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AIDS mural echoes patients’ pleas, hope: Miami artist’s mural an international appeal for help

By Lydia Martin, The Miami Herald
--Living and Arts, Miami, Florida, July 4, 1998

Switzerland may be a long way from Carol City, but that didn't stop Hortensia Donaldson from showing up here. The 31-year-old mother of five barely scraped together enough travel money, but she was bent on telling her story at the 12th World AIDS Conference.

``This conference is highlighting Third World issues, which is great. But everybody thinks things are great in the States. I am here to say there's still a lot of suffering going on at home.''

She was among hundreds who paused between seminars -- on everything from scientific advances to global disparities -- to contribute messages for a mural being painted by Miami artist Xavier Cortada. The messages, written in more than a dozen languages on slips of paper and then pasted on the mural, form a collage of anger, courage, hope and fear spanning 20 feet of canvas.

Painted over the course of the week in broad brush strokes and brilliant colors and displayed in the lobby of the Palexpo convention center, the mural was unveiled during closing ceremonies Friday.

Donaldson's message was simple, a wide scrawl of green, then red marker.

``God has a master plan. Be a part of the miracle.''

Titled Bridging the Gap, the moveable mural captures the theme of the conference, which has focused on global inequities at the end of the millennium. While there have been many victories since the disease began ravishing communities in the early 1980s, there is still devastating news from the conference, attended by more than 12,000 scientists, doctors and AIDS workers from around the world.

In Africa, as many as one in four adults has the virus, according to a United Nations report issued last week. For people in the poorest nations, the future is bleak. Few can access decent health care or medications, from the basic AZT to the costly protease inhibitors, which are helping AIDS patients in more developed parts of the world stay alive.

Cortada's mural captures the full spectrum.

Donaldson, of Carol City, discovered she had AIDS 3-1/2 years ago. She got it from the father of her kids. He was in jail when his mother told her to go get tested.

``I was really scared. I thought if any of my kids had it, that would be the thing that would kill me,'' she said. But only she tested positive.

``It's like any other pill you have to swallow, it was hard, but I swallowed it. I had kids to take care of. I couldn't sit around and mope,'' said Donaldson, who now speaks about AIDS to community groups throughout South Florida. Unlike many who received financial aid to attend the conference, she got to Geneva on her own steam, staying with a conference volunteer and getting by on instant ramen.

On the mural, she is joined by Jessica Census of Uganda, who has lived with AIDS for the past 10 years and has spent the past two battling meningitis, often going without crucial medication.

``The capsules I take for the meningitis cost about $21 each, American money,'' said Census, 29, whose mother died of AIDS in 1992. She has since been caring for her five brothers and sisters on a seamstress' wage. ``Sometimes I have had to take two and three capsules every day. You have to buy it with your own money, which means you just do without. I came to Geneva with AZT for just two days. Tomorrow it runs out. I don't know when I will have it again.''

Her message for the mural: ``We are hoping for the best before 2000; otherwise AIDS will not stop.''

A similar message came from Gerida Berukila of South Africa, whose mother, uncle and two brothers died of AIDS. ``I have hope that AIDS' power is limited,'' Berukila wrote.

She now works with an AIDS counseling group to help others whose families have been wiped out by the disease.

``When my mother died wasted from AIDS, that's when I learned we are not equal in the world,'' said Berukila, 28. ``I work with people who have to sell their house to get even $500 to get some medications. When you have a family, you have to choose to die so that your family will have a place to stay living.''

That idea was echoed by Pablo Mesa Martinez of Cuba. The theater producer is among a delegation of eight from the island.

``Some people in Cuba are on protease inhibitors, but only the very worst cases. In Cuba, people are prioritized. Since I am asymptomatic, I have to get the pills I need from my grandmother in Miami, who sends them every month.''

Martinez drew a Cuban flag for the mural, along with this message: ``I love my life because it is circumstantial. I love death because it is absolute.''

Cortada, 33, who has done similar projects with street kids in Bolivia, drug-affected communities in Indiana and Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Washington, D.C., is hoping to have the mural travel through some of the cities of its contributors. He is searching for an organization that will sponsor the project.

``I think this mural is remarkable because it has brought together hundreds of people representing all cultures, from turbans to ties. I think it reinforces the power of art to cut across all cultures and classes,'' said Cortada, a Cuban American who specializes in community art.

``I am very impressed with the reaction of the participants,'' said Michael Hausermann, cultural program coordinator for the conference. ``People have really responded.''


All content © 1998 THE MIAMI HERALD and may not be republished without permission.

Click here for more information on the Bridging the Gap AIDS Mural Project