I met Joaquin “Jack” Garcia Jr. last year at The Positive Living Conference (PL19) in Fort Walton, FL. It was almost within 5 minuets of arriving that I found myself gawking like a dough eyed girl at one of my personal favorite HIV advocates, I’d seen his videos a million times while binge watching YouTube after being diagnosed HIV positive.
The first thing you’ll notice when talking to Jack is his great big smile and a sense of giving in his personality. The Faces of HIV mobile exhibit we stood in was the perfect location for such a meeting, Jack even gave me a signed copy of the exhibits book! As the conference progressed, I managed to bump into Jack on a few different occasions, the one I will never forget is during the AIDS vigil. The PL19 organizers managed to get a few squares from the National AIDS Memorial Quilt, Jack beckoned me to help hold a corner. I’d never even seen The Quilt before and now I was holding it next to not only Jack, but a few other big faces in the advocacy world!
Overall the PL19 Conference was amazingly enjoyable and educational. It left me longing to know more though about the advocates I’d met, Jack being at the top of the list. So I messaged Jack and he graciously agreed to give me an exclusive interview!
What do you do Jack?
Educate the world, haha. I’m with Mr. Friendly Team Florida, which keeps me busy here. I was recently also in Atlanta with shoot on a new campaign. And of course Faces of HIV. I am also partnered with Positive Champions Speakers Bureau on youtube.
You wear many hats. What is Mr. Friendly, I remember you telling me about them in Florida?
It began in Michigan, 2007 by David Watt. He and his partner are what we call a “Magnetic” couple or a couple with one person living with HIV and the other with a negative HIV status. They felt
the community needed education and came up with Mr. Friendly. They started by making buttons and giving them out at bars. In 2008 at an International Mr. leather contest, they expanded from there with others across the country. They created a training program and now there are 15 teams!
What do you do with Mr. Friendly?
I actually co-founded the Florida team. I also advocate in Spanish. I enjoy talking to people, it’s my favorite part. Education is the goal of course and sometimes it shocks people to find out what the smiling faces mean. We even have been in more professional environments like the Out & Equal Summit in Atlanta for Major Corporations to make workplace more LGBTQ friendlier. We can go from bars, festivals, and charity events to professional spaces; Education doesn’t have a confined space!
Any words of advice for newly diagnosed people?
You’re gonna be afraid, that’s natural. You need an ID doctor as soon as possible, get your medications, and make minor changes to lifestyle. Be a little active, you’re the biggest advocate for your own health! Complications and side effects from a poor lifestyle can be more dangerous than HIV, so take your health seriously.
When did you first come out with advocacy?
About 5 years ago. My mentor and friend Jeff Alan from Dayton Beach asked me to come to the Ryan White Consortia meetings. I started with the meetings, mostly on the side lines. Then I joined a sub-committee, from there I just got more involved.
What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed over the years?
The younger generation! Some are uneducated, but after they’ve learned about the disease afterwards they’re okay with it. Then some think they can just go on medication. I think there has been a loss of emphasis on how bad of an illness HIV is. I think it’s time to bring back more history, show videos. Complacency of society for down playing the education also.
And of course, have you noticed change over the past year?
A huge upset, but there have been no riots or rally’s here in Orlando. Orlando Pride was last week and went very well. No protesters even showed up! I had a booth for Mr. Friendly and it was very pleasant.
What are your ties to Puerto Rico?
My mother is a native of Puerto Rico and my father Cuban. I love visiting and even lived there. I first found out about my Positive HIV status in Puerto Rico. I had to stay under the radar though because at the time my husband was in the military, back then DADT was being enforced. I didn’t want to get him kicked out of the service from being linked to me and my HIV status.
Do you think your roots to the Latino Community helps in your advocacy?
As bilingual, absolutely. It’s easier in Spanish to connect. Sometimes I am approached by Spanish speaking people, struggling to connect in English. I pick up on it very quickly and start speaking Spanish! If someone is trying to learn something it is easier to connect with them on a deeper level if you use their native tongue. Often someone will have to translate in their mind and can miss an important part, so I find it more personal to cut out the middle language for a deeper understanding.
What would you like people to know about HIV?
Mainly just because you’re Poz you’re not gonna be alone. Always leave yourself open so make sure you are knowledgeable. Teach people because you can have a healthy, happy life with Poz or negative people. And there are many things you can do without condom. Give facts when someone tries to knock you down, always do your research! Keep a Positive mind and keep Positive company!
Billy Eugene Willis III
A Positive Tomorrow