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AIDS: Pedro Zamora at 40
by Emmanuel Garcia
2012-03-28

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If Pedro Zamora was alive today he would have turned 40 on Feb. 29, something that was inconceivable to him at 22 when he filmed MTV's The Real World: San Francisco.

Pedro Zamora is remembered as an outspoken HIV/AIDS educator who used every opportunity he had on camera to talk about his battle living with AIDS.

"I will probably not see the age of 30. I will probably die," he told a group of students at Stanford University in a mid-season episode. He died Nov. 19, 1994, five months after the crew wrapped filming for the third installment of The Real World series.

In 1992 MTV started to experiment with the concept of unscripted programming or "Reality Television." The concept of The Real World was to room a group of seven young people in their 20s and film them in a different city. Each series brought together individuals from backgrounds that would predictably create conflict with others in the house.

Youth across America applied by sending in audition tapes for the chance to become famous from the exposure the cutting-edge cable network had. It was a new phenomena that would change television and celebrity forever. The San Francisco cast included Pedro Zamora, David "Puck" Rainey, Rachel Campos, Cory Murphy, Judd Winick, Mohammed Bilal, Pam Ling and Jo Rhodes.

Prior to moving into the house on Lombard Street, producers informed the cast that one of their roommates was HIV-positive, but none were told who.

During the first 10 minutes of the premier episode, Zamora revealed to Murphy on a train ride to San Francisco, "I'm HIV-positive." When they arrived to meet the other selected six, he told them he was living with AIDS.

It was a personal journey for the cast and for TV audiences who watched Zamora's battle with his deteriorating health.

He found out he was positive when he was a junior in high school. He said he became obsessed with the fact that he could die at any point and pushed himself to graduate early.

"When I found out I was HIV-positive, about eight months later I started doing AIDS education," he explained to Murphy.

Prior to The Real World, Pedro was actively involved in speaking out about his status. He came into the show with a scrapbook that included newspaper articles, fliers and pictures of him as an HIV/AIDS activist. It was clear from the onset that he would use this new platform to reach more people.

Pedro immigrated to Miami from Cuba with his parents when he was eight years old. At the time of filming he had been living in the U.S. for 13 years. The Zamoras left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift, along with 125,000 other Cuban exiles. He told the camera with a subtle Spanish accent, "I give thanks every day that I could live in America. I live in a place that I could say who I am and say how I feel without being reprimanded. Some are not going to agree with me, but I could still say it."

Zamora was not the only Latino cast on the show; Rachel Campos, an Arizona State University graduate also made the cut.

Campos self identified as a young Republican who was raised in a strict Catholic home. Her family was the opposite of the Zamoras, who proudly embraced Pedro's identity as a gay man living with AIDS. The Zamoras exemplified a supportive and loving family who rallied around to celebrate him at every opportunity.

The loving way that they interacted with him in each episode was the image of a Latino family that is often not seen in scripted television and film. Latinos have been historically stereotyped as conservative Catholics. For example, Latino men have been portrayed as insensitive "macho" womanizers, but the men in Pedro's family could be seen hugging and kissing him hello and goodbye. Embracing him with respect and adoration.

Initially Rachel's family worried about her living with someone HIV-positive, but that was not because they were Latino—it was a lack of education.

She invited Pedro to visit her parents in Phoenix. In that episode her mom invited him to give a talk at the school where she worked. She appeared nervous that he would talk about his queerness to the students, but felt his message was important. He stood in front of a classroom of seventh graders, behind him on the chalkboard were written the words HIV/AIDS and VIH/SIDA ( the Spanish translation ) . A boy asked, "How was the disease transmitted to you?"

"I got it through sex, I got it through unprotected sex," he replied. He never outed himself because he wanted them to understand that anyone can get HIV/AIDS.

"Every day I wake up and I say, 'I am going to go and educate my community about my disease, that's a choice I am making, but it's not something I have to do,'" he told Rachel during a confrontation. "We have a lot in common, aside from both being Latinos."

If producers predicted that Pedro and Rachel would have the biggest conflict because of political or religious differences, they quickly found out they were wrong.

Housemate David "Puck" Rainey, a biker from San Francisco, turned out to be Pedro's biggest enemy on the show. During filming Pedro was invited to talk on local TV news channels to share his story.

Rainey grew jealous of the media attention that Pedro received as part of his job as an educator. His bad attitude and antagonistic personality would seem tame today, in comparison to characters in The Bad Girls Club, Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

However nothing could overshadow what was unfolding. Pedro began dating Sean Sasser, an AIDS activist living in San Francisco. It was the first time young audiences would see an HIV couple fall in love. The two bickered over who would move where after the show ended. By mid-season Pedro's T-cell count dropped and his health began to suffer. In a trip to visit his family in Miami he got sick and was unable to get medical attention because he did not have medical insurance.

Eventually he received care, but TV audiences learned that it was not easy for a person to access healthcare. In the last episodes we saw less of Zamora. He appeared gaunt and fragile. It seemed purposeful that most of the shots were from far away. Viewers were watching him die. In the second to last episode Sean and Pedro married.

In 1994 the U.S. was still trying to understand the disease after initial political ignorance and widespread misinformation. When high-profile actors and athletes, like Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis revealed their HIV-positive status, it gave new faces to the disease, but their worldly lifestyle was perceived by everyday people to have played a role in the transmission. Still, none had humanized the reality of a person living with HIV/AIDS. Pedro's courage to tell the truth made him a pioneer.

Every revelation, every moment, proved to be a lesson: "I want people to remember my struggle as a person living with AIDS and [ the ] crap that I have to go through in my everyday life."

In 2009 the Centers for Disease Control ( CDC ) reported that Latinos represented 20 percent of new HIV infections. Three times higher than that of whites. Lack of awareness and healthcare also put Latinos more at risk.

In that same speech at Stanford University Pedro concluded, "There is not one second of my day that I am not aware that I am HIV-positive. I don't want to forget that I have AIDS and I don't want you to forget that I have AIDS. You have to understand AIDS is part of my life. It's my reality. It's who I am."

Pedro Zamora died Nov. 11, 1994 at age 22. U.S. President Bill Clinton credited Zamora for his activism, including for his testimony on the disease in front of Congress.

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.


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