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Far from the ordinary reality television star with 15 minutes of fame, HIV/AIDS activist and educator Pedro Zamora was a inspiration and role model to the GBLT community and the rest of the world. Born February 29th, 1972, to Cuban parents, Hector and Zoraida, he was raised in a small town near Havana, Cuba. After previously having seven children, Pedro's mother was told prior to his birth that she would not be able to have any more children, so when she did give birth to him he was seen almost as a miracle. Born feet first on leap day in a leap year added to the idea that he was a very special child. A priestess of Santeria even blessed him as an infant and called him a "wise one", a soul who was born to save lives. He grew up in a very small house with a dirt floor, and food was scarce with his mother trading things on the black market in exchange for food to support their large family. Growing up in these grim conditions made his childhood tough, but things changed for the better when Zamora's family moved to Hialeah, a suburb of Miami, Florida (Mills).
When Zamora was 8 years old, his family, a whopping ten people, attempted to leave Cuba together for the United States. They left Cuba during the Mariel Boat Lift, which was a mass movement of Cubans who departed from Mariel Harbor trying to get to the United States in 1980. Although his family tried to stay together, government officials informed them that the four older siblings were too close to the draft age and were not going to be allowed to the United States with the rest of their family. Even though the family wanted to go together, the older siblings were adamant about the rest of their family getting an opportunity for a better life in America. Thus, the rest of the family continued with their trip to the U.S. After sailing on a boat with 250 people with a boat half the capacity for 13 hours Pedro and his family arrived and started a new life (Vaillancourt).
When Zamora was 13, his mother passed away from skin cancer. During his time in the United States prior to her death, they had developed a very close relationship and her death was devastating to him. In his high school years Pedro become an honors student, Cross-Country Team Captain, and President of the Science Club. While in denial of his mother's death and needing a way to cope, however he became sexually promiscuous. Zamora did not receive adequate sex education. Unaware of the possible serious consequences of loose sexual relations with many partners, he was naïve about safe sex and HIV transmission. After only receiving information from someone who made the disease seem like a distant problem that only affects drug addicts and prostitutes, Zamora was unaware and uneducated and did not know he was at risk too.
During his early high school years when Zamora was 14, his father suspected that his son was a homosexual and discovered that his suspicions about his son's sexuality were correct. After having his older brother follow Pedro on a day that he told his father he was going to hang out with a group of friends, he caught him with his boyfriend at the time. Subsequently, Pedro confessed to his father about his sexuality after he was confronted. His father, an understanding man who was close to his son, did not disown him, but supported him. His concern was more for the homophobia that Zamora would be subjected to from anyone who even suspected he was gay (Johnson).
During his junior year at Hialeah High School, Zamora participated in a blood drive in which, to his surprise, his blood was rejected. He received a letter following his blood donation stating that his blood tested "reactive", although the letter did not specify reactive for what. In denial, Zamora ignored it and the many other letters he received requesting he have more tests. Unable to ignore the inevitable any longer, six months later Zamora tested HIV positive on November 9th, 1989, at the young age of 17.
In denial about his health, and in spite of everything, Zamora held on to his goal of graduating high school. Five months after being diagnosed he suffered from a case of shingles due to his HIV. Coping for two months with the condition covering the entire right side of his body and face, it was a wake up call for him to take his health seriously and face reality. He joined "Body Positive"; an HIV/AIDS resource center in Miami. During that time Pedro learned about his disease and how to live his life as healthily as possible being HIV positive. Meeting others with HIV and AIDS helped him learn that he could still live a positive life. This triggered his desire to educate others in his community about the disease and make people more aware and humanize it. Although he graduated high school in 1990 with outstanding grades and enormous potential, he chose to educate the world about the disease.
