In 1993, twelve years into the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, New York City was the epicenter of infections per capita in the United States. More than 46,000 people had died in the city since the first case was officially reported.

In Black and Latino communities, two major public health crises were colliding. The crack epidemic had already separated families and ended lives. And the HIV virus was attacking people’s immune systems. With no proper treatment, more and more people were developing AIDS, which was putting them at a higher risk of dying.

For women becoming infected, access to treatment proved difficult. Women would not become part of clinical trials of HIV medication until the mid-90s — despite widespread anecdotal evidence suggesting that they were getting persistent gynecological infections that were correlated with HIV.

These were times of secrecy and stigma. Revealing an HIV diagnosis was largely unthinkable.

And yet, the Dominican actress Ilka Tanya Payán — famous for her role in a Telemundo telenovela and a pioneer in NYC’s Spanish-speaking theater scene— did just that.

After appearing in a press conference in October of 1993 to publicly disclose her diagnosis, Ilka, who was also an immigration attorney, went on to become one of the most outspoken Latinas on HIV/AIDS issues in the U.S. — and the world. Her legacy, however, has been overlooked for decades.

In this episode, we dive into Ilka’s life and activism, as well as the wider reality of how HIV-positive women’s medical needs were largely unattended at the height of the epidemic.

Today, Puerto Rican activist Aracelis Quiñones carries Ilka’s legacy and advises her community on the challenges of aging with HIV.

Aracelis was 23 years old and pregnant when she found out she was HIV-positive. She felt hopeless after being told she had only one year left to live. In a turn of events, she connected with the Latino Commission of AIDS in New York City — an organization that created the ‘Ilka’ award in honor of Ilka Tanya Payán— and became an advocate for people with HIV.

Featured illustration by Natalia Lovera.

Latino USA is celebrating 30 years, 30 años, and we would love to hear from our listeners. Would you share with us your favorite Latino USA episode? Maybe it’s the one you remember the most, the one that kept you company during a road trip or the one you most shared with others. Or maybe you just have a birthday wish for us. Please leave us a voicemail at 646-571-1224 and we might feature your message in an upcoming show. Gracias.

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