Three years ago Alejandra completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. She knew she wanted to be involved in “work with a social conscience,” so after many months of searching for a job, and debating the pros and cons of working within the HIV community, she accepted a position as the first Latina Peer Advocate for a small, metropolitan AIDS Service Organization. As a peer advocate, Alejandra provides treatment and referral information, and emotional support to HIV+ women in her community. Recognizing that each woman she talks with has a different set of needs, Alejandra first focuses on identifying the needs of her clients, and second, determines how she can help. Alejandra’s goal is to move each of her clients from one end of the spectrum to the other – from passive to proactive – teaching them to advocate for themselves.
Alejandra accompanies her clients to various medical appointments, assisting with translation (most of her clients only speak Spanish), and helping them remember to ask certain questions. She also arranges social gatherings, such as retreats and picnics, for her clients who are interested in meeting other HIV+ women. In addition to performing individual outreach and advocacy for the ASO, Alejandra is a member of the Latina Initiative Task Force of the greater metropolitan area and co-facilitates a weekly support group for Latinas living with HIV disease.
Alejandra believes that most individuals infected with HIV are in one way or another guarded about disclosing their HIV status, and finds this to be true among Latinas. It is therefore very difficult for Alejandra to reach out to those women who probably need her services most of all. She is constantly wondering about the best outreach methods and thinks it may just be a matter of being at the right place at the right time. But, where is the right place? When is the right time?
Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Alejandra understands the fears of disclosure – rejection from your family, friends and community – yet she struggles to truly understand why some women choose death over disclosure. Alejandra believes when you open up, you get a lot of support. The greatest reward of her job is when she sees women growing out of stigma to live a normal life. Alejandra is pleased with her decision to work as a peer advocate when she talks with a woman whose previous expressions of fear and doubt have turned to frequent smiles and a sense of pride.
Alejandra faces her own obstacles in her personal and professional life. Before becoming a peer advocate, she was skeptical of individuals working in the community who are HIV negative. She has since overcome her skepticism and has learned to accept and trust those who are HIV negative as caring and compassionate members of her professional community. In 1996, Alejandra watched her partner die of AIDS. And now she is constantly reminded of her own mortality. But having death more present has made Alejandra focus on living well; “whatever I try to do, I do it with more meaning.”
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