Remembering Pedro Zamora On His Birthday: The HIV/AIDS Activist Who Made An Enormous Contribution To Breaking Down Stigma
A handsome young AIDS activist, gifted educator, an openly gay man, and charismatic television personality who brought into households across America something that had never been done before. As one of the first openly gay men with AIDS in media, Zamora brought international attention to HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues and prejudices through his appearance on MTV's reality television series, "The Real World: San Francisco".
Being a coruscating intellect animated by a sinewy tenacity, who overcame towering cultural odds by the sheer force of his unbridled curiosity and rigorous devotion to humanity, Pedro regrettably lost his courageous battle with the disease in 1994. This untimely death due to AIDS-related conditions rocked a generation over twenty-five years ago. Today he would have been 45 years old.
Pedro Pablo Zamora was born on February 29, 1972, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, The eighth and youngest child of a food warehouse worker and his housewife. Hector, his father, had fought in the Cuban Revolution for Fidel Castro but became disillusioned with the changes brought by communism after Castro came to rule the country. Any mention of Castro in their home resulted in a tirade from Hector which earned him a reputation with local informants. As a result, life became tough for the Zamoras who lived in a small house with a dirt floor. The food was scarce, and Zoraida traded on the black market for food.
In 1980, when Pedro was 8, his family decided to move to the United States during the Mariel Boat Lift, leaving in Cuba only Pedro's oldest sister, a communist official, who chose to stay. The family resided in Hialeah, Florida, a suburb of Miami. In part as a result of the family’s continuing separation, Pedro became very close to his mother at the new place.
The separation was not the only a bitter fact in Pedro's young life. His beloved mother, Zoraida Diaz, died of skin cancer when Pedro was thirteen. His sister Mily, who was eight years older, helped raise him. The boy, grief-stricken by the loss of his mother, threw himself into schoolwork becoming an honours student, captain of the Cross-Country team, president of the Science Club, and as one of the most famous students in Hialeah High School was voted Most Intellectual and Most All-Around. His mother's death inspired him to study to become a doctor.
Soon after his mother's death, Zamora realised that he was gay and he became sexually active with many partners. Although AIDS had been notable in the news, Pedro, who was a young adolescent at the time, was unconscious of safe sex, the only AIDS education given him presented the disease as only affects drug addicts and sex workers. Homosexual sex and condoms were never discussed, so Zamora did not identify himself as someone at risk. When he was 14, his father, who had presumed that his son was gay, discovered that he had a boyfriend and when father confronted him, Zamora declared his sexual orientation. Hector, his father, affirmed that he would be supportive of his son rather than being upset. He was concerned over the homophobia to which his son might be faced.
Zamora decided to test for HIV on November 9, 1989. The results confirmed that he was HIV-Positive. The brave young man decided to reinforce his efforts to graduate from high school before he died, graduating in 1990. HIV-positive status inspired Zamora to join a Miami-based HIV/AIDS resource centre. There he met a lot of people with the same disease and educated himself about the HIV and AIDS, and on how to live a full life with it. Soon after that, he began to talk about his condition to others to attempt to raise awareness about the disease in his community. Zamora enrolled at Miami Dade College and chose to start a career as an AIDS educator. Pedro began to lecture at schools of all levels, parent-teacher association meetings, churches, travelling the country, sitting on the boards of various AIDS organisations. He was hoping to use the time he had left to prevent others from experiencing his fate.
He attended an international AIDS conference, spoke hundreds of times publicly. Although Pedro had no insurance himself, he accepted a position on the board of a charitable trust endowed by insurance companies, through which he came to the attention of the media.
In 1991, his work came to national attention when Eric Morgenthaler wrote a front page article about him in the WSJ. An invitations to talk show interviews by Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera followed by this coverage. Though Zamora was openly gay, he chose not to make that explicit point to school children, preferring to emphasise to kids that he got the disease through unprotected sex. Such an accent was made to underline the fact that both heterosexuals and homosexuals could get HIV. On July 1993, he claimed before the U. S. Congress for more explicit HIV/AIDS educational programs. "If you want to reach me as a young man – especially a young gay man of colour – then you need to give me information in a language and vocabulary I can understand and relate to.", Pedro Zamora said.
In 1993 he attended Lesbian and Gay March on Washington, where a fellow AIDS educator named Sean Sasser introduced himself to Zamora. Although Sasser did not characterise his meeting Zamora as love at first sight, he was moved by Zamora's presence and conviction. "I was kind of like, 'Wow.'", recalling Sasser, "I had never run across someone who was as good at it as he was." Sean encouraged Pedro to call him if Zamora ever visited San Francisco, where Sasser had been living for a couple of years. Sean Sasser afterwards discovered that the "The Real World" MTV reality TV show's producers were looking for a person living with HIV to cast in the 1994 season.
Alex Escarano, Zamora's roommate and best friend, urged him to put together an audition tape, explaining that Pedro could reach more people just by living in "The Real World" house than through the cross-country travel that exhausted him. Half a year later, Zamora got a letter that he had been chosen to be a castmate on the show out of 25,000 applicants.
"From the beginning, 'The Real World' was about diversity, and we always wanted to make the show as diverse as possible," co-creator and executive producer of the "Real World" Jonathan Murray said in an exclusive statement to MTV News.
Bill Clinton, who was in the President Office at that time, personally called Pedro Zamora when he was terminally ill. Former President Clinton thanked him for his contributions to the fight against HIV & AIDS. “In his short life, Pedro educated and enlightened our Nation. He taught all of us that AIDS is a disease with a human face and one that affects every American, indeed every citizen, of the world. And he taught people living with AIDS how to fight for their rights and live with dignity”, an official statement released by President Clinton said.
Zamora was only 22 when he passed away, but was strong to make a huge and lasting impact on the public’s viewpoint of the disease. The openly gay Cuban-American bravely came out disclosing his HIV status at a time when stigma was at its peak and until antiretroviral therapy has been scaled up. Pedro put a human face to AIDS and by sharing his background, was able to make an enormous contribution to breaking down stigma. What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human with his fully embodied mind and soul. More than two decades after his death the impact of the "Real World: San Francisco" MTV's reality television series is still being felt.
If you happened to love this story, we encourage you watching "Pedro" (2008), an American film about Pedro Zamora nominated for Official Selection in Toronto. We hope you will love it too.