The first funded AIDS monument in the U.S.: How our Affiliate The Wall-Las Memorias grew from a monolith to a health and wellness organization

Recent community event The Wall-Las Memorias hosted at their Highland Park office.

October 15 marks National Latino AIDS Awareness Day, first recognized in 2003, when the number of minorities living with AIDS first surpassed the number of Whites with AIDS. In 2017, 26% of the new HIV diagnoses were Hispanic/Latino adults and adolescents, and at the end of 2016, approximately 254,600 Hispanics/Latinos had HIV. As we close Hispanic Heritage Month and to observe this day, we highlight UnidosUS Affiliate and 2019 LGBTQ Champion The Wall-Las Memorias Project, a community health and wellness organization dedicated to serving LGBTQ Latinos in Los Angeles, whose beginnings came from a friend caring for a friend. Here’s the story of The Wall-Las Memorias as told by Andres Magaña, Community Engagement Manager at the organization.

In 1990, Los Angeles native Richard Zaldivar was confronted with the devastating news that his best friend David had tested positive for HIV. In those days, being positive was a death sentence that plagued the Latino community especially hard. In fact, very little work was being done to address HIV and AIDS in the Latino community except for routine outreach on the westside of LA.

The shame he witnessed in his friend sparked an idea for Richard. That idea became a lifelong passion and a dream come true for him in 1993. He was determined to build an monument that would honor those who died from AIDS, and fight for those affected by stigma and shame associated with the disease. Work quickly began to mobilize community around the construction project, and the inception of The Wall-Las Memorias AIDS Monument soon became reality.

The monument was designed by architect David Angelo and public artist Robin Brailsford. In 1993, a community advisory board selected Lincoln Park in East LA as the site for the memorial based on its rich cultural and artistic history with the Latino community, and its proximity to the local AIDS Treatment Center at County USC Hospital and the Rand Schrader AIDS Clinic.

The Wall Las Memorias Project Executive Director Richard Zaldivar.

After years of battling opposition from local groups, The Wall-Las Memorias AIDS Monument became the first publicly funded AIDS monument in the nation, and was dedicated before thousands of supporters and community leaders in 2004. While there are numerous AIDS memorials in the nation, Los Angeles hosts the only AIDS monument that is a physical structure that contributes to a memorial setting. The monument now has over 360 names etched into it—the names of people who died of AIDS—and there is space for up to 8,000 names, which are added once a year, on December 1, World AIDS Day, during a ceremony called Noche de las memorias.

The Wall Las Memorias Project has made it their mission to provide access to specialized services designed to prevent HIV/AIDS:

  • Substance abuse and to promote societal wellness.
  • Guarantee that individual voices of the community are heard and that all are in agreement on the essential need for social change.
  • Promote the use of the AIDS monument as an acknowledged catalyst for change and action.
  • Engage the LGBTQ and faith communities, making both entities full partners in promoting wellness and eliminating stigma among ALL people.

Today, The Wall-Las Memorias is a community health and wellness organization dedicated to serving Latino, LGBTQ, and other underserved populations through advocacy, education, and building the next generation of leadership. Programs and services offered by the organization include HIV testing and peer-to-peer counseling to gay, bisexual, and transgender members; mental health stigma reduction to LGBTQAI2-S transitional-age youth; substance abuse prevention in southeast LA; and support groups for gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary individuals of the community.

Billy, a recent participant of one of our programs at the organization, said: “I had a pleasant experience during my sessions at The Wall-Las Memorias Project. The sessions opened my eyes to issues that face my community directly and encouraged me to help out.”

More about The Wall-Las Memorias

The Wall-Las Memorias Project has grown to offer a full array of services and support to a community often forgotten. You can learn more about this organization on their website and in our article where we relate the visit to their location during UnidosUS’s Fall Affiliate Convening in LA last week. The Wall-Las Memorias hosted a reception where attendees visited the organization and the 10,000-square-foot monument in the shape of Quetzalcoatl.