FIRST STATE MEETING
COMMON FRONT AGAINST AIDS
From "The Memoirs, Volume Two" -
So, we were doing a lot of
work in the office and people stopping in on some bit of business or
other. One day a bright looking, slight woman came in and introduced
herself as Doctora Alejandra Santaella, and that she was from Puerto
Escondido, the beach town due south of Oaxaca City. Seems she has
several AIDS cases among her patients and was trying to do everything
she could for them, but didn’t really know what to do. Well, we talked
awhile and I liked her a lot and so I called Nancy at her gallery right
around the corner and said, Nancy, what if I brought this lady over and
you could meet her. She said sure, Bill.
So, Dra. Alejandra and
Nancy had a nice conversation and later Nancy said, Nice lady, Bill, but she
lives on Jupiter.
Well, I knew what she was
talking about, of course, but hey, most of my friends live on Jupiter!
We would love her to pieces.
So, we got to know her fairly well and
we hooked her up with COESIDA, and she started coming regularly to
Oaxaca. The thing is, she said, she really wanted to form a group in Puerto and
do more AIDS work, so we began encouraging her and helping her out a bit.
So, while Doctora Alejandra
was busy working on a small group at the coast, Sergio and some others
mentioned that there was also a small group getting together to do AIDS
prevention in the Isthmus, the city of Juchitán, natch. I had been
there with Sergio once and liked it a lot and got to know a little about
the muxes there, the feminine son, drag queen, and knew that there was a
high incidence of homosexuality in the Isthmus, and hence a
sexual/cultural dynamic which, one could say, greatly touches the
dynamic of the epidemic of AIDS. So, we heard they were forming a group.
“Gee, that’s three groups
in the state,” I thought.
We knew that there were
really only a smattering of AIDS organizations around the country, and,
we knew, some states had none! And here we were with three! Well,
being the oldest group, and, we surmised, the biggest, we felt we should
maybe give a hand, at least make contact and add our moral support. We
came up with the idea of having a state meeting, of all three groups,
and share our thoughts and experiences.
Sergio talked to the group
in Juchitán and they liked the idea and then he said, he heard that
there was a small group trying to get started in La Ollaga, a little
burg, also in the Isthmus. Great, we said, bring ‘em along!
So, that was four groups!
Four groups in the state, and we had a little money from USAID, of
course, and this was just the kind of thing they liked us to do, so we
said we would pay for the whole thing, transportation to the event and
put people up and feed them and what not.
So, we thought let’s have
it in another city and help out one of the groups, with a big event, and
we would travel to them. Well, we chose Doctora Alejandra at the coast
and she was thrilled and said, Sure.
Our group then threw itself
into the heavy planning and preparation we liked so much, and began work
on a format we would use again. We would meet for a long weekend, a
late afternoon inauguration on Friday, all day Saturday, and a lengthy
but flexible closing session on Sunday, followed by a big meal.
Sergio reported the group
in Juchitán was calling itself Gunaxhii Guendanavani, a nearly
unpronounceable jumble of zapotec sounds, which we mangled horribly,
once in front of Nancy. She came right over to the office.
She wasn't angry or upset, but she made herself very clear. “We will all pronounce the
name of the group, Gunaxhii Guendanavani, correctly every time we say it!
Is that clear? It is their name!”
So, we worked overtime,
rehearsing and helping each other say "Gunaxhii Guendanavani" exactly
right every time. And we did.
I took a good crew over to
the beach a couple days ahead, the two Marcos, Ayax, Dino, Kelvin,
Eduardo, and even Antonio Recéndiz. We set up the sleeping places (a
couple pretty basic, empty houses the Doctora had managed to borrow!),
and did some decorating in the meeting location she had arranged, an
open-sided, grass-thatched palapa over looking the beach in a little grammar school
nearby. It was cute.
It was hotter than hell, of
course, but we had some beers in our empty house and I had bought a new
pair of sneakers, kinda deck shoes, and so we were having a good time.
and then Sergio and Yolanda, had arranged to fly in on Friday, shortly before
the event, and they arrived at the school and walked across the lawn to
our palapa. Then came the group from Juchitán, Gunaxhii Guendanavani.
I watched them walk across the lawn and marveled at the grand Tehuana
dresses, there appeared three females and one male. Well, you learn not
to jump to conclusions.
