HARLINGEN — It was the late 1980s. The first AIDS cases had been diagnosed just a few years earlier in New York City and San Francisco.
There was a war to wage. The Valley AIDS Council was a fledgling organization when Oscar Lopez went to work there in 1988, but the enemy was huge and formidable.
The 1960s and 1970s were eras of relatively carefree sex with regards to health. There were a few sexually transmitted diseases, but they usually weren’t fatal. People had little to worry about from the encounters.
However, the party was coming to a screeching halt, with massive casualties. Out of nowhere, this new virus had raised its ugly head, and people like Lopez mobilized.
In fact, he moved to the front lines in the fight against AIDS, and he’s remained there ever since, never leaving his post.
During Lopez’s two years there, he and other VAC staff members gave AIDS prevention classes during the day. At night they went to the hospitals and cared for patients, who medical personnel refused to touch.
“So many of my friends had died from AIDS,” Lopez, 49, said pensively. “So I had a real passion for the work.”
So evident was that passion that he was soon tapped to work in AIDS education in Austin, then Washington, D.C., and New York City. He traveled around the United States giving presentations about AIDS prevention. He and his partner returned to the Valley in February 2012 to spend time with their aging parents.
He’s now back where he started. When he began working at VAC, it was a new initiative. Now it’s more of an institution where Lopez’s staff of 12 provide a variety of services. Those include AIDS prevention and testing for HIV.
Soon after graduating from high school, he was offered a job teaching teenagers about AIDS education and planned parenthood.
Around that time he started coming out of the closet as gay. Although he certainly met with some negativity, the overall reaction was more favorable than most. The teenagers he was working with knew, as did the administrators at Planned Parenthood.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I had very supportive parents.”
Belief systems that teach sex is allowed only between a man and a woman result in a lack of discussion and education about AIDS, safe sex and unwanted pregnancies, he said.
“Look at all the teens who are working on their second and third child,” he said. “None of that would be happening if our culture in South Texas allowed us to be more open and have a better dialogue about sex.”
These days, he continues the fight. The 35th anniversary of the first reported AIDS case passed recently. He considers himself something of a survivor who has waged a battle against illness and ignorance. He’s enjoyed a 27-year-long relationship with his partner.
“I fell in love when I was a young man,” he said. “Finding the right person with whom I could have open and clear communication has led me to be HIV negative at my age.”
Many young men, gay or straight, often tend to get out and sow their wild oats for a while with different partners before settling down. Lopez seems to have avoided that.
“What made a difference for me was that I was in a healthy, safe, and loving relationship,” he said. “We worked in similar fields and so the dialogue was always there.”
Basically, he found a pretty good deal and was careful not to sabotage it.
Oscar Lopez – A Timeline
1986 – Graduated from Villa Maria High School, a private Catholic school in Brownsville.
1986 – Family Planning, teaching teenagers about safe sex and family planning.
1988 – Worked for the Valley AIDS Council, a fledgling initiative at the time.
1990 – Moved with his partner to Austin where he operated a Latino AIDS focused organization. Also launched a program for homeless and runaway teenagers. He’d learned 65 percent of runaway teens reported trading sex for food or shelter.
Moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked with the National Minority AIDS Council. He gave seminars in cities where AIDS had heavily impacted minorities.
Worked with AIDS prevention in New York City. Lived there for 15 years.