May 16, 2017

Interview with Javier Vázquez

Javier Vázquez and his dog Aarón
Javier Vázquez (Madrid, 1981) is not only the author of “Comiéndote a besos,” but also a collaborator of NGO Imagina MÁS. This young globetrotter’s experience with HIV+ individuals turned out essential when producing this motivating story. Varied issues such as the city of Madrid, lack of affection, unjustified fears, social rejection, the power of theatre, or the progression in the fight against the disease are brought up through his tasty speech. Our advice to the readers: please don’t miss it.

SPANISH GAY FICTION: Where does such an original project like this come from?

JAVIER VÁZQUEZ: It all started one afternoon. My colleague Iván and I were lying on the grass in El Retiro.[1] Suddenly, Iván said: “Hey! Listen to this song posted on Facebook.” It was a video showing Rozalén singing “Comiéndote a besos” in a bar. No wonder the two of us went crazy. Then I said to Iván: “We need to meet this girl.” So I found her Facebook ID and immediately sent an invitation to perform in the presentation of one of our campaigns. I will never forget that day. She was wearing a white dress, carrying her guitar and smiling hugely. We have been friends since then. As a matter of fact, she invited us to be some of the first in listening to her first album and visit the making of “Comiéndote a besos” music video, and we have done many things together. Let’s say that we were lucky enough to see how María was deservedly becoming very famous in the world of music. When we suggested writing a short story based on her song, she just loved the idea!
Back then, I had purchased all Los colores olvidados stories,[2] which fascinated me: there are paper books for sale, but you can also find interactive versions available. Thus, I suggested my colleagues making the story interactive. Doing a search on the Internet, we checked that there was no fictional story on HIV in either Spanish or any other language, and all the interactive books on HIV had to do with information on the virus.

SGF: Why did you decide to get involved in the fight against the disease and HIV people support?

JV: I became conscious of the importance of HIV when I won a ticket to attend the musical Rent in New York. I had seen the film some years before, but I did not take too much notice. Rent left me impressed. Just awesome! It is a shame that this is not currently being staged. The work is set in the 1980s, when people died of HIV as there was no medical treatment. Far from focusing on the tragedy, it is about love. In fact, the main theme, “Seasons of Love”. . .believe me when I say that it can give you goosebumps when you are present at the live performance. Well, the thing is that some years later, when some islands of Scotland were my residence, I got the job of my dreams. I had to travel around the world doing educational projects with secondary education students. One of these projects led me to Cape Town for a two-week voluntary work in a hospital for HIV positive orphans and an orphanage located in a township, quite similar to Brazil’s favelas. At first we were a kind of scared because of that usual ridiculous worrying about HIV: “what if a kid accidentally cuts himself when he is playing with me? What should I do? Should I help him or wait for a doctor?” The good thing is that the hospital staff taught us about everything that we had to know, so all fears disappeared.
After 7 years living abroad, I came back to Madrid and that is when I met Tere and Iván, my current NGO colleagues.

SGF: “Comiéndote a besos” deals with HIV in a more emotional than medical way. Could it be said that seropositive people’s major problem today has to do with personal or social relationships rather than a struggle for life?

JV: Initially one wonders after testing positive for HIV: “Oh my God! What is going to happen? Will I get ill?” This is the normal thing; people (and especially young people) consider themselves unbeatable, and only the elderly or others contract diseases. So when they are just diagnosed with HIV they feel vulnerable and start to think of their health and death. Luckily, they soon see that there is no need to worry. Doctors do their best to explain clearly that nothing bad is going to happen; thanks to the treatment, HIV is nothing but a chronic disease.
The following problem is the fear of rejection. If it were the case of any other disease, you would talk to your friends and relatives first to feel their support. But this is HIV: there is silence instead, as you are afraid of being judged and marginalized. Let’s not forget that nowadays HIV is mainly sexually transmitted, and sex is a sin. . .So if you have got HIV, that is because “you have been looking for it,” “who knows what you have done!” Regarding all this, how to tell your parents, your friends, your partner?—

SGF: How would you summarize the progression of the fight against HIV since it was discovered up to its evolution so far?

