Orlando Torres III looks like the kind of guy who doesn’t back down from a challenge. At 49, he’s six feet tall with broad shoulders and long legs. But his tough appearance is deceptive. Every morning, Torres has to swallow three different medications: Norvir, Truvada and Viramune to keep his body’s defense mechanism working. He has been HIV positive for more than two decades.
On Saturday morning, he joined a group of Hunts Point residents, activists and people living with HIV/AIDS. They gathered at Southern Boulevard for the first AIDS Walk in the history of the neighborhood. The goal of the march was to raise awareness about the disease. About 2.3 percent of all residents in the Hunts Point and Mott Haven section of the Bronx were living with HIV or AIDS in 2010, according to data from the New York City Health Department. Yet, many people still don’t know much about the virus.
Torres says that by the time he was 21 years old, he had been a sex worker and deeply involved in the drug lifestyle. He had been charged for 68 convictions and three felonies over the course of his criminal career, among them burglary. While in prison, Torres says he discovered he was HIV positive. That was in 1992, but his doctor estimated he probably became infected in 1984.
When Torres left prison after eight years, he went to a probation-mandated 90-day substance abuse program, where he began his HIV education. Now, he wants to tell others about the dangers of unprotected sex or drug abuse. But he also wants to fight the stigma faced by people living with HIV.
“HIV is not who I am,” Torres said. “Just like HIV doesn’t define me. What defines me is me. If you don’t own yourself, how can you own anything else?”
HIV rates in the Bronx are about 1.7 percent of the overall population, according to 2007 data from the New York Department of Health. In New York City, the prevalence is 1.4 percent.
The 2.3 percent HIV infection rate in Hunts Point is similar to developing countries like Haiti or Ethiopia. In Hunts Point and Mott Haven, 3,131 people were living with HIV or AIDS in 2010. About 61 percent of them were Hispanic like Torres, whose family comes from Puerto Rico. Blacks make up 36 percent, while 2.4 percent of Bronx residents with HIV are white.
There is no updated data available, said Soraya Pares, program manager at the Community Healthcare Network, a group of non-profit community health centers. But Pares says she doesn’t expect the numbers to change much this year.
Pares thinks the main reason for the high infection rate in the Bronx is a lack of education about how the virus is transmitted. She says many people with HIV in Hunts Point have drug problems and may have been infected with used syringes. The New York Health Department’s statistics show that most people get HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse.“When people look healthy, their potential partners tend to think there is nothing wrong with them,” Pares said. “Then they don’t use protection. But you can’t see if someone has HIV or not until the AIDS virus breaks out.”
HIV is so common in Hunts Point that almost every member of Community Board 2 knows someone who has been affected. Milli Colon, 59, a board member who organized the AIDS Walk, has lost 17 friends or family members to AIDS. Her brother died from it and her niece is fighting “full blown-AIDS” at the moment, she said.
“I’ve reached my mission with this event,” Colon said.
But there’s still a lot of work to do, she said. People with HIV are stigmatized, even by their own families, she explained, and don’t want to get tested.
During the march, she sat in the truck at the head of the parade. Through loudspeakers, she addressed the crowd of about 180 people walking behind the truck.
“I’m proud of you for coming out today,” she said. “I’m proud we are fighting the stigma together.”
Torres walked a few feet behind the truck.
“We can’t conserve life by keeping secrets,” he said.
The truck drove on, playing loud salsa music. A man danced in the street between the truck and the crowd. People stopped at the sidewalks and watched while other residents looked down from the windows of apartment buildings. Some of them waived at the marchers, acknowledging their presence, but they didn’t join the walk or comment. Still, for one day at least, HIV was out in the open in Hunts Point.
Adam Perez contributed reporting.