Why Did a Generation of Cubans Choose to Become HIV-Positive?

Written by | HIV

people at Los Frikis

Gerson Govea and Yoandra Cardosa of Los Frikis — Photo by Luis Trelles for Radio Ambulante

It’s considered the “Special Period” in Cuba’s history: when the Soviet Union cut financial ties with Cuba. During the late 1980s under the socialist Castro regime, where there were significant drains on resources such as gas and food, outliers such as “punks” were targeted for abuse, and people who were HIV positive were quarantined in sanitariums.

To evade persecution, a community of punks purposely injected themselves with HIV-positive blood, which guaranteed they would be sanctioned to the medical establishments, where they’d at least receive medicine, food, and shelter. As a result, so many members of that community, known as Los Frikis, purposely contracted HIV that at one point an entire sanitarium was filled with them. “You could hear rock ‘n’ roll and heavy metal coming from every house,” Yoandra Cardoso, a Friki, says in a Vice documentary. “When the sanatorium first opened, it was 100 percent Frikis… we were all here together.”

mca Chicago

MCA Chicago—Steven Hall © Hedrich Blessing

The way of life in the facilities allowed them to speak out against those in power, and patients could dress, socialize, and play music as they chose. In the decades since, all but one of the sanitariums have since closed, and many of the patients have passed away.

“It’s an incredibly compelling story,” says January Parkos Arnall, Curator of Public Programs at MCA Chicago (the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago), “a time during this ‘Special Period’ when Cuban citizens, mostly young punks, were intentionally seroconverting to HIV-positive status in order to be able to take care of themselves.”

This November 30, MCA will host a special program with QUEER, ILL + OKAY, where Cardoso and fellow Friki Gerson Govea will discuss their journey in a conversation with Radio Ambulante’s Luis Trelles and Cursed Be Your Name, Liberty documentary filmmaker Vladimir Ceballos.

MCA, which champions the provocative side of contemporary art and culture, notes that life in sanitariums was seen by Los Frikis as being far preferable to staying on the streets, in no small part because of the freedom it gave them the freedom to challenge the government. The program will be presented in Spanish and English with simultaneous interpretation for non-bilingual audience members. Vida/SIDA, a Chicago-based organization committed to providing HIV prevention services to Latinos and other minority groups, will provide onsite, free rapid HIV tests.

“We’re really interested in the ways that contemporary art today extends beyond objects in a gallery,” Parkos Arnall says. “Multidisciplinary programs that showcase the breadth of the human experience are exactly the kinds of programs I want to be doing here.”

January Parkos Annal

January Parkos Annal by Nathan Keay Courtesy MCA Chicago

“We hope that through the lens of contemporary art and culture we can open up our local community to that kind of empathy and that kind of understanding, feeling like this is relevant in each of our lives,” she adds.
Joe Varisco, QUEER, ILL + OKAY’s founder and program director who is producing the event, says Cardoso and Govea are both “radicals, and they don’t tolerate bullshit; they don’t suffer fools.” Both are still active musicians, he said, and have never left Cuba before (both were in the process of getting visas this spring). “They are older now, in their 50s, and they are excited to share their stories,” Varisco says.      

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Last modified: October 5, 2018