COMMON FRONT AGAINST AIDS
From "The Memoirs, Volume Two" -
I had asked Nancy Mayagoitia, the owner of one of the art galleries in
Oaxaca and wife of the current mayor, to let me talk with her husband about AIDS
and some ideas I had.
“Come to our house for comida, on
Wednesday, Bill,” she replied.
“I don’t want comida, Nancy, I only want
a short meeting with Poncho.”
“Come to our house for comida, Bill,” she
repeated, “Three o’clock.”
“OK, I’ll be there,” and that was settled.
The following Wednesday, at
three, found me at the door to Nancy and Poncho’s apartment on Consati
Park, not far from the city center. “Come on in, Bill. Poncho just
called. He’ll be a little late.”
Oh, brother, I thought,
I’ll never see him.
Nancy invited me into the
living room and offered me a drink. I accepted a scotch.
I had written out a brief
outline of my thoughts, in rudimentary Spanish, and showed it to Nancy.
We sat and talked for awhile as she perused the notes. It was called
“La situación en Oaxaca” and drew some parallels between San Francisco
in 1983 and Oaxaca in 1992. It proposed a meeting of all those who
should be involved. She read it all seriously and then the talk moved
on to other things.
About an hour passed and
Poncho came striding in the door.
“Bill, I’m sorry I’m late,”
he said in Spanish and sat down on the couch across from me. It was
four o’clock and the dinner was being kept warm on the stove. This is
going to be a fiasco, I thought, with no opportunity for good discussion,
I began. He listened for
nearly an hour, occasionally asking questions. Nancy sat beside him,
assisting with translations when needed. She was doing what I would
later come to know as her way of treating me in Spanish speaking
situations, namely to offer NO help with my struggles except when
absolutely necessary, listening quietly as I muddled on, smiling calmly
and letting me speak.
Poncho gave me his full
attention, for the full hour, then saying, “Bill, I like your idea a lot.
There’s someone I want you to meet, she’s a public health worker and
very good. She’s from New York and I think you’ll like her a lot. Her
name is Claudia Harrison. I’ll put you in touch with her.”
And that was it. We moved
over to the dinner table and ate a nice comida and talked about many
things; but I was very impressed that Poncho, the mayor, at Nancy’s
urging I’m sure, had given me exactly what I had asked, an hour of his
time for a serious discussion, and he had given me a start and a name
and his encouragement. I always admired him his simple, direct
And so began the work on
the first “Encuentro Sobre el SIDA,” the first official action taken
against AIDS in Oaxaca.
Claudia Harrison turned out
to be a wonderful and talented New Yorker, whom I would feel I had known
“The mayor said I was to do
anything you want,” she marveled when we met. We had a good time and
worked hard. She was at the end of a three-year internship in Oaxaca
and was headed home, but she liked the idea of the Encuentro and even
postponed her return to New York for three months, to give me a further
* * *
The “Encuentro Sobre el
Sida” was going great, exciting work and meeting lots of people. The
invitations would go out through the Mayor’s office. Well, in these
little burgs, when the Mayor invites you, you come. We invited the
heads of every relevant area we could think of, Public Health, the blood
bank, the military, police, and Public Education.
Then, too, I made
sure that the “artistic community” was considered an important element
to invite. They had been instrumental in organizing "Art Agains
AIDS," the first event about AIDS in Oaxaca in February at La Mano
Mágica gallery. There was a special meeting at the gallery one evening, for
all the artists, the gallery owners, theater people, dancers, and
anybody else who would like to come. It was a good turnout, maybe fifty.
It was an open discussion, led by me and Mary Jane, and it was decided
that two or three representatives should be invited and have a place at
the table, they chose Rubén Leyva, who was thoroughly enthusiastic about
it, and Arnulfo Mendoza, who was too, in his quiet Zapotec way, and
Sergio Santamaría, from the theater, natch.
There evolved too, the
concept that the press and media should also play an important part,
even though they were already committed to covering it. We would make a
separate category and always include the media as a part of the
Encuentro and later as a part of the Frente Común.
Claudia Harrison was a real
pleasure and we had a great time together, often hanging out in the
porch of my little “casita” in the back patio of the gallery. Turns out
she’s married to a used comic book dealer (!), in California, and they
were living on both Coasts (!). She had very good Spanish and easily
made friends, especially in the Public Health area, doctors, nurses,
other health workers and administrators. She put together, through
Poncho, of course, a committee of about six people, to plan the event
and make the decisions about what was to be included. She was clearly
the head of the committee but she was deferring to me on almost all the
She kept saying that she
really liked “the process.” Well, I was putting on a show. I was as
concerned about how it should look as what should go on at the
Encuentro. We came up with a nice big meeting room, upstairs in one of
the downtown hotels. I designed a big square table, open in the center,
with the committee along one side and all the invited around the other
sides, as though all had an equal place in the Encuentro.
Along one wall would be big
graphics of statistics of AIDS in Oaxaca. I got a bunch of artists to
help with them, and then asked Rubén to design an image for a big black
and white mural, painted on canvas and stretched over the back wall.
That’s when he first drew the string of little abstract guys (and gals)
holding each others hands in the air. He called it “United We Can!”
“You’re talking about a
common front, right Bill?” he said, “Juntos Podemos!”
It would later become a
beautiful poster called Juntos Podemos Detener el SIDA en Oaxaca,
“United we can stop AIDS in Oaxaca.”
