– Elizabeth Fernandez, New York

Positive since 2000

Here is a little bit about me. My name is Elizabeth. I am a Latina woman breaking traditional codes. I have fought my whole life, now I fight for my life. I was born on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan with my golden gloves on. A fighter is one who fights to win 10 out of 10! I was born and raised in NY, NY–the Big Apple! I come from a loving family with two great parents who love me dearly. Mom taught us how to love God and all mankind and Dad taught us how to fight. But, New York built me strong. My mother ran the family grocery store. My dad worked at Bellevue Hospital by day, and by night he ran a Spanish Social club. I recall my mother did her best with the best schools she could afford. She gave my siblings and me the best she could. My dad was always just a phone call away. It was better that they did not continue to live together for our sake overall. I had a loving and painful childhood, but my struggle shaped me. I am the only female of three children. I have the greatest brothers in the world, my major supporters, as well as my extraordinary two sons. I am also blessed with a partner for life.
I grew up in the city of dreams, which became a nightmare where fantasy hinders reality. Yet, I was built to survive and live long enough to see my dreams come true. I came alive hanging on to life, putting up a fight to live, speak and teach, and not to die. “There will always be children”, like Nikki Giovanni said. So we live and learn to be alive and live happily ever after all the pain and sorrow. We can smile, be happy and love ourselves just for who we are and can never quit. But that was just the beginning for me, thank God. After all, dreams do come true.
In 1991, I left the lower east side and relocated to Westchester County with my two children. Before I was 20 years old, I had been married and had three children of whom two are alive and well. I had a daughter who was born an anencephalic child, which means there is an absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp that occurs during embryonic development. It is a cephalic disorder that results from a neural tube defect that occurs when the rostral (head) end of the neural tube fails to close, usually between the 23rd and 26th day after conception. I had given birth to a full-term baby girl who would not survive what she was born with. She had a feeding tube and was able to live for 66 days and teach me so much about love and loving someone that looked and was different. I love my daughter, Joy, my little angel in heaven. I am thankful I am able to raise and love my boys. My sons mean the world to me; they are two great, smart men and fathers. They have given me three beautiful grandchildren. I love them dearly and live just to share the love and joy I have within me for them.
Today I have had to stand up and face stigma against HIV/AIDS and fight against cancer in my larynx with chemo and radiation. I do my best to live my life. I was given my HIV/AIDS diagnosis in 2000 after having a pregnancy test done with my current partner by my side. When the doctor told me I was HIV positive and not expecting a child, we were devastated. My partner got tested and thank God he is still HIV negative. In 2012, I was told I have cancer. My life became difficult, as I endured stigma and discrimination from my own community. When I found out that I had to live with HIV, my knowledge of this virus was limited. I thought I was having my husband’s child, so I got tested! Honestly, while I had heard about AIDS, I never thought it would happen to me! I became depressed and isolated myself from others. My thoughts at that time were that I was going to die. My mind was in rewind-rewind –“WHY DID I GET THIS”? Asking “WHY ME?” It was a difficult time in my life because I was in a faithful relationship, and had so many unanswered questions. At that time, it was important to move forward. I was on a journey of emotional pain and denial. My hope, strength and support came from my God, family, two sons, two brothers and my partner, who continues to love me unconditionally. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to channel my pain and educate myself to be able to advocate for the things I needed. That was the reason I needed to stay healthy and alive. I made the decision to become my own advocate, learning everything I needed to know about HIV health care, mental health, support groups, and meeting others in the HIV community. That is where I built up a lot of my strength. I joined the ranks of people just like me, who think positively and make the right choices to live a long life.

I made the decision to become my own advocate, learning everything I needed to know about HIV health care, mental health, support groups, and meeting others in the HIV community.

