Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
When Alexa Rodriguez came to the United States from El Salvador in 1998, she got a job working at a gay bar in Texas. Soon after, she met Daniel.
“There was a good connection between us,” she said softly as we sat in her office at the youth center for La Clinica Del Pueblo. “We started living together.” About six months into their relationship, Daniel asked if they could stop using condoms and take HIV tests.
“I was like ‘sure, because I love you and you love me,’” she recalled. “I guess that was one of the biggest mistakes I have made in my life. I was in love, and I trusted him.”
A few months passed and Daniel didn’t get tested with her, so she decided to get tested with some friends.
“When it came back positive I was shocked,” she said. “I had been tested in El Salvador recently and I knew I was negative. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was positive and I was afraid that if I stayed in the room too long, my friends would know that I tested positive, so I ran out of the room as fast as I could.”
“I started drinking and doing drugs,” she remembered. “I tried to kill myself twice.” But she told no one about her diagnosis and was afraid to go back to the clinic for counseling.
One night while she was working, Alexa ran into someone who had met her at the clinic. They started talking. And she soon learned that Daniel was already in the program.
“That was like my second death. I was worried about giving it to him and it was him who infected me.”
Alexa decided to return to El Salvador. For five years, she didn’t say anything to anyone.
“I did not have a relationship because I was scared of transmission,” she remembered. “I was basically trying to kill myself. I thought I was going to get sick and die, but I never got sick. My friends were dying – they would get diagnosed and two years after, they died, so I got scared. I was like…I’m going to be the next one.”
Eventually, she started attending a support group. At a meeting one night, the facilitator asked, “What does a person with HIV look like?” She and the others in the group responded with “thin” and “sick.” But then the facilitator – who looked perfectly healthy – said that she had HIV.
"When I found out you could be healthy and live with HIV, it changed my life,” Alexa recalled.
The facilitator helped Alexa connect to care, and she found a support group that she could attend regularly. One night she took her four-year-old nephew to a support group meeting and started crying when she introduced herself and said she was HIV-positive. Her nephew, not understanding what was going on just hugged her and said, “Don’t cry. It will be ok because I love you.”
“And I believed him,” she said.
Alexa started working full-time with the group and telling her story to people, helping them know they could live with HIV and helping to connect them with care. She became an outspoken advocate in her community for people living with HIV. After a few years, she was having trouble with her medication and was being harassed and threatened by local police and gang members for her activism. So in 2009, she came back to the United States.
She moved to the Washington, D.C., region and began volunteering with various HIV organizations, working part time and trying to learn English. But as a transgender undocumented immigrant who spoke little English, she had few options for income, and the training certifications she had earned in El Salvador weren’t valid in the United States. She ended up engaging in sex work to make ends meet.
“I had to start over,” she explained. She earned her certification as a counselor and got a job doing HIV education, prevention and counseling work with other transgender Latinas. Meanwhile, she applied for and was granted asylum and legally changed her name. She is now a permanent resident and will be eligible for citizenship in 2017.
“I built another Alexa,” she said, reflecting on her own resilience. “Now I can say what Daniel gave me was a gift. My community is one of the main things that keeps me going and makes me think that tomorrow will be better.”
In February 2014, she started working as the Youth Transgender Program Coordinator at the ¡Empodérate! Youth Center for La Clinica de Puebla, where she works with 18-29-year-old Latino men who have sex with men and with Latina transgender women. She does outreach, testing and intervention anywhere and everywhere these youth go – clubs, parks and houses.
“When they come here and come out of the closet as transgender, their families don’t accept it,” she explained. “Even my family – they could accept if I was a gay guy, but not that I am transgender.”
As she shared her story, she seems wise beyond her years and eager to share the lessons she has learned with the LGBTQ youth she works with, many of whom are new to the country.
“Youth come to D.C. HIV-negative and they don’t know about the high prevalence in D.C.,” she explained. “So they aren’t protecting themselves. Some don’t speak English or don’t have papers, so they’re afraid to go to a clinic or apply for a job. So they have to do sex work, and they get offered more money if they don’t use a condom.”
Alexa said connecting them with care is critical to their long-term health and the health of their peers in their community. “At ¡Empodérate! transgender women can access a continuum of care, from prevention services and community work opportunities to medical care and social support services,” Alexa explained.