Richard Zaldivar's enduring legacy has been the creation of the AIDS Monument in Los Angeles' Lincoln Park, which was dedicated in 2004 after a years-long battle with anti-gay forces. The first publicly funded AIDS monument in the nation, it now has some 560 names etched into it — the names of people who have died from AIDS complications.
It's updated every year on Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day. "The intention [of the monument] was to walk down a journey," says Zaldivar, a longtime Dodgers fan who was born and raised in Los Angeles, "and it gives us the opportunity to look at our demons and our secrets. ... It's a symbol of acceptance for a so-called shameful disease."
That's especially true in the Latino community, says Zaldivar, who's been working on L.A.'s Eastside to confront the stigmas and end the discrimination against gays and lesbians and people living with HIV/AIDS. For nearly 18 years, Zaldivar, founder of The Wall — Las Memorias Project, an HIV/AIDS awareness group in Highland Park, has been a trail blazer. "We're constantly seeking ways to create change," says Zaldivar, a sophisticated and passionate activist, "either through traditional or nontraditional methods."
Recently, The Wall — Las Memorias Project teamed up with the Chivas USA soccer club to conduct an HIV/AIDS awareness program, in which the nonprofit went to soccer fields across Los Angeles to test Latino men and give them information about the sexually transmitted disease. Those who took the test and a survey got free tickets to a Chivas home game. Zaldivar's staffers found that 15 percent of the men tested engaged in high-risk sexual behaviors. "Those people, who are mostly straight men, would not normally be reached out to," Zaldivar says.
The activist also has been unafraid to go into churches of all stripes and reach out to Latino mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, ministers and priests, educating them. But he does so in a way that's respectful in tone and approach. "We don't go in and try to own the place," Zaldivar says.
As a result, he says his organization, which can always use more financial resources, has built up goodwill in those churches and in the communities they serve. That has given the activist the opportunity to educate religious folks about homosexuality. "We can move to the next level of discrimination, not only about HIV/AIDS but about the LGBT community," he says.
It's the kind of work major gay rights organizations in California and across the nation have been slow to do and never seem to pull off correctly, but Zaldivar is there, doing it.
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"We really need to involve the entire community for true change," says Zaldivar, who's changing minds in places others have been hesitant to go.