In the late 1980s, J Alejandro (Alex) Campos Vidrio was a 21-year-old gay Mexican college student at San Jose. Like most Latinos, he grew up in a homophobic community, where he found that the stigma of being gay and the stigma of HIV was widespread enough for him not to come out. One of his friends had been in a relationship with someone who tested positive for HIV, so he accompanied him to the free clinic for an HIV test.
At the time, Alex knew nothing of the disease. In a counseling session, a nurse asked him a series of questions to determine if he was at risk. Before that, Alex had not told anyone he was gay, but when the nurse asked the question, he confirmed his sexuality. Because he was gay, this put him in the high risk group for HIV, so he took the test.
Two weeks later, he arrived at the clinic alone to receive his results: he was negative. The visit was so short that he stopped the nurse from leaving the appointment to ask her how he could help his Latino community get informed about HIV and learn how to protect themselves. The nurse explained there was no program for that at the time and suggested he get involved in creating options for his community. So he began volunteering. It was there that he met nurse Esperanza Garcia Walters and nurse Maria who would assist him in spreading awareness to the Latino LGBTQ community.
Alex’s first volunteer event was at Stanford University’s Walk for AIDS. Although he was there to help, he kept a distance between himself and the leaders with HIV, still scared of attracting the stigma of HIV. The walk, and how many people participated in it, made an impact on him.
Alex began attending a meeting of gay men in the Latino community at Club St. John on Mondays. Over time, he brought condoms and pamphlets and offered HIV counseling. Outside the meetings, participants didn’t even acknowledge each other for fear of being identified as gay.
At that time, Alex began seeing a Catholic Latino. One weekend he joined him on a retreat, which emphasized that participants were in a safe environment and would be protected by their peers and a higher power. The retreat changed his worldview: He wanted that kind of space for the gay Latino community to gather.
After he returned, he approached the Billy DeFrank Center, asking to host a gay Latino community night. They quickly turned him down, saying he was too young and not serious enough. He kept trying. Through his volunteering at the clinic, Esperanza Garcia Walters invited him to have dinner at an HIV patient’s home. He became close friends with the couple, and the dinner became a weekly gathering of friends. Alex and others fixed up the house, making it brighter, more comfortable, so it felt like a safe space. They called him “Chispa,” meaning “spark,” because he made them feel more alive.
Alex continued to pass out literature and condoms, attempting to connect with his community. His efforts were met with resistance; he was kicked out of many clubs and restaurants for doing so. He attended a meeting at the Billy DeFrank Center, voicing concerns that literature wasn’t available in Spanish for the Latino community, that they had neither a safe place to congregate nor resources away from the public. The DeFrank Center finally offered him space on Monday nights. Campos made a flyer inviting folks to “come and share with us,” as a way around using stigmatizing words like “gay” or “HIV.”
For the first meeting in 1992, Alex made 25 folders with pamphlets of information, condoms, and other resources. Thirteen people showed up, beating his own expectations. Attendees asked him to hold another meeting, so he spoke to Mark and was approved. The meetings were scheduled every other Tuesday. Every person attending committed to bring one more person with them to each meeting. This was the beginning of ProLatino.
In 1998, Alex decided to step down from ProLatino in order to take care of himself. He moved to San Francisco and joined the HIV Prevention Working Group of the State of California, traveling across the state, gathering data and analyzing trends in the virus’s spread.
In 1999, Alex went on vacation to Hawaii and according to him “never left.” He attended the University of Hawaii and worked at the School of Medicine as a director of the Pre-Health Career Corps. Due to the pandemic, he has not been working since March 2020.
One of Alejandro Campos’s proudest moments working with ProLatino came while attending a conference with the Department of Education in Hawaii in 2011. He learned about LLEGO’s (National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization) opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community and attended a workshop about retreats. The Hawaiian group cited what they learned about retreats from a San Francisco group, which they learned from a Bay Area local, who turned out to be Campos. This moment validated all the work he did through ProLatino. His ideals had spread throughout the country, even making it to Hawaii. — Alejandro Campos