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‘We Need to Normalize HIV Now, Not Tomorrow,’ Says One Chilean Artist

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José Abarza: “Finding out I had HIV was like coming out of the closet again. That's how I saw it. This was my second chance and this time I'm not going to be sad about it, I'm going to make a show of it.” Image published under a Creative Commons Licence 4.0.

The following interview by Palo Valencia was originally published on Pousta, a Chilean media collective. An edited version appears below under a Creative Commons Licence 4.0.

“El Sombra is a parasite,” José Abarza tells you when he introduces himself. Because the person in front of you is not José, but El Sombra (The Shadow), the character he adopted to identify himself artistically and as a human being. Abarza is also known in Chile as a member of the “dissident reggaeton” band Marako Intenso, which tries to turn the genre's own stereotypes upside down and give it a new image:

Abarza creates “bizarre performance art“. That is how he defines it. He has been performing since the days of Marako Intenso, when he sang about real-life experiences. For example, the song Trava asesina is about a transvestite Abarza knew, who killed three people and spent nine years in prison for it; or Sexy pasturri, which was about someone who he liked who was mixed up in coca paste:

Muchas veces te bombardeas de tantas cosas y normalizas tantas situaciones que […] ya no te sorprenden. Pero cuando sales de ahí piensas que es fuerte […] 

Lots of times you bombard yourself with so many things and you normalize so many situations that […] you don't get surprised anymore. But when you leave that place, you realize it's heavy […]

But now Marako Intenso is in the past and El Sombra is an independent artist: 

Yo soy loca, soy más bizarra. Yo hablo del sida, de las enfermedades de transmisión sexual, sobre cortarte, que [insultes] a los demás. Ahora hago algo similar a Marako Intenso pero más bonito, más visualmente cuidado. Ya no me grabo yo, hay alguien que lo hace, que me corta y arma las maquetas. Yo puedo pedir lo que quiera, quiero que suene así, o quiero que suenen balazos. Igual antes me tenía que adaptar a lo que había en internet y [eso] me enseñó a trabajar con cero recursos. Pero ahora puedo crear algo con más recursos.

I'm queer, more weird. I talk about AIDS, about sexually transmitted diseases, about cutting yourself, about insulting other people. Now I'm doing something similar to Marako Intenso, but more attractive, more visually careful. I don't record myself anymore, someone else does that. They cut and assemble the models for me. I can ask for whatever I want, ‘I want it to sound like this, or I want gunshots sounds. Before I had to adapt myself to what was on the internet, and [that] showed me how to work with zero resources. Now I can create something with more resources.

In March 2016, El Sombra appeared in a story about HIV in the independent Chilean media outlet El Desconcierto, talking about the fact that he is HIV-positive. What for many would mean an unending drama, didn't turn out that way for him:

Salió un día y al otro tenía toda la bandeja de entrada llena de mensajes de ‘estoy contigo’, ‘te apoyo’. Y yo [respondía] ‘no me estoy muriendo, estoy más vivo que nunca’. Lo que menos quiero es que sientan pena o lástima

It went public one day and the next my inbox was full of messages like, ‘I'm with you,’ ‘I support you.’ And I [responded] ‘I'm not dying, I'm more alive than ever.’ The last thing I want is for them to feel pity.

‘This was my second chance and this time I'm not going to be sad’

Sombra has had HIV for a little more than a year now, but for a while he was faced with difficult uncertainty. He had to go through months of medical examinations without knowing what he had. “It was HIV or leukemia. I preferred [HIV], not cancer,” he says.

Afterwards he watched a parade of doctors go by, refusing to treat him. He saw other doctors attend 17 patients in an hour and a half. Others came accompanied by medical students while they examined him. At the moment, he's not at a stage where he has to receive treatment. He doesn't really like the topic of medication:

Tengo un amigo que toma como ocho pastillas y él no se va a morir de sida, se va a morir de falla hepática de tanta cosa. Si al final nos quieren a todos los [homosexuales] muertos y resulta que somos súper buena inversión. Vivimos solos, [salimos de fiesta] toda la vida, nos compramos ropa cara, no tenemos hijos. ¿Para que nos quieren matar estos empresarios locos?

I have a friend who takes like eight pills. He isn't going to die from AIDS, he's going to die from liver failure from so much stuff. If in the end they want all us [homosexuals] dead, and it turns out we're a super great investment. We live alone [we party] our whole lives, we buy ourselves expensive clothes, we don't have kids. What do those crazy businessmen want to kill us for?

And on the diagnosis, Sombra says:

Enterarme de que tenía VIH fue como salir nuevamente del closet. Yo lo vi así. Esta era mi segunda oportunidad y esta vez no lo voy a hacer triste, lo voy a hacer con show. Si mi mamá se siente mal, obvio que se lo voy a explicar de mejor forma para que no le de pena. Si [tengo sexo] con alguien obvio que le voy a decir, mejor que lo sepa de antes para evitar esa conversación. Porque no todo el mundo es como uno. Mis amigos me dicen [“no me toques”] y yo les digo “me voy a cortar en la noche y se lo voy a pegar a todos”. Es un [fastidio] constante. Pero el poder lo tengo yo. Yo soy un arma mortal

Finding out I had HIV was like coming out of the closet again. That's how I saw it. This was my second chance and this time I'm not going to be sad about it, I'm going to make a show of it. If my mom feels bad, obviously I'm going to explain it to her in the best way possible to keep her from getting hurt. If I [have sex] with someone, obviously I'm going to tell them. Better for them to know before to avoid that conversation. Because not everyone is alike. My friends tell me [‘don't touch me’] and I tell them, ‘I'm going to cut myself some night and stick you all with it.’ It's a constant bummer. But I have the power. I'm a living weapon.

According to him, the groups in power have taken over the discourse on HIV:

Todo lo adornan con lentejuelas. Hubo una marcha el 1 de diciembre para decir “yo tengo VIH”. Patético, salgamos a marchar a decir que tenemos VIH todos. A mí me llegó una invitación y dije ‘uuuh voy a derramar y esparcir sangre para que todos se infecten’, y me dicen ‘oooh es tan serio’. No puedes dar charlas para asustar a la gente. Normalicemeos el VIH ahora, no mañana. Yo no entiendo a la gente que le tiene tanto miedo al VIH. Sí, ya, es una enfermedad crónica. Pero si te la cuidas bien puedes ser más sano que alguien sin VIH. Tengo VIH. Soy persona.

They put sequins on everything. There was a march on December 1 to say, ‘I have HIV.’ Pathetic. We go out to march and say we all have HIV. I got an invitation and I said, ‘uhhh, I'm going to leak and spread blood everywhere so everyone gets infected,’ and they told me, ‘ohhh, that's so serious.’ You can't give talks to scare people. We need to normalize HIV now, not tomorrow. I don't understand the people who are so afraid of HIV. Yes, alright, it's a chronic disease. But if you take good care of yourself you can be healthier than someone without HIV. I have HIV. I am a person.

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