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.

May 9, 2017

The Positive Muse

On Javier Vázquez and Daniel Estandía’s “Comiéndote a besos” (“Smothering You with Kisses”)

Behind this affectionate title we find the very first interactive tale on HIV; as a matter of fact, you get two for one. For further understanding, keep on reading—

On the one hand we meet María, a singer-songwriter. When she was 24 years-old she moved to Madrid for new opportunities, and she is currently playing her guitar in a little pub almost every week. For her compositions, María usually finds inspiration in her granny, her village in Albacete,[1] and social injustice. However, her Muse is hard to find these days. One evening at the bus stop in Lavapiés[2] she finds a young bearded man with lifeless eyes. Although she is sitting close to him, he does not even realize! María can see teardrops falling from his eyes. When he is about to leave, he suddenly turns his head and finally looks at María. She introduces herself, and then they chat for a long long while until they all in all have to say goodbye. She cannot help singing with her sweetest voice while leaving. What is so appealing in this man?

I bet that you are dying to know who the guy is. OK, here you have a short recap: the name is Juan, and he is a teacher of Spanish for foreigners. He misses his days as an Erasmus Program student[3] in Berlin: his old friends, Claire (a French student he fell for), the parties, the trips, all that laughing—

Juan never liked housework, so he usually purchases convenience food. One day in a restaurant he met Tere, a collaborator of Imagina MÁS.[4] She asked him whether he has ever got tested for HIV, and persuaded him to do it. Unfortunately, the result was positive! Juan had had sex with some girls without protection in his Berlin days. Back then, he was afraid that the women could get pregnant only. All of them were using birth control pills, so. . .Yet, Juan never thought of sexually transmitted diseases.

Tere took Juan to a hospital in order to take the test again to confirm the result. Damn it! He had to wait for a week to know. Tere stated that there was no need to worry, as great achievements in new treatments have been attained: HIV+ individuals can live normally. Juan eventually relaxed, and hugged her.

A week later, Juan got the corroboration. He was not enraged, though sorrowful; he was afraid of social rejection. What would his friends think about him? Probably no girl would accept his condition. . .After a long day at work, Juan usually walk back home. That day he decided to take the bus in Lavapiés instead—and now you know the rest of the story.

Juan wakes up earlier the next morning. He is befuddled: has it all been a dream? Juan opens his backpack, and there he finds the test result and the note with María’s phone number. For the very first time in days, there is a smile on Juan’s face. He is wholly determined to phone her, and consequently they arrange a date in a restaurant.

After the lunch, Juan and María go out for a walk in Parque del Buen Retiro.[5] Juan wants to hold her hand, but he does not. How would María react to his disease? She swiftly kisses him, and tells him that he looks somewhere else. Juan summons all the courage that he has left and tells his truth. María takes some seconds to answer: she holds his hand, confesses that she is falling in love with him and that no disease will stop this. Oh yes! Inspiration finally comes to María, and she just has to write down the lyrics echoing in her mind.

Some time later, María gives a concert in a little café. She looks so beautiful tonight! In her black dress, with a red flower in her hair. . .Juan cannot be prouder! María dedicates to her boyfriend her new song: “Comiéndote a besos.” The reaction of the audience is really enthusiastic. After the concert, when everybody has left the building, Juan and María meet but say nothing: they just hug and smother each other with kisses.


Hey now! This is! Then, where is the LGBT issue in all this? Have not we promised another story? Yes! Please read below.

Pedro came to live in Madrid from Almería.[6] He initially felt so weird as he was used to an easy going way of life, definitely not so busy as the one in Madrid. Pedro wants to become a journalist. To make some money to pay his studies, he works as a waiter in a café in Chueca, the world renowned gay neighborhood in Madrid. It was too hard for Pedro to come out since he supposed that his parents and friends would reject him. His sister Bea meant a big support for him, and helped him tell the others. Pedro luckily found no disapproval, but decided not to mention the issue at home frequently. Now he is an outgoing college boy enjoying his sexual liberation, and everybody likes his gift of gab and sense of humor.

Pedro is not particularly very much experienced in love. He went crazy about a guy that he met when he had just arrived in Madrid. After a long year, Pedro still remembers him. Imagine his surprise when the guy himself phones Pedro! He has something important to say, so they resolve to meet in a park. It is obvious that this guy has been crying. Something is wrong. . .It will not be long before he tells the cause: he has taken the test and he is HIV positive. All of a sudden, a memory from the past calls to Pedro’s mind: in a moment of passion, they had sex without a condom. Pedro can be positive as well!!

