March 14, 2008

Nobody Here Chickens Out

A Mexican Community Leader Dies of AIDS

By Alonso Yáñez
New America Media

"Stories Against the Silence: HIV/AIDS in the Latino Community" profiles artist and activist Jose Santibáñez who fought for basic social services such as electricity and water for his neighborhood in the outskirts of Tijuana.

Unbearable pain. Infections. Partial deafness.

This is how a Mexican community leader spent his last days in Casa Hogar Las Memorias, a hospice for HIV/AIDS patients 10 miles east of Tijuana, Mexico.

Jose Santibáñez, 41, lobbied politicians and obtained basic services such as electricity and water for his neighborhood, Terrazas del Valle, in the outskirts of Tijuana.

He is another talent lost to an AIDS epidemic that has infected approximately 42 million people worldwide.

Tijuana, located 130 miles south of Los Angeles in the busiest frontier in the world, is a focal point of the epidemic.

Candelaria González taking care of her son José Santibáñez. Photo by Moisés Reyes.

“We live in a border city,” said Santibáñez. “A lot of people migrate and they don’t have the courage to accept they cheated. Once they reunite with their partners, they infect their families.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Santibáñez moved to Tijuana nine years ago to take advantage of the public assistance available to poor HIV/AIDS patients in Baja California.

He was married and had three children, but his whole life changed when he was diagnosed with the disease. He confessed to his wife that he cheated, and she left him and took the children.

The following months were very difficult. He was depressed and attempted suicide several times. These were crucial months of reflection, after which he opted to live.

“Initially, I cursed having HIV but now I welcome it because I value my life more,” said Santibáñez. “If I made a mistake, now I have to be responsible for it.”

Santibáñez was weak when he first arrived in Tijuana. Desperate, his mother Candelaria Gonzáles took him to Las Memorias, where he recovered in six months.

Las Memorias AIDS monument showing Miguel Angel Reyes’s piece titled “Men and AIDS. Photo by Moisés Reyes.

During his recovery, he complained that he had too much time on his hands. He started to paint replicas of paintings by Salvador Dalí and Diego Rivera to finance his medication. Soon after that, he was hired to work exclusively for a businesswoman from Rosarito.

“She was also a painter,” said his mother Candelaria. “She hasn’t found a person who can paint like him, so she’s begging him to continue working with her.” Las Memorias AIDS monument showing

His messy, rustic studio is still as he left it. Numerous sketches lay inside the feeble wooden shed, illuminated by a faint light entering from a solitary window. Under the window, a photograph of a Democratic Revolutionary Party march summarizes his relentless personality. In the picture, a group of people carry a banner that reads: “Nobody here chickens out.”

After Santibáñez returned home, he devoted his efforts to improving the quality of life in Terrazas del Valle, which at the time lacked paved roads, electricity, water and sewage.

“He lobbied to get a police booth,” said his neighbor Elizabeth Jiménez. “We are abandoned. Thanks to him, the neighborhood has progressed, because no one from the government has ever listened to us.”

“This neighborhood always had corrupt leaders,” added Jaime Fuentes, who worked with Santibáñez as a member of the neighborhood council. “But he always led the community in an honest way and achieved important things.” Las Memorias AIDS monument showing

Although Santibáñez acknowledges progress in some aspects, he urged the government to conduct more campaigns emphasizing education and testing. Santibáñez’ niece, Zahory Gonzales, 13, remembers how everyone in the family had to educate themselves about HIV and AIDS when they found out about her uncle’s condition, and laments how the topic was discussed superficially by her school teacher.

“I don’t think they teach enough (about it) at school. My teacher was scared of talking about birth control methods, like condoms,” said the seventh-grader. “We asked her questions but she said we would discuss that topic later. And then she would skip the topic in our textbooks.”

Two days before he died, Santibáñez talked about the need for more public campaigns designed to educate people about HIV and AIDS.

During the interview, he was constantly interrupted by phone calls from his neighbors, who asked him for advice even though he was partially deaf and his voice was barely a murmur.

“We need people to understand the need of a massive campaign to get everyone tested,” said Santibáñez. “You can trust your partner all you want, but you need to find out if you are infected or not.”

This series first ran in Spanish in “El Nuevo Sol,” a publication for Spanish-speaking college journalists at California State University, Northridge.

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