From "The Memoirs, Volume Two" - January, 1992



            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 in Oaxaca 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, Oh, well.

            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 response.


            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 for years.

            “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 hand.


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            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 details.

            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 in 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 well

            “Who do you want, Bill?” asked Nancy.

            “Well, you, of course, Nancy!”

            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 sympathetic, natch.




            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 come.




* * *


            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.”

            “Er, yes?”

            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 be.”

            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!



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