JV: I think that there are two ways: medical and social. HIV research has advanced by leaps and bounds: from a deadly disease of which nothing was known to a chronic disease whose patients’ life expectancy is similar to the rest of the population. As far as the treatment is concerned, from dozens of pills with terrible side effects to a single pill with almost no adverse effect. Moreover, now we know that the virus cannot be transmitted by HIV-positive individuals undergoing treatment and having undetectable viral load. This way, a heterosexual couple willing to have a baby can do it naturally, as there is no risk of transmission to the baby or your partner. There has also been a progress in the prevention issue, besides the prophylactic; we will soon have the pre-exposure prophylaxis (which is similar to the morning after pill) available in Spain.[3]
Regarding the social problem, there has been very little advancement. The old fears and stigmas still remain the same. We think that HIV has nothing to do with us but people acting in a reprehensible manner, and that is not true. In our NGO there is an HIV+ volunteer called Miguel Caballero, who is a blogger in our website. I remember one of his posts saying (more or less): “One day there will be a cure for HIV and it will cease to exist, but we must learn from what it has brought about, what it has caused in society, the discrimination that it has provoked. If we do not learn from it, if our society does not improve, we will achieve nothing, as one day it all will recur again.”

SGF: The story talks about the questions on sexual relationships when testing for HIV. How do you tackle this conversation in your NGO?

JV: Nobody feels at ease when talking about sexuality, let alone among strangers. Hence, humanity and professionalism are essential in this situation. There is a big difference between a health center staff whose first inquiry is: “How many sexual partners have you had?,” and when you answer: “No idea,” they look at you with smirky eyes and ironically ask: “100? 500? 1,000?”, and places like Imagina MÁS, where we first set things straight: we are not judging you, and our behavior is closer and more humane.

SGF: What is the usual experience with people testing positive?

JV: Generally, there are two kinds of reaction: the pragmatic type accepts the situation and learns all that they have to do immediately, and the emotionally collapsed type tends not to believe what is happening; they freeze due to the fear, look for other place to get tested as they believe that the result is wrong, etc. In any case, they always have our back. In Imagina MÁS we may take them to the health center or our personal development group. Our psychologists can assist them too. In short, we are not going to leave them alone.

SGF: In “Comiéndote a besos” you mention support groups. How do they help people in the question of social rejection?

JV: Personal development groups are magic. In three months, you see how shocked people, scared people, hopeless people break away with everything paralyzing them and develop a spectacular personal growth. Many of them go stronger, resilient. And it is all thanks to people leading the groups and mutual support. Concerning social rejection, it is a two-way street. There is a general social rejection of HIV+ individuals—several studies from the Department of Health state this—but there is also the internal serophobia preventing people from opening up and seeking for support in their surroundings.

SGF: There are many shows of affection such as hugs depicted throughout the story. How important is affection in the case of HIV+ people?

JV: There is a generalized lack of affection; we use an emotional protective shield because showing our feelings makes us look weak and vulnerable. Many times words are out of place, and the only thing that we need is someone hugging us or holding our hand. There is a very beautiful text by Roy Galán[4] called “Haz que no parezca amor” [“Make It Does Not Look Like Love”] just about this: the way we pretend that we do not feel, that we are free and independent, that nothing hurts us at all. There is a sentence that I find awesome: “Dime tú, cómo lo haces para no sentir algo cuando lo haces” [“Tell me, how do you do so as not to feel when you make it?”]. I think that everything is summed up here.

SGF: Are you happy with the audience reaction to “Comiéndote a besos”?

JV: I was a little bit overwhelmed at first, as we were constantly receiving mails and messages in gratitude for the story. I did not fully understand what was happening; in fact, I had never read the story. I felt really embarrassed. Until one day Rozalén compelled me to listen while she was reading aloud. You can read some people reviews in Spanish at the website.
To date, more than 40 thousand people have read the story, and that is a great deal! We received the Empodera Audience Award[5] for the best online social work initiative. I think that I will not write again. All that came in its proper moment; I am not a professional writer but, well. . .you never can tell.

SGF: How true is this story?

