María Limón, Austin Activist
She's a classic textbook case of how an individual compels change throughout a community
By Sonia Barrera
January 1992; pages 12, 21
María Limón resigned as the founding director of Informe-SIDA in April, following three years of deskbound combat against the spread of HIV virus in the minority communities of Austin.
During these 36 months, Informe-SIDA - a multi-cultural, bilingual HIV education program - expanded from one employee, Limón, to its current staff of eight under her direction.
Limón and other members of the Austin Latina/o Lesbian Gay Organization, ALLGO, originated the project - knowing that Texas Penal Code #2106, or the Homosexual Conduct Law, prohibits sex between same-sex partners - thereby limiting their chances to obtain state funding.
Diana Gorham, Informe-SIDA's current executive director, claims that it was Limón's "initiative that overturned [the state] policy" of not funding openly gay organizations.
"María was one of the initiators of the concept [and she] was able to realize the idea," Gorham said. She added that Informe-SIDA remains only one in a tiny minority of similar organizations receiving government funding.
Limón felt the program's necessity spoke for itself. "There's an incredible insensitivity, to people of color as a general rule," Limón said. "I talked to several women at Informe-SIDA that had gotten their positive test results in English even though their primary language is Spanish . .. Different service providers would call in maintenance people to try to translate," she said.
Latino and Black communities are always served almost as an afterthought, Limón continued.
"We first got funded, because we had direct access to a population that was at risk," said Limón. "Now the numbers are showing, disproportionately, the highest rate of HIV-infection and AIDS cases, among the minority populations," Limón said.
Nationally, Latinos represent 16 percent of all HIV cases, while comprising nine percent of the population. African Americans represent 28 percent of all cases to their 12 percent of the population.
Locally, the HIV Screening Program of the Austin-Travis County Health Department reports that minority representation in the yearly percentages of AIDS cases in Travis County has increased.
Despite the fact that AIDS cases have grown continually at a higher rate, minority cases have grown faster.
In 1984, the first year numbers were recorded, 10.5 percent of the new cases were Latinos. In 1990, they comprised 25 percent of the year's new cases. African Americans went from 5.5 percent in 1984 to 27.5 percent in 1990. Anglo representation in the yearly cases, however, fell 24.2 percentage points in the same time period, even though actual numbers ranged from 16 to 120.
For three years, Limón stood vigil over those numbers. "I hated having to know how many AIDS cases there were in Austin every week," she said.
Limón may not need to memorize the latest numbers anymore, but that is small consolation. AIDS has always been more than a statistic to her: she has lost five friends to the disease. One succumbed a day before Limón consented to be interviewed. Another, Ramón Hernández, a member of ALLGO, fought for the grants with her, but did not live to see Informe-SIDA funded - just a few months after his death.
"I'll never forget that desperation . . . watching [Ramón's] chest rise and fall, waiting for him to die . . . that feeling that it's not supposed to be happening not to him and not to us. It was such a loss, all that knowledge and all that wealth, the humor. It was just gone," Limón recalled.
This is the theme - salvaging human potential - that runs through her social activism as well as her personal life.
Limón continually struggles to conquer the oppressions that weigh her down. "What's hard is knowing that I've internalized all the lies and that I censure myself. A lot of times I refer to my [lesbian] partner as 'they,' not as 'she'. It's really painful," she said.
"There's a real deep sense of shame and guilt, not only about being a lesbian but about being Chicana, being raised poor, and all the other shit that gets dumped on us along the way," Limón continued.
Limón feels that individuals can learn to free themselves from self-bondage, they will be able to confront the larger issues more effectively. To implement that conviction, she is currently involving herself in a new approach called "reevaluation counseling."
She describes it as a peer counseling technique intended to prevent or reverse the internalized oppressions of her youth. "It's about personal liberation," she said.
"There are entire weekends where the children set the agenda and the adult allies just follow it to the letter," Limón said. She explained that the purpose was to counter the usual messages sent to young people.
"They're made to believe that they aren't smart enough, that they don't have enough experience, that what they say doesn't count. They're always told to shut up, and how to act, and what to be, and what to wear, and what to to think."
Limón considers it crucial to connect the generations. "I may be only 33 years old and still have a lot to offer, but not if I don't make that link."
"Young people are fully capable, fully intelligent. I really want to find ways to develop that [intellect] to make it okay for them to be completely brilliant," she said. "I think it's that brilliance and that creativity that's going to see us through."
Limón is also involved with the 1992 Committee for Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, a coalition of multi-ethnic allies formed "specifically to counter the 1992 celebration of Columbus' invasion of the Americas," said Limón.
The Committee is planning a Native American film, literature, and arts festival to be held in October.
Limón has embraced her historical and spiritual connection to the indigenous peoples of America. She mourns the near extinction of the knowledge of her ancestors.
The approaching anniversary, Limón said "is really a time for checking out our losses, because we've lost a lot and we stand to lose a whole lot more. We can't afford to lose any more of the knowledge. It's not tradition, it's knowledge, critical knowledge."
That knowledge, to Limón, includes everything from how to treat the dying to the social status of homosexuals.
"Gay and lesbian people had a special place in society, not only in indigenous North and South American cultures, but also in indigenous African cultures. The thinking in [these cultures] is that the Creator makes no mistakes. We all have a place," Limón explained.
Limón recently discovered that place at her marriage ceremony in 1990. There, she gained insight into the true meaning of "community."
It is that one revelation, which crystallizes Limón's raison d'etre.
"For that hour, I knew exactly what it meant. There were all kinds of people there: straight allies, white allies, people of all shades. There were children. We greeted everybody, even the children who weren't born yet," Limón said, smiling. "It was that important."
"At the end of the ceremony," she continued, "a friend of ours just said: 'In the name of this community, you're now married.' Just feeling that unconditional love and support with no competition, no judgments . . . even if it was just for that one hour, I know what the possibilities are now."