. . .And that is what the results finally proved. It took Pedro some time to see things easier. The very moment he knew that he was HIV positive he felt extremely anxious, but he is calmer now. Anyway, Pedro is terrified about falling in love again. How to tell your sweetheart that you are seropositive? He occasionally has sexual encounters—no strings attached.

One evening an attractive stranger comes to the little café where Pedro works. This hot man is glancing at Pedro from time to time. Pedro has blithely noticed this, so he gets close to the stranger’s table and introduces himself. The stranger is so petrified that he cannot hardly speak a word! Probably the company of his friends has meant an obstacle in talking easily. Nevertheless, life is full of unpredictable surprises: it is closing time, and Pedro sees the stranger gazing at him on the other side of the street. He has been waiting for Pedro, and he is alone now. . .

This time the stranger feels comfy and accounted for introducing himself: his name is Rafa and he works as a caring nurse in the emergency department of a hospital. (By the way, Rafa has become a huge fan of María, as he has listened to her songs on the radio and just loves them! Rafa has used the internet to collect some data about María, and he is happy as a lark since she is going to give a concert soon in the little café.)

Cupid shot a couple of his golden arrows and you can take for sure that he did not miss this time! As it could not be otherwise, Rafa and Pedro had sex all night long. Although they have taken precautions, Pedro still feels awkward. That night Pedro dreamed of him and Rafa on the beach of his village—the vision of true happiness! The sexy nurse has totally destroyed the invisible wall that Pedro had put up to prevent others from getting close to him.

After an amazing week together, Rafa is sitting at a table of the café, waiting eagerly for the stellar appearance of his favorite singer-songwriter. Pedro is also there, working as usual. As you may already presume, it is the very night when María sang “Comiéndote a besos” for the first time. When she declares to the audience that her boyfriend is HIV-positive, it makes Pedro’s heart skip a beat; Rafa spots his babe’s odd reaction and realizes what is going on. When the song is over, Pedro starts to cry. Then Rafa comes close and kisses him, whispering that there is no need to hide anything as he loves him.

If you are not touched by this dazzling, kindhearted story, you really are not worthy of being a human! The author Javier Vázquez made an outstanding work in producing a narration that can move anyone, straight or gay, as well as a genuine portrait of the panic that seropositive individuals may feel of the others’ response to the disease. In addition, the publication displays the winsome illustrations by Daniel Estandía conveying the tender, graceful, precious moral of the story: Love is the most effective weapon against any kind of intolerance.

As this is a 2014 interactive tale published online, there are many sound and visual effects throughout its pages. If you click on the pictures you will hear the sound of the sea, the rain falling, a pot boiling, a cat purring, and so on. At the end of the story, there is an extra bonus for your consideration: a video in which Rozalén,[7] the real singer-songwriter of “Comiéndote a besos,” performs the song. Enjoy it!

You can find the original text in Spanish here.

[1] Located in the south-east of Spain, it is one of the five provinces of Castilla-La Mancha, worldwide known as the setting of many adventures in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
[2] A popular neighborhood in the city of Madrid.
[3] A European Union student exchange program established at the end of the 1980s. Named after the Dutch philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 - 1536), this mobility experience has become a cultural phenomenon among European college students.
[4] Imagina MÁS (“Imagine MORE”) is the name of a Spanish non-governmental organization aiming at HIV prevention, as well as sexual education, health care, awareness campaigning, support for HIV positive individuals, etc. “Comiéndote a besos” means one of their educational projects.
[5] Park of the Pleasant Retreat: one of the largest parks in Madrid, and one of its main attractions too (runners love it!). Here you can find, among other charms, a large pond for rowing under the gaze of the statue of King Alfonso XII, the nostalgic Crystal Palace or even a Monument of the Fallen Angel—inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost—, which is the world’s only public statue of Satan; Madrid is definitely the epitome of diversity.
[6] This province represents the ⅛ part of the autonomous community of Andalusia. At the southeast—on the Mediterranean Sea—, it is one of the hottest, driest places in Spain. Its unique desert-like landscape made it the perfect location for Spaghetti Westerns such as Sergio Leone’s.
[7] María Rozalén (Albacete, 1986) has become an audience favorite thanks to her performances published on YouTube. She has released two albums so far, as well as her collaborations with other popular Spanish musicians.