After high school, Zamora's career as an HIV/AIDS educator began to flourish. He spoke at schools all over the country and to anyone who would listen. Although he was gay, he chose not to emphasize that to the younger children he gave speeches to. He wanted it to be clearer to people that you can contract HIV whether you are gay or straight. He traveled as part of many AIDS organizations hoping to make a difference, but his work was really acknowledged when a front page article in the Wall Street Journal was written about him by Eric Morganthaler. This article skyrocketed him into national focus, and he was consequently invited for interviews on television talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show. Another accomplishment in his life took place on July 12th, 1993, when he testified in front of the United States Congress concerning HIV/AIDS awareness programs. He stated, "If you want to reach me as a young man -- especially a young gay man of color -- then you need to give me information in a language and vocabulary I can understand and relate to." (Cagle).
Later that year he met his future partner, Sean Sasser, a fellow AIDS educator, during a gay/lesbian march in Washington, D.C., but initially their relationship was platonic. That year, with insistence from his roommate and best friend Alex Escarno, he submitted an audition tape for MTV's reality show, The Real World. Zamora was convinced that if he was chosen as part of the cast on the show, he could reach more people than he already was. Six months after submitting his tape, he received a call from MTV's producers informing him that he was chosen to be on the show the next season. The show took place in San Francisco and in February, 1994, Pedro moved into a brand new loft with his six new roommates.
After showing his roommates his scrapbook of his career so far as an AIDS educator, they were aware that he was also living with HIV. Most of the roommates were okay with this, but some were not so tolerant. Some became uncomfortable about living with someone with the disease but Zamora addressed their concerns and educated them about the ways you can and cannot transmit HIV. While on the show, Zamora's health continued to decline and weaken. He suffered pneumonia, night sweats, weight loss, and slept for many hours on end. Around this time, his health shifted from very sick to healthy enough to go about his daily life. His AIDS activist friend Sean Sasser lived in San Francisco during this time and eventually they began dating. Their relationship was one of the first to be shown on television between two gay males. After months of dating, Sean proposed to Pedro and they held a commitment ceremony and exchanged vows (Cagle).
When Zamora was invited to be in a Real World Reunion episode on MTV he was weak, looked ill and had intense headaches. While he was usually an outgoing and friendly person, he was very silent and seemed "lost" to others. When he finally saw a doctor he was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis. This disease causes lesions in the brain and caused him to experience fatigue, confusion, and deep headaches. While in the hospital, further tests concluded that he had Progressive Multifocal Leukoencepha-lopathy. This rare condition further weakened him causing inflammation of the brain and slowly shut down the electrical impulses of the nervous system. After this diagnosis, Zamora was told he had only three or four months to live (Mills).
On September 3rd, 1994 Zamora was flown from his hospital in New York to Miami to be with his family. Soon after, Zamora received a call from the current president at the time, Bill Clinton. Clinton thanked him personally for his outreach work. His health slowly diminishing, he requested that he not be kept alive artificially. His disease soon took away his ability to speak. As he was being fed intravenously and was unresponsive for almost a month, his family went along with what Pedro wanted. After removing his life support, Pedro Zamora died at 4:40am on November 11th, 1994.
Zamora's legacy lives on after his death. President Bill Clinton praised him for his AIDS education work and the way his appearance on The Real World exposed and humanized his disease. After his death, MTV showed A Tribute to Pedro Zamora, a memorial special in his honor. Many organizations were named in his honor including The National Pedro Zamora Project, The Pedro Zamora Foundation, The Pedro Zamora Youth Clinic, and The Pedro Zamora Memorial Fund among others. A Miami, Florida street, 59th Street, was even named "Pedro Zamora Way".
As a gay HIV positive HIV/AIDS educator and public speaker Zamora had a huge impact on the GLBT community by educating others. Instead of keeping his status hidden and being ashamed of his disease he spoke openly about it to teach others. His words woke up a generation and humanized the disease. Zamora's legacy as a vital figure in GLBT history lives on.
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Mills, Mike. "Pedro Zamora." Queer Resouces Directory. 10
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"Pedro Zamora Biography." 123HelpMe.com. 29 Jul 2014