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2021's Amazing People Living with HIV: Activist Nilsa Hernandez

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When Nilsa Hernandez left her native Venezuela for neighboring Brazil, it was a matter of life or death for the now 64-year-old activist. A crisis in her home country meant she no longer had access to the life-saving medical care necessary to keep her viral load undetectable.

“I began to feel the consequences on my health. That’s why I immigrated to Brazil. It was the way out because I wanted to live,” recounts Hernandez.

So, she picked up her life, leaving practically all she had ever known behind. Hernandez moved from Ciudad Bolívar in Venezuela to Rio Branco, the capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima, where she could access treatment through the country’s public health system. However, once she reached Brazil, Hernandez faced new challenges, like being unhoused, in addition to discrimination and violence. It was through the kindness of others that she was eventually able to find a small house to rent, and that marked a turning point for the former grocer, who decided she needed to help those in similar circumstances.

“That’s why I dedicate myself to supporting my compatriots, who arrive in the country in a similar situation to the one I had when I arrived here,” she says.

To that end, Hernandez created Valientes por la Vida (“Brave for Life”), a volunteer initiative that seeks to help other Venezuelans living with HIV who, like her, moved to Brazil for treatment, but have little to no resources or information about how to receive it once there. Hernandez is rightfully proud of the work she and Valientes are doing.

“My greatest achievements this year were helping save many lives and sharing hope and knowledge with compatriots who have come to Brazil from Venezuela in search of a way to take care of themselves, to stay alive, to live a healthy life,” she says. “I’m pleased and proud to be able to volunteer so that the human side, which we all have, can be used to help renew hope for those who need it most.”

Despite her difficult, life-saving work, Hernandez is reluctant to call herself a leader. “I don’t really consider myself a leader,” she demurs. “Because the leaders are everyone else, including people like me, who are living with HIV. They all exercise different types of leadership; they’re brave in their fight for a better life. I consider myself a guide, helping people find information, welcoming, and supporting them in their needs.”

While there’s no question Hernandez is doing great work for her community, Valientes por la Vida is grappling with difficulties raising the funds needed to continue and expand that work. “We do what we do with a lot of love and heart, but there comes a point where it’s not enough,” she explains. “I have the will, but that’s not always enough. I don’t like to ask for these things; I’m more of a doer, but if I’m asking for this now, it’s because we need everyone’s support.” 

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