One of the apparent females
was actually Amarantha Gómez, one of the grand "muxes del Istmo," the
famous feminine sons who lived and dressed as women, and were an
accepted element of the broad Zapoteca culture of the Isthmus. We would
get to know her, and them, well indeed. The guy was Eli Bartolo,
Sergio’s friend whom I remembered from our trip to Juchitán, an out-gay
teacher (sound familiar?) and the other two, large, beautiful women, who
we would learn were important political figures in their city.
Well, the other “group” was
the guy from La Ollaga (the Big Bowl, so named because the only thing
the town had was a nice swimming hole on the river; I had been there),
and they, well he, didn’t have a name so we were calling them, him, the
Group from La Ollaga. Well, he turned out to be this cute 18-year-old
kid, Ignacio something, we called him Nacho, who was really great, cute,
as I said, and real sharp, talked with a lisp and eager to get into
everything and talked a lot. He had come a day early and so had
incorporated himself into our crew and, of course, was staying in the
big house with us. He had a tendency, well, he was a cute guy, as I
said, a tendency to wear almost no clothes at all. I liked him. And
then, if he was just in the company of guys, we’d wear nothing at all,
and walk around completely naked. I recall him being in and out of the
shower about ten times that day.
So that was our group,
about eighteen people, and we took our places in the comfortable plastic
armchairs around the big square table we had set up under the palapa.
The ocean breezes animated the little colored paper decorations overhead.
We all had our simple printed agenda of topics and reports and coffee
breaks. We felt relaxed and talked openly and easily.
The next day, we had
scheduled to begin with a report from each group, something of their
activities, their ideas, their goals. The first was scheduled for the
Doctora and her long-named, small group in Puerto. Well, she was
completely unprepared, but we loved her anyway. She mumbled on about
how hard it was and how she could hardly do anything and finally
couldn’t think of anything else to say. She would think of plenty as we
went on and interrupt with, Oh, yes, I forgot to say... But as I say,
we loved her.
Gunaxhii, next, was, of
course, well prepared and reported at length and with emotion and won
everybody to their cause and became strong, out-spoken members of our
Next came, well, Nacho.
Now he had stayed up late the night before drawing some charts and
graphics, which he had prepared and installed on our easel we had
brought for just those things. So he stood and started to talk about
how he lived in La Ollaga and there were a lot of guys there and a lot
of them were having sex, with their girlfriends and with each other. A
lot of sex, he said. Then he walk to the easel and flipped to his pie-chart
graphics. They were upside-down. Everyone groaned.
It was a chart which showed
what percent of guys had sex with whom and at what age. A fully eighty-five
percent, he estimated, of the guys in La Ollaga before they were married
were bisexual. Well, he went on and on, with his lisp and his
percentages and his upside-down charts.
And I sat back and listened
to him. Here was this kid, from a little burg in the Isthmus of
Tehuantepec, barely eighteen years old, and talking about the sexuality
of his pueblo, and talking to a fair-sized group of adults, and some
heavy-weights among them, let me tell you, and going on and on and
fairly holding his own. I smiled.
I had been sitting next to
Nancy during the session. She leaned over to whisper to me.
“This kid’s great!” she
“Yeah, I know.”
“Where’d you get him?”
I thought of the showers
last night. “Oh, around.”
Well, Nacho never really
got a group going in La Ollaga, but he remained a good friend and we
would know him for many years. He was in and out of Oaxaca a lot and
always came by to say hello or give a hand in whatever we were doing.
So, the meeting went, the
reports, the open discussions, the plans for the future, the coffee
breaks and the comidas. At one point, it was Sunday, and we were just
getting started with our last session and Nancy leaned to me and
suggested, “What do you think if we go around the table and everybody
say briefly why they’re here? You think that would be nice?”
“Yeah. Suggest it, Nancy.”
It turned into a moving
experience. And people weren’t so brief. Many had stories to tell.
Many had things to say, things they hadn’t really thought about before.
That day we would have our
comida brought in and sit around the table for a long time, hammering
out our “declaration” to be signed by everybody there. We called for
more action by the government, by the Secretary of Health. We called
for more truthful statistics and greater help from the press and media.
We called for free treatment and medication for all patients. We called
on the populace to get involved in the fight against AIDS. And we
committed ourselves to doing everything we could to stop this virus.
It was sent out the next
day, to health officials, and was printed in a lot of the papers and got
a lot of notice.
And the four little groups
became one, the seed of a movement in Oaxaca that would go on for years
and do a lot of work. And we became long friends with an interesting
and wonderful group of people and would do lots together over the years.
We cleaned up our little
palapa and caught the late-night bus up the long windy road back to
* * *
NOTE: You can read lots more
about the important work of the Common Front on our own beautiful