Since making Plus' list of the Most Amazing HIV-Positive Women in 2015, she has continued making waves on the national stage and was recently featured in People magazine.
Mejia was born into a world of extreme violence and horrific abuse (one of her earliest memories is being sexually assaulted by an uncle). At 13, the Colombian-American beauty ran away from her family’s tumultuous south Florida home, only to be indoctrinated into another violent world — gang life. By 15, Mejia was the girlfriend of a local gang leader.
At 18, she discovered she had acquired HIV from him.
“When I found out, it was a week after my 18th birthday,” Mejia told People last week. “In 1991, it was a death sentence, and I felt very alone.”
Mejia says that after disclosing her status to her mother, she forbade her to tell anyone else about her diagnosis, not even other family members. “The only ones that knew were my mother and my little brother,” Mejia recalled, “Though I know she did it to protect me, she said I shouldn’t tell family or friends that I had this, because they would discriminate [against] me.”
Her feelings of isolation were compounded by the fact that there was no social media on the internet back then, Mejia reminds, making it difficult to find information about HIV and groups or foundations that could help. Which is ironic, given that years later, social media is where Mejia has had one the biggest impacts.
Mejia chose to return to Colombia, where she planned to live her last days as a caregiver to her grandparents. Convinced she would succumb to the illness, Mejia says she had no plan B. She took the HIV medication that was available in the country at the time and began researching about the virus at local student medical libraries. “I just wanted to get my hands on [any] information that I could get as far as this condition.”
A decade later, Mejia retuned to the United States and finally was able to get on the very effective antiretroviral medications now available. Within weeks, her HIV had become undetectable — meaning the virus is no longer detectable in her system and therefore unable to transmit to others.
Now 45 — though she looks at least 10 years younger — Mejia is anything but ashamed of living with HIV and has become a prominent activist, giving “hope to the hopeless” and the most marginalized in the community — especially lesbian Latinas living with HIV. As part of amfAR’s Epic Voices campaign, she bravely shared her story with the world and now puts her diagnosis front and center, even making it her middle name on social media: “Maria HIV Mejia.”
“Just because you got diagnosed with HIV, especially in these times, it does not mean that your life is over,” Mejia told People. “You can live, you can work, you can thrive, you can survive, you can get married.”
“I try to live my life as best that I can. I believe in life, we have choices,” she added. “You either put yourself on the bed to die, or you continue to choose to fight — and then when you continue to choose to fight, then you fight for others.”