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21st December

My never-fading tattoo: Mexico City, November 19, 1987

I’d been bothered by a throat infection for a while, which I attributed to the city’s smog. A doctor friend suggested I take a number of blood tests, including one to detect HIV. I had no reason to suspect that I was infected, so I was unconcerned that day when I went to pick up the results after buying a pot of clover honey to help sooth my throat.

At the laboratory the receptionist handed me an envelope, which I opened on the street. Among the results I saw the words ‘anti-cuerpos antigenos HIV-positive’.

For a fraction of a moment I thought that positive was a good result, like passing an exam. We can always count on our brains to ignore what we don’t want to see.     

There I stood in the middle of a busy street, cars racing by, pedestrians pushing me from behind, daylight beginning to fade. I held the piece of paper in my hand and clutched the pot of honey tightly against my breast with my right arm, the one without a hand. I was too shocked to feel pain.

That result changed my life and that of Felipe. I couldn’t access adequate treatment for HIV in Mexico, so we had to leave and start a new life, eventually in Spain. 

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. Thirty-three years after receiving that ominous news, I’m still here and in good health. I often think about what would have happened if I had not been a privileged foreigner, but a Mexican who didn’t have money to pay for the medication that saved my life.

A person who received the same results I did that late afternoon might have quickly torn it up and tried to forget about it, because they couldn’t do anything about it anyway—they may now be dead, just like millions of people who died of AIDS because they didn’t have access to HIV drugs.

I have turned the bond I feel with other people living with HIV into action by supporting scientific research, setting up projects in places like Thailand to provide children with medical care, and by starting a foundation that uses art to break the stigma around HIV. Still, it feels like a drop in a bucket of water, and the injustice that where you’re born decides your chances of survival continues to disturb me greatly.

When I came home that fateful evening in Mexico City, I saw a red streak on my arm from holding so tightly onto the clover honey, right above the place where the blood had been taken by the same lab ten days before.

Every now and then I see that streak again as though it’s still there after all those years, my never-fading tattoo.

My never-fading tattoo: Mexico City, November 19, 1987
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