That was the term they had
begun to use in the meetings, a common front against AIDS. I liked it
for its sort of communistical sound, of course, like our old, hippie
slogan "Work hard for the common good!". And the Encuentro would
lead up to the signing of some sort of agreement, a commitment to a
common front. Soon it became the founding of a common front against
AIDS, and the Frente Común Contra el SIDA began to take shape.
The committee included some
interesting people, many would go on to play important and lengthy roles
in the project. A distinguished doctor named Miguel Ángel Ramírez
Almanza, began to take a leading role and I liked him a lot. Of course,
in those days I really couldn’t communicate with anyone, but I smiled a
lot and always shook everybody’s hand.
Then, too, the diminutive
doctora, Judith Cid, was a member, who had come to the art sale carrying
her white doctor’s coat. She had for some time been acquainted with José
Antonio and the Grupo Renacimiento and I think she saw a couple cases
for them. She would become somewhat disillusioned with them over time,
but now she was a hard worker for the Encuentro and would be with us for
a good while.
There were a couple others
and we all got along fine. The meetings were progressing. I had
to rely a lot on Claudia’s recap to me afterwards, to understand what we
had talked about. But they all took it very seriously and everybody was
attending meetings with vigor.
It was here, in these
meetings of dignified and interesting people, I would first notice the
daily evidence of a great Mexican tradition, which I would observe over
the years and know well, the tradition of Courtesy. I was evident
every strata of life in this culture. People shake hands and greet each
other. When a woman enters a room, every man stands. Upon entering a
gathering, one shakes every person’s hand. When leaving, one does
again. When someone sneezes, everyone in the room said, aloud,
“salud.” When you walk past someone, you ask permission to pass.
Permission is granted with much pleasure. One doesn’t shout in the
street. One is polite.
Courtesy. The great
Mexican ¡Cortez! I would see it in all, the ram-rod straight Dr.
Ramírez Almanza, Liceniada Pili, of the Municipal family organization,
Dra. Judith, and Nancy, of course. Later I would see it in “la
Profesora” Lilia Palacios, our future president. I would know and
appreciate it for many years.
* * *
So the Encuentro was
shaping up and it looked like around fifty representatives of various
institutions would be attending.
Poncho, as the Mayor and
host of the Encuentro, would preside. It was planned to be about three
to four hours, with a break in the middle, with coffee and such. The
final document to be signed was made into an oversized book on beautiful
dark amate paper, for the cover of which I had gotten the artist Jorge
López to reproduce his image of the hand with the heart, bleeding into
the air, in pinks and reds. It stood on a tall easel. I had selected
music for the entrance, the coffee break, and for the dramatic signing
of the “compromiso.”
Claudia said, “Bill, I’ve
been involved in a lot of events like this, and many were moving, many
well-planned, important, sometimes stirring. But I’ve never been
involved with anything this beautiful, this aesthetically beautiful.”
At the last minute, Poncho
had to go to Mexico City, to some political meeting. (Recall that
Poncho was of the old-family, Oaxaca political, ruling party, that is
PRI, when they say come, you come.) But I think it turned out just as
“Who do you want, Bill?”
“Well, you, of course,
So, Nancy and I sat up late
in her apartment and went through everything and she was great, even
better than Poncho, really, who always seems a little wooden to me, if
Thus was founded the Common
Front Against AIDS, and the Frente Común Contra el SIDA would have a
long life and do a lot of good and be recognized, at home and far away.
Oaxaca would remain one of the most important states in Mexico, with its
innovative programs and its treatment of AIDS patients for years to
* * *
It was during the work on
the Encuentro one day, and I was doing something and probably
complaining about something, that Claudia Harrison said to me, “Bill,
I’m going to give you some good advice that you’re going to remember for
a long time, and it’s going to help you with your work here in Mexico.”
She looked at me. “Bill,
they’re going to do things THEIR way. They’re not going to do things
YOUR way. And the sooner you understand that, the better your work will
She went on, “When someone
says, ‘Mejor mañana’ you smile back at them and say ‘Sí, mejor mañana’
and you come back mañana. You’ll find that when they do things THEIR
way, it’ll be just fine, and probably even better than you imagined.
But it won’t be YOUR way. Understand?”
Well, I’ve thought of that
advice many times, and in working with these wonderful and talented
people, with the City Hall, with artists and printers, with bureaucrats
and secretaries and doctors, when they say Mejor mañana, I smile broadly
my best and say, No problema, I’ll come back mañana.
Many thanks, Claudia.
* * *
I have thought often about
the work in which I found myself, the decision to do, and to keep doing,
AIDS work in Oaxaca. And I thought of the years in San Francisco, and
the good work there, and fun, doing sets and floats and such, but so
heavy. So much energy on dying friends, so dark, so constant.
Hell, yes, I could do AIDS
prevention for a bunch of kids, in a big, happy community where AIDS
hadn’t come! You bet I could work for life, not death! You bet I could
work for prevention, not dying and burials!
And I got a lot of support
from people in Oaxaca, a lot of people would say, “You’re doing a good
thing, Bill. Keep it up.” They’d say, “Good for you!”
Back in San Francisco, I
was awarded the AIDS Emergency Fund’s first Zackery Long Hall of Fame
Award for my work on the Care-A-Thon booth the year before. Zack Long,
one of the original founders of the Fund, and long time helper on the
floats, had died the year before of AIDS. The Fund named their award
after him. Russell went to the Fund’s award ceremony and accepted in my
name, making a nice little speech.
Yes, I found myself doing
AIDS work in Oaxaca, and I treated it like doing a play, a big play,
with lots of sets and lots of people, it would be a hit play with lots
of promotion and posters all over town and everybody would love it!
* * *
...NEXT: PART TWO