A worldwide epidemic decades before the pandemic: 40 years of AIDS artifacts and stories aim to teach recent history and honor millions lost

Main | < | 2021


By Alexandra Pecharich (FIU Magazine, Apr. 8, 2021)

Huston Ochoa MSW ’20 weeps silently as his former professor and another man unfurl the 12-foot-square, stitched-together fabric. He sees there at the bottom, for the first time in nearly three decades, the colorful rectangle that his 3-year-old self and extended family decorated in honor of his deceased parents.

Their names—Elena Alfonso Ochoa and Orson Ochoa—appear in elegant lettering above a candid photo of a smiling young couple, framed by messages of love handwritten by their son’s aunts, uncles and cousins. Heartbreakingly, the panel dedicated to the pair borders the one honoring Huston Ochoa’s two maternal uncles, Wilfredo and Fernando Brito.

The patchwork forms but one of thousands that collectively constitute the national AIDS Memorial Quilt. Housed in San Francisco, it commemorates the lives lost to a modern-day scourge, one that predates the coronavirus pandemic by nearly 40 years and yet offers lessons that resonate in current times. The totem returned to South Florida at the request of Shed Boren, a professor in the Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and Honors College fellow, who in 1992 developed a program at Mercy Hospital to respond to the needs of the growing number of people suffering with AIDS.

For years a death sentence—to date more than 33 million people worldwide have perished from illness related to AIDS—the once-mysterious, now-treatable disease first came to attention in California in the early 1980s and seemed to strike healthy people out of the blue. Soon it was understood that most contracted it through intercourse, and victims’ predominantly homosexual orientation provoked widespread judgment and outright hate in an era when few gays lived openly. A small percentage contracted it through blood transfusions, as did Huston Ochoa’s father, who subsequently passed it on to his wife.

The quilt with the South Florida connection will hang through July 18 at the Coral Gables Museum along with hundreds of other artifacts gathered by Boren to illustrate the narrative of AIDS both locally and beyond: 66 posters from the Wolfsonian-FIU collection—some promoting empathy, others encouraging safe sex—that present diverse perspectives and messages around the global health crisis; scientific articles by retired FIU Professor William Darrow, who served as a leader and researcher with the CDC during the early days of the epidemic and who features in a best-selling book and subsequent major motion picture about that time; photographs of the annual White Party that began in 1985 at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum & Gardens as a fundraiser for AIDS care; clips from the Miami Herald that include one telling the story of Huston Ochoa, “The Boy Orphaned by AIDS,” and others that follow the contentious legislative battle over gay rights in Miami-Dade, prompted by the increased attention paid to issues affecting homosexual citizens as a result of the contagion; and so much more.

“I just realized people don’t know this,” Boren says of those on campus who inspired his effort. “I meet some LGBTQ college students who don’t have any clue that [society] wasn’t always as accepting and HIV isn’t [as easy as] just take a pill and prevent it.” So he has collected the historical, the scientific and the political to fill in knowledge gaps and spur conversations.

Equally important, he has assembled the personal effects of people such as the late Ochoas—the white, intricate lace blouse she wore on her wedding day, the youth baseball jersey emblazoned with “Cubanitos” that he wore as a boy in Havana—as well as the creations of the Brito brothers, one a jewelry maker, the other a painter.

“It humanizes them,” Boren says of the things that speak to poignant moments and unique passions to bring individuals into relief.

Also on view: the works of other local artists, among them Carlos Alfonzo, Fernando Garcia, Carlos Macia, Adolfo Sanchez and Sheldon Lurie, all gone by the early 1990s, as well as key projects that show the efforts of the South Florida art community to aid those affected by the disease.

“Many talented artists died of AIDS,” says Coral Gables Museum Chief Curator Yuneikys Villalonga, who mourns the loss of a generation of creative individuals cut down in their prime. For the exhibition, she borrowed pieces from the Miami-Dade County Public Library, from individual collections and galleries, and from the loved ones of those taken too soon. 

“It’s been involving the whole community,” says the art historian of all who have contributed. “The families of the artists have been very collaborative and kindly shared their memories and belongings, as they see the importance of telling these stories.”

As she shares the artists’ legacies with a new audience, she believes the exhibit—featuring as it does both harsh reality and great beauty—will touch even those with no direct knowledge of AIDS’ impact. 

“This exhibit is very timely,” Villalonga says. “I think people will be more likely to understand and more sensitive to what it meant then, as they currently experience a pandemic. It is more important than ever to talk about it, to create awareness of taking care of yourself and taking care of the other. That is ultimately the core message.” 

Filling nearly 5,000 square feet of gallery space, the exhibition is huge in size and historical scope as well as in the many ways it opens doors for reflection. The latter includes a quilt-making station for visitors to complete panels in the name of loved ones who have died of AIDS, COVID-19 or any other cause.

For Huston Ochoa, contributing to the exhibition sparked a range of emotions. He has felt joy in getting to know his parents more deeply by examining long-hidden treasures unearthed by older relatives. That activity has also spurred contemplation of what it means to live a life infused with longing.

“It goes along with the story of so many Cubans especially, as well as the AIDS community,” he says, “just this feeling of loss, whether it was leaving your country or losing your family member too early. To say, ‘What could have been.’ You never get over that.”

Yet the exercise of remembering also helps pave a way forward.

“When I was 25 or 26, I thought for a moment I had closure, and now I’m really questioning what does that even mean,” he wonders. “As I continue to grow in my life, all of this will continue to gain meaning. I think that is true for all of us.”

After a year in which so much of the world has suffered, the understanding that pain never completely fades might be the most lasting truth of all. 

CLICK HERE TO READ THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE: https://news.fiu.edu/2021/a-worldwide-epidemic-decades-before-the-pandemic-40-years-of-aids-artifacts-and-stories-aim-to-teach-recent-history-and-honor-the-millions-lost