Have you heard of Greater Than AIDS or the Your Story, Your HIV Wisdom Campaign? If so, then you may also recognize the name, Maria Mejia, nationally known HIV activist, blogger, vlogger, motivational speaker and global ambassador for The Well Project.
Diagnosed at 16, Mejia has been living with HIV for 27 years and has become a global activist for HIV/AIDS with various roles such as:
- A spokesperson for Janssen Pharmaceutical’s new campaign and member on the digital advisory board for social media
- An author of debut title “From a Warriors Passion and Pain”
- Curator and collaborator for visualAIDS.org, contemporary arts organization utilizing art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue and supporting HIV+ artists
- Mentor for youth and support group leader with more then 30, 000 active members
In celebration of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day this year, Mejia sat down with Red Pump to share her story in the fight against HIV and to share what she describes as “Stomping on STIGMA”, an impact on HIV.
Red Pump: Why is it important for women to speak openly about HIV?
Mejia: This is the only way we will get to zero infections! We are as sick as our secrets! Coming out of the HIV closet is liberating and at the same time people start seeing different faces of HIV and they get more educated on the subject. Another important reason is that we have nothing to be ashamed about! As I say, “We are just human beings that happen to have HIV.”
Red Pump: How do you think we can deal and fight the stigma that exists towards people living with HIV/AIDS?
Mejia: I am an international social media activist/blogger, motivational speaker and consultant. I get thousands of emails a week from people all over the world with the same issues I had in the early 90s. Stigma is as real as it was in the past! I am also the founder of the largest support group online in English and Spanish. I get a lot of my information and data from there. Stigma is a real killer and the best way to combat this in my opinion is to come out of the HIV closet and humanize this condition…the one’s that can of course.
Red Pump: How have you helped in the fight against stigma and what has been the biggest challenge?
Mejia: I am everywhere. I do not focus on a specific group. All of the people that follow me in social media are from all walks of life. As I say in my speeches: from a thug to someone working in the pentagon and everything in between. I am a part of many campaigns including Let’s Stop HIV together by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The work that I do for The Well Project gives me a huge platform to spread the message and my mission which is simple: Give hope to the hopeless and save lives. Also, more research needs to be done for women living with HIV, finding spaces for women and girls that cater to us. That is why I am the proud Ambassador for The Well Project. This is a place for women and girls from all over the world (and) I have overcome them by speaking out, being a visionary and showing my face to take the stigma away.
Red Pump: You’re involved in the Greater Than AIDS EMPOWERED campaign this year. What is your opinion on partner violence in relationships?
Mejia: I am representing Latinas in our group of sisters and all of us are bloggers from The Well Project. It’s a huge campaign with Greater Than AIDS, The Well Project, Kaiser, Planned Parenthood, Positive Women’s Network (PWN), and Domestic Hotline. Our moderator is Mrs. Tanya Lee Lewis (Spike Lee’s wife) and I got involved with the campaign to show women (that) it is ok to get help. It has to do with Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), HIV, what we have endured as survivors and the tools to empower others that have been in some form of domestic violence. You are not less strong for doing it! This is a life long process and journey, and I decided to be one of the faces because it is apart of my mission.
Red Pump: Is there an HIV/AIDS activist you admire? What are some activities they have done that made you say, “Wow, I love their work?”
Mejia: Many! Mrs. Rae Lewis Thorton, Hydeia Broadbent, Mark King, Nelson Vergel, Peter Staylet, Sean Straub, Mary Fisher,Dawn Averitt, Krista Martel, Naina Devi, Barb Cardell, Gina Brown, Michelle Anderson, Eddie Hamilton, Dr. Ben Young, Larry Kramer, and the late Ryan White who is one of my angels. Also, many women in PWN, Dazon Dixon, Linda Scruggs and many more. I love them all and when I work with them, I hear them speak. And of course some of my friends. I learn from them all and I will never forget that. Because of their fight, I am alive today.
Red Pump: Are you a part of any support groups, or local and national HIV/AIDS organizations?
Mejia: The Well Project, CDC, TheBody.com and different agencies that ask me to speak or to do work with them. My international support groups in both English and Spanish with over 30,000 active members and now I am reaching mainstream media. I have been featured in many magazines recently, such as Cosmopolitan Magazine, which is HUGE. Shows like The Maury Show and Trisha Goddard show for teens in trouble, and being nominated for the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS as part of my ambassador role for womenshealth.org and as one of the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Ambassadors for 2015.
Red Pump: How have your followers/social community responded to your story?
Mejia: They feel terrible for all I have been through. From sexual abuse as an infant, to getting abused at home, running away, being in the foster care system and being sexually abused there, and running to the streets and joining a very violent street gang. Getting infected by my first boyfriend and the leader of the gang is the transformation I call, the caterpillar that now is a butterfly and flying real high.
Red Pump: What resources have you received along your journey of activism?
Mejia: The Well Project has been one of the places that have always encouraged me with the wonderful women and fellow bloggers we have there. I also empower many women and girls through my blog and international support groups as well. I was diagnosed in a time (The year was 1989 and I was diagnosed one week after my 18th birthday in 1991) where we had no Internet and no support, so I pretty much had nothing in those times. I learned to cope on my own and I made it my purpose to give those that are newly diagnosed what I didn’t have when I found out my status.
Red Pump: When you needed someone to talk to, whom did you turn to? What topics were discussed?
Mejia: I turned to my mother and my wife Lisa – happily married to the love of my life for 9 years and now legally married – and the many awesome friends that I have made along the way, especially in my support groups and The Well Project. I am a pillar of hope for many that see me as an example. Much of the time, I am the one that discusses stigma, education, sex, disclosure, depression and anxiety.
Red Pump: We’ve heard it many times before, practice safe sex. What steps have you taken to protect yourself and your partner during sexual intercourse?
Mejia: This is most important and something I teach a lot! When an HIV positive individual is on medication and they become undetectable, it is almost zero percentage to transmit the virus to my partner. It is very important for us to take our meds and to be more adherent. We also use dental dams.
Red Pump: What do you want women to take away from your story?
Mejia: Not to let HIV define who you are, no matter what we have been told. That we are worthless or won’t ever amount to anything. That we can over come it and come out shining! We are not victims. We are survivors.
When asked what’s your biggest accomplishment to date, Mejia stated her recognition and making an impact on others. “I know I am saving many and giving hope,” she said. “If I can save and influence one life for the better, my mission is complete.” As someone who loves dinning and traveling, Mejia hopes to become a founder of a nonprofit organization.
“I see myself in huge platforms and I am on my way in opening my nonprofit,” she said. “I also want to expand and open a foundation in my beautiful country, Colombia, South America. I see myself creating more change and opening the eyes and ears of those that have them closed.”
In a world where stigma towards HIV/AIDS exists, Mejia envisions an HIV zero generation. “I hope one day we can say HIV, like another person can say they have cancer and not get questioned. Amor y luz (Love and light).”
“Red Pump Stories” is an initiative created to document the narratives, challenges, and successes of women living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. This project will further the mission of decreasing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and allow us to stand with women who have experienced first-hand the impact of this condition.