Claudia Pena keeps three votive candles burning in her Cudahy apartment—one for each of her children and one for herself.
Every day, she says, she prays to stay well enough to care for Jessica and Christopher, at least until they can care for themselves.
“I don’t ask for much else,” she says.
This is not the life she had expected. Like many illegal immigrants, she lived with the fear of being deported. But she was healthy. Her days were consumed with work, and hope for her children’s success.
She and her boyfriend, Jesus Castillo, met as teenagers soon after she came to the U.S. from El Salvador. They were high school sweethearts. They lived together for more than 10 years and started a family. She worked the register in a doughnut shop. He cleaned carpets, although he had a drug problem.
“I wasn’t the person who used drugs or slept with other men,” Pena said. “I stayed home, went to work and cooked and cleaned for my kids.”
On a June morning more than three years ago, her boyfriend came down with a high fever and could barely breathe. Blisters clustered around his mouth.
She took him to the emergency room at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he was admitted with pneumonia. When she returned to check on him, a doctor asked a surprising question: Had she been tested for HIV?
A few weeks later, at a local health clinic, she learned that she was HIV-positive.
“I knew that my life was not going to be the same anymore,” Pena said.
Her mind filled with questions: How long have I been infected? Will I get AIDS? Are my children OK? Who will look after them if I can’t?
She thought to herself, This can’t be happening to me.
Pena, 34, is one of HIV’s hidden victims.
The number of illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants with HIV or AIDS is unknown, in part because researchers rarely ask about immigration status.
But studies of Latinas in general indicate that more and more are being infected with HIV, often by husbands or boyfriends secretly using injection drugs or having sex with other men.
“Latina women are not aware of what their sex partners are involved in,” said Juan Ruiz, chief of HIV/AIDS Epidemiology for California’s Office of AIDS.
The rate of HIV infection among Latinas in California is about twice the rate among white women. Most are infected by heterosexual partners, according to the Office of AIDS.
Much attention has been paid in recent years to the plight of black women, who make up the largest percentage of women in the state with HIV and AIDS. But Latinas are not far behind. At the end of June 2005, about 30% of all women with HIV were Latina, compared with 36% African American.
Like many black women, Latinas often do not discover they are HIV-positive until they or their partners become ill, so they fail to benefit from early treatment.
Once their condition is diagnosed, Latinas often keep it a secret—even from their own families.
Pena looked at her boyfriend in the hospital bed, weak and thin.
Is that going to happen to me? she thought.
They fought that day. She insisted on knowing how he got HIV. He lashed back, accusing her of having an affair.
Finally, she recalled, “he gave it to me straight.”
He admitted to sleeping with other men for cash to support his addiction to crack cocaine, she said. He’d known of his illness for nearly a decade, she said, but kept it secret out of fear of losing her.
Pena said she had known about the drugs but was shocked by the prostitution. Still, she saw him through his bout with pneumonia.