According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Latino teens account for 21% of AIDS cases among U.S. teens. That’s a startling rate that has people such as Latino fashion designer Mondo Guerra working to get people that are HIV positive informed about how to get the proper treatment.
When the young fashion designer first announced he was HIV positive, it was during one of the episodes of Project Runway’s Season 8. Although producers were aware of his health condition, it was agreed not to bring it up during the show. The announcement was a shock to his Project Runway colleagues, but more so to Guerra’s family who had no idea he was suffering with HIV for the past ten years.
As Guerra explained to us, his decision to hide that information from his family had to do with the way he was raised and the embarrassment he was feeling. But as he would later learn, that decision would cause him to not seek the proper care or have a support system to rely on. Recently, Guerra partnered with Merck to create Project I Design, an HIV awareness campaign that encourages open communication between patients and doctors to find the proper treatment plan.
We caught up with the Latino designer during a recent appearance at the City of Hope’s Sixth Annual HIV/AIDS Action Summit in Duarte where he shared his personal journey with the disease to a group of youth. Here are some of the things he wants you to know in regards to Projectidesign.com and and tips on how to live a fulfilling life with HIV.
When I was first diagnosed I wasn’t taking care of myself. I had to hit rock bottom and end up in the hospital before I realized that I needed to combat the disease and take responsibility for my own health. So when Merk approached me about doing the Project I Design campaign it was an immediate yes for me. I completely identify with the campaign’s mission to promote communication, conversation and participation between patient and doctor, and I think this is my opportunity to prevent others from making my same mistakes.
Being a Latino male, I was brought up in a very traditional home. HIV was never even brought up as a topic of conversation. Growing up I always thought it was just a gay thing, but it’s not; it doesn’t discriminate against race, sex, etc. It was very difficult to talk about it because there was a sense of embarrassment and shame, which is why I didn’t tell them for years. But now I know that the sooner families are open about the issue, the sooner they can begin to take the proper care.
Once I finally began to see a doctor and take care of my health, it was trial and error in trying to find a treatment plan that worked for me. Because no two people are the same, it’s very important to explore your options with your doctor to find what works for you. That’s why Project I Design is so great because it guides you to have that dialogue with your doctor. There’s also a downloadable PDF of questions to ask when you visit your doctor, so it really helps in making you take that first step.
One of the questions I get asked frequently is “what do you say to someone who has just been diagnosed?” Speaking from personal experience, the best thing you can do for that person at that time is let them know that they are still loved and still have self worth. They need to be surrounded by people they can trust and by people they can be honest with.
What drives my designs is that same honesty that liberated me when I announced my being positive. It’s about finding who you are and being completely comfortable with it. It’s all about individualism and giving people the freedom to play with what they already have in their wardrobe. It’s also minimal, beautiful, sophisticated, functional and approachable.
Through all of this I’ve learned that you really need to take care of your health so that you can enjoy life to the fullest. It took me a long time to be comfortable with my situation but even in high school I was dealing with other issues that didn’t allow me to feel good about who I was. But trust me, it gets better.
Teens need to honor who they are. They don’t always have to fit in; they can march to their own drum and one of the ways to do that is through fashion. For example, when they get dressed in the morning, whatever they choose to wear sets the tone for the rest of the day. So why not try something unexpected that they always wanted to wear but never had the courage to because of what people might say. It may be difficult at first but eventually people will begin to recognize them as an individual and they’ll feel good that they pulled it off!
This fall, Guerra’s designs will be available at Neiman Marcus. He also helped choose contestants for the new season of Project Runway. For more information on how to live a fulfilling life with HIV, visit Projectidesign.com.
This post is also available in: Spanish