As AIDS hits the 40 year mark since its first case, a new exhibit at Coral Gables Museum reflects on its impact on society through local eyes.
“I had to understand what [my parents] went through, what they were thinking, what they were feeling,” said 33-year-old Huston Ochoa, whose family arrived from Cuba.
“A Matter of Time: Examining Forty Years of AIDS while Living Through a Pandemic,” which opened Thursday, uses artwork, medical documents and personal memorabilia to explore the cultural, political, scientific and personal impacts of the AIDS epidemic on Miami and the world.
The exhibit was spurred by Ochoa’s own quest to understand his family’s past. Three years ago, Huston asked his Florida International University professor what AIDS was like in the early 1990s, when the disease infected Huston’s parents, Elena Alonso and Orson Ochoa, through a blood transfusion and took their lives. His two uncles, Wil and Fernando Brito, were also infected through sexual intercourse and died near the same time. Huston was only 4 years old at the time.
That professor, Shed Boren, remembered the period vividly; a well-known social worker, Boren has been involved with the AIDS epidemic in Miami-Dade for more than 30 years.
Huston’s desire to understand what the epidemic felt like led Boren to start working on the exhibit. The result is a portrait of politics, culture and health through historical artifacts, artworks and the personal stories of those affected by AIDS.
“I didn’t really start my relationship with [my parents] until this exhibit,” said Ochoa. “It’s a process of healing. It’s a process of continuing and still growing my relationship with my parents.”
Ochoa’s parents and two uncles were, in many ways, defined by artworks they created. Ochoa loaned their art and personal items to the exhibit: his uncle’s paintings, his dad’s Miami baseball shirt from when he arrived from Cuba, and his mom’s dress (known among Huston’s family) with jewelry made by her cousin, who also died of AIDS through sexual intercourse.
The exhibit includes a quilt that Ochoa’s family made after his parents’ death. It was one of many made for the AIDS Memorial Quilt — a 54-ton tapestry in Washington D.C. of more than 48,000 panels dedicated to more than 100,000 people whose lives were lost to AIDS.
“I want people to realize that we lost some amazing people: Great artists, dancers, writers, journalists, scholars and regular people who were going about their lives,” said Boren. “This tells the story of the era – and the story of AIDS. I want to remind us all that they lived – and their lives were meaningful. I want people to realize that life changes on a dime.
“I am a social worker: We are a values-based profession,” said Boren. “If we learn the story of someone else, we improve our empathy and our understanding of one another.”
The exhibit also explores changes that occurred in public health and clinical medicine as a result of AIDS.
Dr. William Darrow was chief of the Behavioral and Prevention Research Branch in the division of STD/HIV Prevention for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around the start of the AIDS epidemic. His work played a key role in demonstrating that HIV, which causes AIDS, could be sexually transmitted. Included in the exhibit are a number of his research documents — some featured in the movie, “And the Band Played On.”
After helping to identify the AIDS virus, Darrow devoted his career looking for its cure.
Now a professor at FIU, Darrow said that health crises should teach lessons, including the importance of science and the understanding that all knowledge is temporary.
His pioneering AIDS-era work in contact tracing is used today globally to trace the transmission of the novel coronavirus. The HIV discovery effort laid the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“These pandemics that have faced humans through the centuries have many things in common, and yet each one is unique. Each one is distinct,” said Darrow. “If it weren’t for the scientific work that was done over the past 50 years, we still wouldn’t know about viruses.”
Boren recalls Darrow’s earlier work. “He was asking a lot of very personal, invasive questions,” said Boren. “These men wanted to help, and they answered. The exhibit includes documents from gay men in 1981, saying, ‘here are the people I had sex with (I hope you don’t judge me). Here are their names and numbers. I hope that this helps you understand what is happening.’ They spoke out of fear, and they contributed.”
As with COVID-19, AIDS’ impact on marginalized communities sparked debate around the “traditional values’‘ and in turn forced many to confront stigmas and misconceptions about the LGBTQ+ community and other groups. Boren was part of that change in Miami, and he brought many of the paintings, protests signs, photographs, and unique objects with a cultural significance form the period — Including a signed basketball by legend Magic Johnson, who publicly declared he he was HIV positive in 1991.
In the early 1980s, Boren hosted the Gay and Lesbian Health Conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center when AIDS was still a mystery to many. There, new concepts that seem obvious in today’s health system were established.
“People with HIV adopted what is called the Denver Principles. They weren’t victims or patients with a disease. They were people living with HIV,” said Boren. “Yes, this is language, but it shaped the expectations. This change benefits all of us today — as doctor-patient collaboration has replaced the doctor’s dictates of yesterday. We now have conversations with our medical providers.”
Another figure spreading AIDs awareness at the time was Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who then was an attorney for the Legal Services of Greater Miami and represented three girls with HIV who were denied entrance to school. Levine Cava filed a class action lawsuit with the support of the ACLU that allowed the girls to go back to school.
“There were many people fearful about this disease — a lack of understanding,” said Cava. “It was a community of people who were fighting for the rights of these folks, as well as to educate the community about the disease and about prevention. I was very proud to be able to represent these children, and to help them have some normalcy in their lives.”
Mayor Cava said she is excited that the exhibit is bringing these stories back, and she hopes it will raise awareness about HIV prevention. Miami-Dade still has some of the nation’s highest numbers, with 1,194 new cases in 2018.
For Ochoa, now a social worker, the exhibit has strengthened his bond with his late parents, seen here in a video as they crafted their own AIDS quilt memorial.
“I thought I had normalized the feelings around [their death,] said Ochoa. “I thought maybe there was even closure.”
“But it’s amazing how no matter how many times you revisit it, you get more meaning out of it. You still feel closer and more connected to it. And so for me, it was a beautiful process. To see their quilt unfolding in front of me was like they were speaking to me, no way around.”
IF YOU GO
What: “A Matter of Time: Examining Forty Years of AIDS while Living Through a Pandemic”
Where: Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave.
When: Through July 18
Cost: Adults: $10; seniors and students, $8; ages 6-12, $5; 5 and under free
Lecture series: Each Thursday, the museum will host a free lecture at 6 p.m. followed by a panel discussion at 7:30 pm. The first, on April 15, will be “AIDS Chaplain: One Man’s Journey;” Father Jerry Anderson, retired priest from Trinity Cathedral, will discuss his experiences as a chaplain during the AIDS crisis. At 7:30PM there will be an interfaith discussion about the roles that the faith community played in the early epidemic.