JV: “Comiéndote a besos” is a fictional story, but based on everyday events. With regard to María, she is just the way she expresses herself in the song. She can certainly give a better explanation, but I know that she created the song for a contest for the fight against HIV stigma. She tried to put herself in the shoes of a girl whose boyfriend has just told her that he is HIV positive, and so the song came up. The rest of characters are pieces of people or experiences of my life. Rafa is real; he is a nurse working in Madrid and he is just like in the story: a lively, cheerful, sensitive person. Tere is a social worker in our NGO, and believe me when I say that I could not ask for a better colleague than her.
Except for the portrayal of Rozalén, the characters have nothing to do with their real doubles in the question of appearance. The illustrator Daniel Estandía is a friend of Iván’s and he had already collaborated with us before. I think that he was the best choice for the illustrations. Daniel had the go-ahead to do whatever he believed it was best, but we were sure that it should be something really visual, optimistic and luminous.

SGF: I find really appealing your description of Madrid—

JV: I am from Madrid, though I have spent many summers and weekends in a village of Segovia.[6] Madrid has loads of thrilling power; it can knock you out once and get your head in the clouds later. Let’s be honest: as it is a big city, everything goes faster; sometimes you can get stressed and overwhelmed. One day you meet really cool people and the day after you do not hear about them anymore. However, I would never move to anywhere else (well, Berlin maybe), even though I have lived in many places in the world. No doubt every place has something special. Madrid is not the most modern, beautiful, innovative city, but it is a friendly town. Anyway, I understand that it can be intolerable when you have just come to live in. That is why I created María and Pedro: two characters coming to Madrid seeking freedom and a career, though they soon realize that competition is brutal and not everything is what it seems to be.

SGF: Where does the idea of turning the story into a play come from?

JV: It came up naturally. For the story launch, we decided that the best way to make an impact on the audience was staging it. Some of our friends are actors, so we told Juan Silvestre and Pablo Cabrera and they managed to find the rest of the team, director Asier Andueza, actor Fernando Bodega and actress Carla Piñana. Besides, we asked another friend, Ana Lambarri, for help with turning the narration into a dialog format. When the performance was over you could see that everybody was in shock. Many people were sobbing uncontrollably and, after an awkward silence, everybody clapped without a break. Considering this, we decided to talk to actor-director-playwright Abel Zamora so that he could turn it into microteatro,[7] but it finally developed into an average length play. It has already been running for three seasons in Madrid, tickets sold out. The play has been staged in Pamplona and Valencia, and it will come back to Madrid soon. I am very much satisfied! Especially during the first performances, because we debated the play after. I remember that one day a boy came and told that he was HIV positive and he could get on thanks to the support of one of the players. Also a mother with tears in her eyes gave thanks since her son was HIV+ and she did not know how to help him; and a social worker from Pamplona was grateful too as the play lets him and his coworkers cry and release all the pressure that they feel when the test results are positive. I think that this is wonderful and the power of drama is immense, though not so much esteemed as it deserves in Spain. Such a pity.

SGF: What are you working on now? Can you say something about your next projects?

JV: Now I am 100% devoted to work in Imagina MÁS. We are doing thousands of things all the while, but we always try to save some time for creative meetings which are really motivational. . .There will be new surprises soon, we love making noise! [Laughs.]

[1] See “The Positive Muse” entry, footnote 5.
[2] The Forgotten Colors: A series of stories for all ages produced as an educational project by Spanish NGO Educación sin fronteras.
[3] This preemptive use of drugs has recently been approved by the European Union.
[4] Roy Galán (Santiago de Compostela, 1980), just as many others, has a lot to thank Mark Zuckerberg for. His sharp, sensitive, romantic, feminist texts posted on Facebook caught the attention of many Spanish users, and now he has become a successful professional writer.
[5] Empodera Awards are given annually since 2010 by La Fundación Cibervoluntarios [“Cyber Volunteers Foundation”] to recognize excellence in social innovation initiatives as well as help them achieve a major impact on society.
[6] 54 miles from Madrid, Segovia is one of the 9 provinces making up the autonomous community of Castilla y León. Its major attraction, the Roman aqueduct, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
[7] From the first experience in 2009, this brand-new minimalist dramatic performance has definitely succeeded in Madrid. It consists in a short play (around 15 minutes long) staged in a small room before a small audience. The audience is so close to the players that they can even feel their breath.

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