Oasis of mercy: Caring for those with HIV in Mexico’s Yucatan

Paulina Gongora Chim, 7, and Elias Chin, 5, pose for a photo at Oasis San Juan de Dios in Conkal, Mexico, Jan. 5. They live at the shelter because their mothers have HIV. (CNS photo/Alicia Cabezas)
Paulina Gongora Chim, 7, and Elias Chin, 5, pose for a photo at Oasis San Juan de Dios in Conkal, Mexico, Jan. 5. They live at the shelter because their mothers have HIV. (CNS photo/Alicia Cabezas)

by Mary Durran

CONKAL, Mexico (CNS) — A red-roofed, ramshackle collection of one-story buildings grouped around a tropical garden sits next to a small field where black pigs and hens run free. Inside, two large dogs wander contentedly, greeting visitors.

Nothing about this dwelling on the edge of a rural suburb would suggest that its work is on the cutting edge of the battle against HIV in Yucatan, the Mexican state that has the highest incidence of new cases among a section of the population.

The Oasis San Juan de Dios houses 24 orphans, women and men, all either HIV-positive or somehow affected by HIV or AIDS. All are here because they have nowhere else to go; all have endured the constant, daily humiliations that accompany the social stigma attached to HIV. Neighbors have tried to force them out, falsely claiming the land belongs to someone else, spreading myths about HIV-infected corpses being burned in the gardens. Local restaurants have refused to serve them, and children attending the local school have been called profane names.

Of some 200,000 cases of HIV in Mexico, Yucatan, with 6,400 cases, is in the top five of the 31 Mexican states and the federal district for incidence of AIDS and HIV.

“People with AIDS and HIV endure an extra burden of suffering,” said Father Raul Lugo, chaplain to the Oasis and a founder of the organization. “Because AIDS and HIV are linked with sexuality, victims are often judged as perverted, so they also suffer from stigmatization. Because of this double burden of suffering, the church has an even greater duty to be present here.”

The Oasis de San Juan de Dios was born in the early 1990s, when a man living in a guesthouse in Merida became sick with AIDS, could no longer work and stopped paying his rent. The owners literally threw him out on the pavement in front of the guesthouse. A group of Servants of Mary sisters and some Catholic laypeople rented space nearby and started to care for the man. The group became aware of more cases and started to rent apartments and houses to take care of the sick.

“People were dying in inhumane conditions,” said Carlos Mendez Benavides, director of the San Juan de Dios Oasis.

“But the fear and stigma attached to AIDS were very powerful,” he said. “If a sister went to rent a house, that was fine. But as soon as owners knew that there were people with AIDS there, they would do everything they could to get them to leave.”

From a small group who felt compelled to address the suffering of the first victims of AIDS in this conservative southern state of Mexico in the early 90s, the Oasis San Juan de Dios has grown from a work of mercy to a strong movement that has won considerable battles in terms of access to drugs for those with HIV.

“When we first started our work, we hesitated between works of mercy to the victims of AIDS and helping patients to die in comfort and dignity, advocacy for access to appropriate drugs and education to prevent the spread of HIV,” said Mendez. “But eventually, we decided we had to keep all three.”

At first, the latter two orientations were unpopular with both the church and the government. After a Mass and a march in December 1998 to denounce the “administrative genocide” by which the Yucatan government was allowing people with HIV and AIDS to die without access to antiretroviral therapy, the church expelled 18 Franciscan brothers and two priests from the Yucatan; they disobeyed the archbishop’s orders that the march should be turned into a procession in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

A couple of years later, the case of Gerardo Chan Chan reinforced the need to continue the work in education to diminish the prejudice and fear surrounding HIV. Chan, a homosexual Mayan man living in the village of Sitpach, contracted HIV. When he became sick with diarrhea and fevers in 2001, his father banished him to live in a pigsty in their yard, painting a white line that Chan was not allowed to cross. He was served food in used yogurt pots and was left naked outside to live like an animal. He attempted suicide more than once before he was brought to live in the Oasis community. Apart from appropriate medical assistance, he needed intensive psychiatric help to become a person again, Mendez said.

Over the years, things have improved in the Yucatan for people with AIDS. Since 2009, HIV-positive people have been allowed to marry, and all patients now have access to antiretroviral therapy, with a major push having come from the federal government. But some aspects of care are still left to individual states. And in 2015, the Yucatan health ministry announced it would no longer provide drugs for complications of AIDS, such as Kaposi sarcoma.

Mendez said the North American Free Trade Agreement obliges Yucatan to buy patented drugs rather than cheaper generics, and the process is riven with corruption and paybacks for high-placed health ministry officials.

Yucatan 450 recorded new cases of HIV in 2015, up from 180 in 2012. Mendez estimated there are many more unrecorded cases and explained the high incidence in the Yucatan by the prevalence of cultural sexual practices among Mayan men and the lack of a state-sponsored education and prevention campaign. There is no sex education in state schools in Yucatan.

“It’s not enough to hand out condoms,” Mendez said. “Young people need to be taught about sexuality, and how to practice it responsibly, and couples also need to be taught about how to prevent HIV and stay healthy.”

Another battle that Oasis faces is finding funds to continue its operation, lodging and feeding 24 people, and in some cases buying drugs. Its annual budget is about $44,000, and it has not raised that for 2016.

“God will help us to find what we need. I have always had this faith,” Mendez said.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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