I joined a People Living with HIV/AIDS Leadership Institute in 2001 on the low (discreet). It was in NYC. Because I was afraid of stigma, I did not speak in public for years. Learning about HIV, taking certificate trainings, becoming a mentor for others like me, I am proud to say I sit as a member of the Community Board for LTI, a program designed to educate and motivate people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH/A’s). LTI increased my sense of personal empowerment! I was just taking in all the information. I was so eager to keep myself alive, hoping that no one had to know. After several years, I did an interview to educate others. But on June 13, 2010, I was shocked to see myself in The Journal News, a local paper in Yonkers. They had put my face on the front page calling me, “The New Face of AIDS”, in bold, red letters. Now I had to speak up for myself and stand up to speak about HIV/AIDS in my community. At the time, I was standing alone, as the only HIV positive person in the room. I had to stand up to stigma as a Latina woman, for all women. It is all I know how to do. Therefore, by giving it a face and by addressing it, I was no longer going to hide. I had to FIGHT; I would not quit, NOR FLIGHT. Because I am bilingual, I spoke to my community in both languages, as not to miss anyone who was present on June 18, 2010 at Lincoln Memorial Park in Yonkers, NY. I spoke of HIV awareness, education and prevention and other vital information.
Today, almost 15 years later, I am here and still open to learning new strategies to improve the quality of my life. HIV is complex like no other disease because of the stigma, discrimination, shame, and fear. My advice for others is to get involved, learn as much as you can, stay open to new ideas and give suggestions! I am a bilingual Community Educator, HIV expert, cancer consultant, activist and advocate. I am a life coach. I am also part of the Yonkers and Mount Vernon Task Force on AIDS in Westchester County. People discriminate. HIV does not! We as people with HIV/AIDS don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It is crucial for us to advocate, educate our children and everyone at risk. We, as positive people living with HIV, need to stay on our medication, have proper housing, and be able to obtain an optimal health status, as well as supportive services. I am now committed to organizing others in our community to make sure that they can take this message to our elected officials. Speaking out and organizing works.
I returned to school, got my GED, attended Pace University, and graduated from a certificate program on computer software. I have trained and received certifications and awards in the HIV/AIDS field on education and prevention. I am the founder of the team, “Moving Your Feet to a Different Beat”, which does the NYC AIDS WALK every year and has been sponsored by Starbucks and Dunkin’ Doughnuts. I represented the United States of America in 2012 at XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. The National Latino AIDS Action supported me. I attend a conference at United Nations to help women on domestic violence and HIV at the World Woman 2013.
What is most important to me is passing on the baton and moving closer to the purpose for which God intended. I spent a lot of time as an active community leader for VOCAL-NY in New York City and Westchester. VOCAL-NY is a statewide grassroots membership organization building power among low-income people who are living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration, working to create healthy and just communities. I am aware that much of the government efforts have been expended to crack down on drug users and distributors–which has not stopped the ongoing epidemic–but I think we can help our community by using a more positive health approach hoping it will be more effective at saving hundreds of people’s lives. As a result, I feel bringing this information back to our communities will educate those at risk in harm reduction. By limiting the littering of drug paraphernalia that you see on streets and public parks, you reduce the risk of children finding it in public places. I am not afraid to put myself out there for the love of my brothers and sisters. My motto is: “I live with HIV so you’ll never have to!” That is my motto!
I have attended many rallies in Washington, DC for PEPFAR, advocating for the Robin Hood Tax and the 50th Anniversary of the Martin Luther King March on Washington. I have hosted town hall meetings with our congressmen and congresswomen. We are working to make the world we live in a better place for all, free of HIV/AIDS. I have worked on a campaign that led President Obama to make “seeking an AIDS free generation” an official US policy. Just this last year, I spoke on WPB Radio Baltimore on World AIDS Day and Real Rapp Radio coming out of Philly. I was the keynote speaker for the Mount Vernon Task Force. I also attend the La Reunion Latina 2014 in Albany and CLLP 2014 in Springfield, MA. I was a panelist for NBLACA Inc. and was selected to attend the National People’s Action Conference in Washington, DC as a VOCAL-NY leader, active member and a positive woman living with HIV. In October of 2014, SisterLove celebrated 25 years, hosting the 5th Annual 2020 Leading Women’s Society Awards in honor of 20 outstanding women of which I was an inductee. In five more years I from now, I hope to become an honoree. I am one of many women from across the country that has lived with HIV/AIDS for more than 10 to 20 years and served their community as an HIV positive leader and advocate. I am honored and humbled by the whole experience to be part of the 2020 Leading Women’s Society. I attended the 10th National Harm Reduction Conference, as well as many others in Portland, Oregon and in Austin, Texas. I received a partial scholarship and I created a funding page to raise the rest of the monies. Thank God, I reached my goal with the help of my family and friends.
I am thankful. I have learned many new strategies about harm reduction to save lives. I know by working together, this goal is not impossible. I hope everyone learns that by reducing risky behaviors and practicing harm reduction, you decrease the chance of contracting HIV. I urge you to protect yourself, get tested, and know your status. I also can inform you about PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) and PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)–it can reduce the risk of infection within 72 hours. Truvada is the medication you must take for a month, but there is not a 100% guarantee, you can get it at the emergency room. I was also part of one of the leading organizations for the World AIDS Day 2014 at The Apollo in NY. I traveled to Albany and Washington, DC many times to speak to the Governor’s Task Force to end AIDS in New York State by 2020. I recommended that they adopt Single Point of Entry (SPE)–aka government-funded HASA housing for all HIV positive people living in the state of NY–syringe possession decriminalization, and more funding for Hepatitis C.
I have mentioned the cancer in my larynx affecting my vocal cord. I want to share what I went through during those 33 treatments to end cancer in my larynx with you all, because you will see it was not one bit easy. It’s been a rough year, maybe even a couple really. Cancer made life more difficult. I have had to give up so much in my life and I’ve had to turn away from events planned, places I wanted to go, as well as things I wanted to share or contribute to. But my voice wouldn’t project. Clearly it was hard. In July 2014, I was admitted to the hospital for a month, receiving chemo and radiation treatments, fighting a severe infection in the mouth, and I had a fever over 103.9 degrees. All of this was preventing me from eating any solid food or liquid diet. At this point, they had to insert a feeding tube for me to receive my daily nutrients for three months and I am still suffering from the side effects. I thought I might not be here anymore. I truly thought I was going to die. I thought for a moment my time was up. However, my God spared me and has granted me life to love and honor him by giving me the opportunity to do all I want to. And I will get to do it by giving him all the praise for the miracle, which is my life, for the better of us all.

