This story was first published in the Spring 2008 Rising Times Newsletter, a publication of the Women Rising Project.
On March 10, 2008, the 3rd annual observance of National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Women Rising Project recognized the Project’s co-founder, Mary Frances Moreno. Acknowledging her inspiration and leadership on strengthening HIV+ women was right in line with this year’s theme, “Honoring Our Sisters: Women Living with HIV/AIDS”. Mary and I first met in 1990 when she came to AIDS Services of Austin for educational counseling on maintaining her health. At that time, I was the HIV Wellness Educator. I remember being so impressed by this Latina grandmother who was determined to have a good life in spite of HIV.
Mary is a long-term survivor. Although she learned of her HIV infection in 1987, she acquired HIV three years earlier from a blood transfusion. In 1990 Mary says she emerged from a period of denial and accepted an opportunity to become an HIV/AIDS educator for her service employees union. Then in 1992, she disclosed her HIV status in an article in the union’s national magazine. At that point Mary became an outspoken promoter of AIDS education in the workplace, a champion for the rights of workers with HIV, and an advocate for reasonable accommodations in the workplace. During this time she filed and won a lawsuit against her employer for discrimination in the workplace.
In addition to her work as an HIV/AIDS educator in workplace settings, Mary became a spokesperson at national conferences on HIV/AIDS in older Americans and a speaker on the impact of HIV in women’s lives. One of my fondest memories of Mary’s presentations is that when she was asked about how she “got” HIV, she would use that as a teachable moment, and reply that “it doesn’t matter how you got it, what matters is how you live with it.” Her commitment to better living for people with HIV led her to serve on the Austin Area HIV Planning Council in the mid-90’s. Mary continued her to be at the forefront of efforts to promote HIV education and care services, speaking at numerous conferences, giving many newspaper and television interviews, and serving on policy groups focused on women and Latino/a issues.
In the midst of her public activism, Mary confided to me that she oftentimes felt sadness that HIV+ women didn’t have “something” just for themselves. Mary had been part of a few support groups but they hadn’t lasted partly because they weren’t grounded anywhere. She and I talked at length about what to do about the self-imposed, crippling isolation in which many women lived their lives because of the fears of stigma if they became known. Then in 1994, she and I both hit on the same idea which was to hold a retreat for HIV+ women. We joined forces, and with the help of a committee of dedicated women service providers, the first central Texas retreat for women with HIV/AIDS was held in April 1995. That event for twenty-two women laid the groundwork for what became the Women Rising Project. And Mary was there pitching in as we created new educational and support programs and activities and this newsletter, serving on the Advisory Board for six years.
In 2002 she decided to focus her time and energy on life with her loving husband, Gabby, who had stood by her through good times and hard times since their marriage in 1960. A mother of five, she also wanted more time with her now adult children and her grandchildren. But Mary continued to respond to requests now and then to share her experience and insights as someone who has lived over 20 years with HIV. In April Mary will celebrate her 71st Birthday!
In 2006 Mary decided to take a look back on her life with HIV and has written a book entitled, My Spiritual Journey with HIV in which she reflects on her experiences and tells how her Faith and her supportive connections with her family and “sisters” with HIV have sustained her.
Sometimes we think advocates and activists are born but really they are ordinary people like Mary who take a stand. Mary Frances Moreno became an advocate. She took action that made a difference!