Alberto Bermudez was not terribly concerned when he received an HIV diagnosis.
“I didn’t react at first because I didn’t know what it was really,” Bermudez says. “It was the gay disease, something IV drug users got.”
He was 18 years old at the time, a straight Hispanic male and devout Catholic, and he was not alone in his thinking at the time. It was 1988 after all. Magic Johnson was still the All Star point guard leading the Los Angeles Lakers — a few years before he came out as poz himself. Many still thought it was transmittable via a handshake or a sneeze.
HIV didn’t happen to straight people as far as Bermudez was concerned, so he saw no need to give much thought. It took three years of education and two additional tests for the Nicaraguan native to finally accept the results.
Once he finally did, though, Bermudez had an epiphany. The 18-year-old gang member living on the hard streets of Miami realized he had to change if he had any chance at survival. He didn’t know how long his life was going to last, but he knew he was going to make a difference. His life since then has been a testament to the power of clean living, eternal optimism, and dogged perseverance. Before that conversion, though, even his short-term survival was in question.
Bermudez arrived in the United States by way of Mexico around 1978. He lived in downtown Los Angeles initially before moving to Miami to rejoin his mother who had emigrated earlier. Bermudez immediately found himself at the intersection of poverty, crime, substandard education, and the lack of a living wage. He was a marginalized youth existing on the fringes of society. Unsurprisingly, he did what many others in similar straits did (and continue to do): He embraced gang life.
“They were my family,” he remembers. Gang life had many benefits for Bermudez, one of which was the ready access to casual sex with members of the opposite sex. Despite the dangers, practicing safe sex never crossed his mind at the time.
“That’s one thing about the Latino culture. We still don’t believe in condoms. It always happens to someone else, not straight people.”
When he finally accepted his diagnosis in 1990, he immediately set out to educate himself about the virus. He wanted to become an expert and it was an eye-opening experience. The severity of the diagnosis and prognosis hit him hard, but he took it as a challenge rather than a setback. He never accepted the diagnosis as anything remotely resembling a death sentence.
“I never felt that way,” he emphatically declares. “I always had faith in God. My attitude was that I wanted to live.”
The first thing he did was immediately disconnect from the outside world generally, and the gang life specifically. He cut off communication with friends and acquaintances to focus instead on himself. He needed to get healthy and educated. That meant no more drinking and partying, no more dangerous and uniformed decisions. He modified his life to eat the right diet, exercise regularly, educate himself extensively, and be a good patient. Put succinctly, he used his HIV to make positive changes in his life and, eventually, the lives of others.
Bermudez eventually reemerged from his self-imposed exile, but it was with a defined sense purpose to educate his communities about HIV.
“Before this I never really helped other people,” he admits. “My focus now is to help everyone, but mainly the heterosexual, Hispanic, and Black communities. Anyone who can learn from my experiences. Trying to get rid of the stigma, you know?”
Despite all the efforts made in educating the community about the causes of HIV, that stigma remains in much of the Hispanic culture.
“To be honest with you, many people I speak to still believe it’s a gay disease or something for drug addicts more than it should,” Bermudez lamented. “It’s because people haven’t learned about it, haven’t been touched by it.”
Bermudez has helped many fellow persons living with HIV deal with that stigma and ignorance. He has heard their stories of family members refusing to touch them or eat off the same plate, of friendships and relations that ceased to exist upon hearing of their diagnosis. These types of heartbreaking stories continue to both haunt and motivate him, but Bermudez believes progress is being made.
“People are learning that HIV can happen to anyone,” he observes. "Doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are. People know about it now and that one of their family members can be affected by it.”
Bermudez has certainly done his part to help change the perception within his community. He has appeared on multiple Spanish-language talk shows to discuss his condition and bring awareness to the dangers of unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, and other choices. He has been interviewed and written about in Spanish-language media. He also appeared in the video “Just Like Me” by the University of Miami, part of the Connecticut AIDS Risk Reduction Video Project aimed at educating high school students across the country.
Bermudez is also active with various local food banks and other charitable organizations. It’s all part of his commitment to ensuring that his diagnosis makes a difference where it’s needed most.
While Bermudez remains positive and optimistic, he is not without a few regrets and concerns. Chief among these is the impact on his ability to have children. His wife of sixteen years also brought along two sons from her previous marriage. However, the issue of having biological children of his own remains with him to this day.
“I have a lot of nephews and nieces and my stepsons,” Bermudez relates. “God has blessed me in so many ways, but it’s still difficult for me.”
Like many fellow long-term survivors, another issue for Bermudez is dealing with the loss of so many good friends. While he doesn’t necessarily feel guilt at having survived while so many others did not, he does feel a sense of deep and lasting grief.
“I’ve lost so many friends,” he says. “A lot of good people.” Equally painful for Bermudez is the belief that he failed those of his departed friends who had lost hope.
“Some of them give up,” he says. “Some don’t want to take their medicine. They just want to pass away. God chose me to help others, and I feel bad that I couldn’t do anything for them. That’s what I regret the most.”
Despite these regrets, things are looking positive for Bermudez in his battle against HIV. As of 2018, his undetectable, which means it's impossible to transmit to HIV-negative partners. He attributes his success to several factors.
“Take your medicine faithfully,” he explains. “Exercise and educate yourselves. Be positive in every way: mentally, emotionally, physically, nutritionally. Also, it’s important to have your family, friends, and faith there for you.”
Over three decades ago, Bermudez received the news that he was HIV-positive. What should have been a devastating diagnosis proved to be the turning point in his life. Instead of quitting on his life, he picked himself back up and took charge of it. The same optimism and positivity still form the foundation of his new approach to living as a long-term survivor of HIV.
“I’m just going to keep on living positively,” he adds. “I control HIV. HIV doesn’t control me.”