Maria Mejia is a powerhouse, even when she’s fragile. Moments of weakness in her life have given her enormous strength. The valleys are what make the mountains. And she’s climbing those mountains- but not alone. She’s a Sherpa for every person who’s ever heard the words “You’re HIV positive.”
Maria is a 25-year survivor of HIV/AIDS. She is healthy because she takes care of herself: she has her daily dose of medication; she routinely sees her doctors; she practices positive thinking and nurtures her body with sleep, nutrition, and yoga. There are moments of fatigue and enervation, so she has learned when to say no and give her body rest.
Her definition of living a full life has much more weight than just physical health. Maria’s strength stems from the love in her life, her travels, and a productive mission: advocating for HIV awareness.
Those are her words, “productive mission”. I soon found that “productive” is an understatement.
I Skyped with Maria after many emails back and forth, hours of online research and vlog viewing (her YouTube channel is amazing!). Let’s just say, she had me at hello.
“I know my purpose in life!” she exclaimed. Everything Maria says is punctuated with an exclamation. “I give hope to the hopeless!“ And by hopeless she means those who find themselves defined by the virus.
The myths, misunderstandings, and stigmas are many surrounding this virus she speaks of. And the first order of business must be defining terms. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. Human Immunodeficiency Virus attacks white blood cells (called T-cells or CD4 cells), which normally have a count of 500-1200 cells/mm3. They are the mechanism in your body that activates the immune system to fight off diseases. When the CD4 count gets as low as 200 cells/mm3, the person is diagnosed with Acquired Autoimmune Deficiency, or AIDS. With a low T-cell count, the body can’t fight. And in the presence of taboos and stigmas, the person given this pronouncement is publicly afraid to fight.
This is where Maria comes in. She shares her experiences so that others know they’re not alone. She is outspoken so that she can be a face where no face has existed before. She teaches so that taboos can be broken. Testing? She’ll administer it. Counseling? She helps find it. Education? She’s preaching it from the rooftops.
Her work with the CDC, becoming the face of the “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign, launched her quickly into the international spotlight and continues to fill her inbox with upwards of 1000 emails a day from those who see her as a beacon of light and life. She shares this spotlight on occasion with her wife and partner of seven years, Lisa, who is HIV negative and much more private than her companion. Yet, when one partner is a celebrity, both spouses get shown in the spotlight, so she emerges to the front lines in support of Maria whenever needed. In the CDC video they hold hands as Maria shares a message of hope and education in Spanish. Every message Maria shares is bilingual.
An advisor to Janssen pharmaceuticals, a board member of The Well Project, founder of the largest online HIV forums, and contributor to The Body, Maria has been able to do what many have not by capturing the attention of a vast international audience (from “thugs to the Pentagon,” she says). Her words are forged for their intended audience, understanding that her message is one her listeners, often in denial, don’t necessarily want to hear.
Her words are causing a chain reaction.
Worldwide, those living with HIV are taking proactive steps towards health despite the stigma of the disease. One woman from Thailand, a sex worker with children, was on the verge of suicide when she heard Maria’s words. This was the catalyst she needed to ask the right questions, which led to help, and then the strength to make changes. Now she’s an activist as well.
Another from India contracted HIV from her husband. She lived in the shadow of shame from her family. She and her son were disowned. Maria’s writings reached this woman, and in a highly unusual turn of events in this part of the world, she became an activist, a blogger, and a health administrator herself. She’s now remarried— to an HIV negative man who accepts her and her situation.
This is the way to break the taboos, to kill the myths.
From a Warrior’s Passion and Pain, Maria’s first book, is an open and shocking account of her daunting early life: from being molested as an infant, to juvenile delinquency, to gang membership. These were descriptive events that she wasn’t prepared to tell for many years. Pieces had been told by others. There have even been documentaries and stage plays written about her life. But to narrate the autobiography to coauthor Jason Wood was an emotional process that took nearly two years to finish.
I asked her what got her through it and what, exactly, makes her so damn vivacious: her response is simple and enthusiastic: “its choices”, she says. “I’m saving lives and I know my purpose in life! There is love- lots and lots of love!” Again, everything with an exclamation.
This girl from Miami once saw herself as a victim. But now she owns her disease. Literally. “Maria HIV Mejia”. Google it and you’ll see. This open moniker draws a lot of inquiries— and that’s just what Maria wants. Because when questions are asked, answers emerge and barriers are broken.
As an HIV tester and pre- AND post- test counselor, her life continually intertwines with thousands each year traveling this health-challenging journey with her. HIV infects anyone— infant to elderly, men and women of all cultures— Maria knows them all. “This could happen to anyone!” she stresses in our conversation over and over again. Which means, “I still have work to do.” Her goal is to become a UN Ambassador for UNAIDS, seeing this as an avenue to reach the far corners of the earth. Thailand and India are a start, and she hopes to imbed herself in tribes of remote people that health programs don’t reach. They, she knows from years of international counseling, still live heavy in the myths that the western world is just beginning to shed. She estimates that there will be 80 million people worldwide with HIV in 2030. “There’s no reason for it, no reason.”
Follow Maria (in both English and Spanish) @MariaHIVMejia
This article was originally published in Cake&Whiskey, October 30, 2014.