I have had to give up so much in my life and I’ve had to turn away from events planned, places I wanted to go, as well as things I wanted to share or contribute to.

I am grateful for God’s plan for my life in 2014-2015. I received a call that changed my life, confirming one of my dreams. My tears and divine intervention led to open doors for such a great opportunity, which was to be part of Better World Advertising’s HIV STOPS WITH ME campaign. I believe in miracles. A friend called a friend and a friend called me. And then, miraculously, I was home. KARMA blessings! In the past, I had called Better World Advertising, hoping they needed someone like me, but then was not time. Everything comes in due time, thine is now. Please never give up. Pray, wish or dream for the best and one day you will open your eyes and see the change, the transformation from feeling like a caterpillar to a butterfly. Then you will spread your wings like the beautiful butterfly. You are no longer without wings being free, being happy. I am extremely excited to have been selected to be a spokesmodel for HIV STOPS WITH ME. I accept greater things in my life and hope to inspire others to do the same “Si se puede”, “ Yes we can” in 2015 by God’s grace.
We are more than conquerors! We are all positive people trying to better our world to end AIDS for a positive approach to a new world without HIV/AIDS. I pray for my brothers and sisters who are positive to stay strong and healthy. To those who have passed, RIP and sleep in peace! I know if I can do it, so can you. I love positive people. Remember HIV positive people are people too. God bless all of you and thank you!

I pray for my brothers and sisters who are positive to stay strong and healthy. […]Remember HIV positive people are people too.

Eliza = 1+ Positive Woman 4 life standing 4 All… As free as a Butterfly
Isaiah 58:8 New International Version (NIV)
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guide”

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