has that same luck. It was also very humbling. There’s many people who have fought this fight before me. There’s many people who are no longer here and there’s many who are still here and have been fighting this fight for 40 years now. And so I was very grateful that those people who’ve come before me really just paved the way for me to have a moment to shine like that. To becoming HIV positive at 21 and feel that HIV destroyed me, and then 10 years later to be viewed as a hero, I think that’s pretty extraordinary for me. And that’s what it was. It was an extraordinary moment.

KARL

Yeah, well, to say the very least, and of course, this has led to you traveling all over the country, sharing your experiences and talking about HIV. When you give these talks to people, as I said all over the US, what’s the one thing you hope people take away from listening to you?

JORGE

I never really went in with an agenda. When I became a patient ambassador and they started to fly me all over the country to share my story, my strength, overcoming so many challenges, I just want people to understand that it doesn’t really matter where you come from, it doesn’t really matter how HIV entered your life. I want people just to be able to understand that you can never lose hope. And to live life to the fullest and to take HIV and try to make the best out of it. And I know that everyone’s narrative is different, but that’s what I hope for. I hope that people who listen to me who come to one of my events that they just leave feeling, “Well, Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.” And that’s what I’m just hopeful for.

KARL

Do you ever think that in some ways HIV saved your life and actually has made you a better person because of it?

JORGE

Absolutely. I remember a time where I was sitting in a jail cell. And I remember being in this jail cell and it might have been my fourth or fifth arrest, I don’t remember. And I remember that in those proceedings of that trial, my attorney telling me that I should just plead guilty. And they said to me, “You should just plead guilty “because there’s a recording that the DA has of you. “And in that recording, it’s pretty damaging evidence.” And when I heard that recording and it always plays back in my head at times, I remember listening to myself in that recording having a conversation with an undercover police officer. And in that conversation, I remember hearing myself sell myself for $30. And I remember I pled guilty to prostitution for the fifth time. And so to answer your question, when I think back of where HIV led me and what a dark place and a lonely place, and to think that I would stand in corners and sell my body for 20, $30, I know that HIV made me a better person, for sure. Absolutely.

KARL

Wow, and here you are the director of Prevention Programs at Bienestar Human Services, helping people to help themselves. Jorge Diaz, gosh, I wish we had more time to talk, but alas, we don’t. Thank you so much though, for giving us this time and all the great work you do.

JORGE

Thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much for touching the subject of HIV. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

KARL

Wow, what a powerful story. If you wanna learn more about Jorge’s story and Bienestar Human Services, be sure to check out our website pluslifemedia.com. And remember, you can follow us across social media @pluslifemedia. Until next time, stay safe, be kind to one another. And remember, you can always turn positive into a plus. See you.

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