Positive Role Model

Pedro Pablo Zamora was born in Diezmero, San Miguel del Padrón, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba on February 29, 1972 — leap year!  When he was 8, he and 250 other people boarded a boat built for 100 and emigrated to the United States as part of the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980.  Pedro and his family settled in Hialeah, Florida, a suburb of Miami.

a portrait of Pedro

In 1986, when Pedro was 14, he accepted his homosexuality and came out to his family, who were supportive.  At that time, he had a boyfriend and was having condom-less sex; although AIDS had been prominent in the news, its method of transmission had not been conclusively determined — condom usage was not yet synonymous with "safer sex practices” in the gay community so he did not see himself as someone at risk.  In late 1989, in the first semester of his junior year of high school, when he was 17 years old, Pedro donated blood during a Red Cross blood drive at school and received a letter a month and a half later saying that his blood had been rejected as it had tested “reactive,” though it did not specify for what.  Given the prevalence of AIDS in the gay community, Pedro decided to be tested for HIV.

On November 9, 1989, results confirmed that he was HIV-Positive.

Wanting to graduate high school before he died, Pedro doubled his coursework and received his diploma the following year.  He joined a Miami-based HIV/AIDS resource center called Body Positive where he met others with HIV and AIDS, and learned everything there was to know about the disease at the time, and how to live a full life with it.  That experience led him to enroll in Miami-Dade College where he decided to make a career of being an “AIDS Educator.”  He spoke at schools, PTA meetings, and churches, criss-crossing the country speaking to any group that would have him.  Though not even out of college, he was offered a seat on the boards of AIDS organizations and a charitable trust endowed by insurance companies (although he had no health insurance of his own!), where he hoped to use what little time he had left to prevent others from sharing the same fate as him.  The constant travel took its toll on Pedro’s health, and he was, at times, so tired that he was forced to cancel speaking engagements.  On July 12, 1993, he testified before the United States Congress in Washington DC, arguing for more explicit HIV/AIDS educational programs, saying, "If you want to reach me as a young man, especially a young gay man of color, then you need to give me information in a language and vocabulary I can understand and relate to.”

In mid-1993, the producers of the MTV reality TV show The Real World were looking for an HIV-Positive person to cast in the 1994 season which was to be set in San Francisco.  Pedro along with his best friend and roommate, Alex Escarano, put together an audition tape, making the point that he could educate more people about AIDS simply by living in the Real World house than through the cross-country travel that was destroying his fragile health.  Six months later, Pedro was informed that he had been chosen to be on the show, beating out 25,000 other applicants.  Midway through taping, Pedro's health suddenly declined; Producer Jon Murray stated, "He got sick much faster than he expected. That's when he made us promise to tell his story till the end.”

Taping concluded on June 19, 1994, and the first episodes of The Real World:  San Francisco began airing a week later.  On a subsequent speaking and promotion tour, Pedro complained of headaches.  On August 17th, after cancelling an interview on CBS's CBS This Morning, he checked into St. Vincent's Hospital in New York and was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a condition which causes brain lesions, fatigue, headaches, and confusion; further tests revealed he had a a neurological virus associated with AIDS called Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy — the same condition I suffer from.  PML is a viral inflammation of the brain that breaks down the electrical impulses of the nervous system, and is usually fatal within six months of diagnosis.  Doctors gave Pedro three months to live, and he was flown to Mercy Hospital in Miami, where his family could be close to him.  Then-president Bill Clinton called him to thank him for his work as an AIDS Educator.

Pedro's last photo

The last photo taken of Pedro, just days before he died,
surrounded by family and friends

Pedro Zamora died on this day, November 11th, 1994, at 4:40 in the morning — the day after the final episode of The Real World:  San Francisco aired.  He was just 22 years-old.

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