Mr. Safe Latino: My year after an HIV diagnosis
“Now I have a crown!” said Adrian Vargas, when asked about being named “Mr. Safe Latino” by Instituto Familiar de la Raza. In addition to an artistic component where judges scored contestants based on a performance, Vargas also gave an informational session on HIV and LGBTQ health. “It was a beautiful experience,” he said.
The Miss and Mr. Safe Latino contest was created in response to the devastation of HIV in the San Francisco Bay Area Latino population. After winning the crown, Mr. and Mrs. Safe Latino create awareness and education about HIV in the Latinx community—sharing information and talking to people at events and parades.
“I was in the Gay Pride parade this year, and that was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Adrian.
A few years ago Adrian would have never guessed that he would soon become an active member of the HIV community—and go on to compete in Mr. Safe Latino, complete the 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle cycling fundraising event and volunteer for Apoyo Latino at San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
Growing up in Colombia, HIV was not a subject that Adrian was accustomed to hearing or talking about. “People don’t talk about HIV. It’s more difficult to get tested there. People try not to think about it, even though it’s happening,” he said.
On a visit to San Francisco for Gay Pride a year ago, Adrian decided to get an HIV test at Magnet, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation sexual health clinic at Strut in the Castro. His world turned upside down when an HIV test counselor delivered his diagnosis. Before this moment, Adrian had never taken an HIV test, an outcome he credits to the stigma surrounding HIV in his home country of Colombia.
“We have so many places to get information and services in San Francisco, but it’s totally different in Colombia,” he said.
Immediately after being diagnosed, Adrian was linked to HIV care and to an HIV navigator in San Francisco who called Adrian daily to check in. He started HIV medications which suppressed his viral load.
“That day was really hard. I was scared, and everything changed,” he said.
Gradually, Adrian started coming to terms with his diagnosis, and looking for ways to find meaning in his HIV status. He joined Apoyo Latino, a group for Latinos and Latinas at San Francisco AIDS Foundation where he found social support and belonging. Adrian also started volunteering as a peer educator for Apoyo Latino, and now helps the group by setting up for meetings, creating communications materials and educating people in the Latinx community about HIV prevention and treatment.
“Before I came here, I felt a lot of stigma about HIV, but I’m trying to change that. Now, it’s different. I feel empowered. Helping other people that are part of the group makes me feel better. For whatever reason, this [HIV] has happened to me. Now, it’s my responsibility to help other people take care of themselves.”
Adrian also decided to come out about his HIV status on social media after signing up to participate in AIDS/LifeCycle, the 545-mile cycling event raising funds for San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. He used his expertise in advertising and marketing to begin a fundraising campaign to raise $3,000 for the ride.
His friends responded positively to his campaign, which he called “545 Reasons to Ride.”
“Most of my social media friends are from Colombia, so it was difficult for me to talk about HIV for the first time on social media. I thought people would judge me—but I just thought, ‘I have to do this. I have to be the person that makes other people think about HIV.’”
Adrian said that riding 545 miles for AIDS/LifeCycle was a challenge, but also contributed to his “recovery” and growth. “I was crying, I was laughing and I was having a lot of fun. To be able to meet so many people, and really feel support for what I was going through was amazing.”
Apoyo Latino, established in 1987, is one of the longest-lived programs of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Call 415-487-8000 to get more information about upcoming meetings and events, or see the Latino Programs website for more information.
AIDS/LifeCycle is a 545-mile cycling event benefiting San Francisco AIDS foundation and the HIV-related services of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.