Shortly after Gaby Vergara turned 18, she went to her mother with some weighty news.
Gaby grew up in Watts and she'd seen more than a few of her girlfriends get pregnant or fall prey to drug addiction. Her mother waited anxiously for the youngest of her six children to continue.
"Mom," Gaby told her solemnly, "I want to join the AIDS Walk."
Gaby's mom was delighted --and more than a little relieved. "She was like, 'Whew,'" Gaby recalled.
Nine years and as many AIDS walks later, Gaby is more committed than ever to fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS. She's run one marathon benefiting AIDS services and is now training for her second, which is where I met her last October when we were assigned to the same pace group to train for the LA Marathon on May 25.
In the months since I've been training with the AIDS Marathon program to raise money for AIDS Project Los Angeles I've been struck by the socioeconomic distance between those who run to raise money to help people with AIDS and those who are helped. Talking with Gaby reminded me of that distance.
In recent years the spread of AIDS has been relegated largely to poor communities of color. While there's a fair amount of ethnic diversity among the people training alongside me, most of us are either solidly middle class or members of the "privileged poor" - highly educated with limited financial means at least in part by choice (given access to college and grad school I chose to pursue journalism rather than some more lucrative profession, which would have been just about anything else).
Most of us have never been to Watts, let alone lived there. Gaby has never been on an airplane and works as the office manager at a company that sells corporate promotional products like pens and visors. She stopped her education after graduating from high school, though she's beginning to think about getting a college degree so she can become a counselor or social worker.
Appearance-wise, Gaby fits in easily with the rest of the Saturday morning crew --- tall and fit, with her long, dark hair pulled back in a braid for the run. But her sunglasses give her away-- "Watts" is inscribed in glittery gothic script across the arm. "My aunt gave me these," she said. "She told me, never be ashamed of where you're from. Be proud, and I am."
I knew someone close to Gaby had died of AIDS, but I didn't realize how deeply she identified with the cause until last month, when she showed up with an AIDS ribbon tattooed on the inside of her right forearm and her runner numbers - for the past marathon and the one coming up in May - permanently stenciled on her right wrist.
"I mainly did this for myself because I want to show what I feel," she said. "But also it's because when I'm out there trying to raise money, some people still look at me like this punk kid from Watts, like 'Sure, I know you're just gonna use this to pay rent.' View me as you want, but this is what I'm doing. I'm serious."
Fundraising is a serious issue. For the AIDS Walks, participants raise what they can - sometimes as little as a hundred dollars. Gaby usually manages to pull in $1,000 or so. But the marathon requirement is higher. Each participant must raise a minimum of $1,600 or pay it themselves. Today is the cutoff date to reach the minimum requirement.
Gaby has tapped all her usual contributors and has come up $600 short. Today she's transferring that sum to the AIDS Marathon program out of her savings to make up the difference. "It's going to tough," she said. "But we'll get through it."
If she can manage to raise it through pledges in the coming weeks, the program will return her savings to her.
Gaby is particularly pleased that APLA funds the Watts Health Foundation and a clinic at her alma mater, David Starr Jordan High School. "So many people rely on those services," she said. "I can see the benefit of it."
On Saturday, as we embarked on our 23-mile run -- our longest yet - I asked her to tell me her story. I wanted to know how this young woman from Watts became so attached to fighting the spread of AIDS.
"It might take a while," she said. We both laughed because we knew that in the context of a 23-mile run - which is what we were facing --the longer the story the better. Miles fall away and before you know it you're standing at Pat and Ray's snack table, downing banana bread, popsicles and pickle-topped peanut butter crackers.
Gaby first learned about AIDS when she was 7 or 8 years old. She'd heard the Queen song "We Will Rock You," and asked her older sister if she would take her to see the band in concert. Her sister told her she couldn't because Queen didn't exist any more -- Freddie Mercury had died of AIDS. "I asked her what caused AIDS and she said no one knew, but that if you got it you died," Gaby said. "That scared me, but then she told me kids didn't get it."
A couple of years later, Gaby's family learned that her uncle, Jesús Muro, had AIDS. Some members of the family worried that the illness might be contagious and they wanted Jesús to eat with different plates and utensils. But Gaby's mother would have none of it. "She told everybody to stop all that," Gaby said. "She told us to give him all of our love and support, to be positive with him." And so they did.
As Jesús' health deteriorated, the family moved him to a hospice nearby. Gaby would go and visit him with her mother, using her allowance to buy him chocolate or a card or some special treat. She was not allowed inside, but she would stand on the porch and peer in, staring at the other patients, many of whom were much worse off than her uncle, their bodies contorted and covered with lesions. "I would just stare at them," Gaby said. "I'd never seen anything like that."
One morning, the hospice informed Gaby's family that Jesús had only a couple more weeks to live. The news so upset Gaby's mother that she packed Jesus and her children into her car and drove eight hours to her sister's home in the town of San Luis in Sonora, Mexico, where she helped Jesus get settled. "Everybody agreed that we needed to have my uncle with the family," Gaby said. "He liked it there - he got to eat whatever he wanted and he was comfortable."
Nearly every weekend for the next two years, Gaby's family would travel to San Luis to visit Jesús. "It was like a big family reunion all the time," Gaby said. "I got to see people I otherwise wouldn't see, and we would all be there together, spending time, being a part of each other's lives."
For Gaby, her dying uncle became a symbol of family. When he died --peacefully, in his sleep - Gaby vowed to keep his memory alive.
She does it with the AIDS walks and with the marathons, and by telling the story of her uncle to her 11 nieces and nephews, especially the younger ones, whom she baby sits regularly. On a recent trip to the supermarket, one of her nephews rejected a product with a pink ribbon, telling her they "needed to find stuff with a red ribbon, to fight AIDS."
That's the end of the tale. I'm going to Gaby's pledge page on the AIDS Marathon website to make a donation right now. Won't you join me? Grab a credit card and click here.
I'll give Gaby the last word: "You don't have to be rich to help people. You just have to want to do it."