Down and Out in Miami-Dade County

Poor, unemployed, stricken with AIDS, and at the mercy of government bureaucrats. No wonder Vivian Rolon's life is hell.

She studied nursing after high school but never obtained a license. For years she worked as a medical assistant and a nurse's aide in New York's hospitals and clinics. In Miami she held similar health care positions in addition to other office jobs. Social Security records show she worked until 1992, the year Hurricane Andrew hit. After that she worked sporadically, but her employers paid her under the table, and at times she was sidelined because of poor health.

For several years following her divorce she lived with a Cuban man named Pepe, whom Carlos still thinks of as his father. But Pepe died of cancer in 1990, and a year later Rolon herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she underwent a lumpectomy at Jackson Memorial Hospital; months later several tiny tumors appeared in her left breast and were removed in a laser procedure. Then the 1992 hurricane destroyed much of her home and possessions. Her daughters weren't living with her then, but Carlos had to move in with his father and stepmother in Miami Springs.

Rolon and Ralph Madrigal began dating during the time she was being treated for cancer. They had been introduced several months earlier at a party, then happened to bump into each other at a clinic at Jackson. "That's where I met Ralph," Rolon says ruefully. "That's how I met my next disease." He told her he was living on disability from injuries he received as a Navy SEAL commando in the Vietnam War. They were soon married.

It wasn't until more than a year into the relationship, when Madrigal couldn't hide his ailments any longer, that Rolon finally discovered he'd lied to her about everything. He was HIV-positive. He was on SSI. And he'd never been in the military. He was also abusive physically and verbally. Yet instead of leaving him, she took care of him. Soon he barely had enough strength to sit up, much less throw a punch. And Rolon says she was the only one at his bedside when he died at Palmetto Hospital in 1995. "I guess I still love him," she says now, "even though I never forgave him for what he did to me."

Rolon didn't easily come to terms with Madrigal's deception. She left him for a while in 1994, after testing positive for HIV, and was living in a motel on Biscayne Boulevard and 53rd Street. "One Friday afternoon in September I sat in my room and wrote letters to each one of my children, to my father and sister, everyone who was important in any way to me. I explained that I had HIV and I was going to commit suicide," she recalls.

She left her room that evening, crossed the boulevard, and caught a bus south. "I was going to the Julia Tuttle," Rolon explains. "I'm Pisces. I love the water. I was going to drown myself." When she stepped off the bus at Biscayne Boulevard near 39th Street, she heard music and walked into a crowd of people on the sidewalk. An older, bearded man approached her and asked her name. "Whaddaya mean what's my name?" Rolon remembers saying. "It's none of your business."

The man told the clearly anguished but overly guarded Rolon she was standing in front of the PWAC offices and that she'd come upon a rare event: a mixer for HIV-positive, single, straight people. "So come on in," the man invited her, laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Get your white honky arm off me or I'll either call the police or stab you," Rolon retorted. (She was carrying her trusty New York stiletto.) But she stuck around anyway, and at the end of the night her acquaintance, who turned out to be PWAC founder and then-executive director Charles Hutchison, gave her a ride back to her motel. "I told him what I was going to do," Rolon remembers, "and he stayed there and talked to me all night. Toward the morning I dozed off, and when I woke up the sun was coming in through the window and Charles was still sitting there. He said, 'Please come with me to PWAC.'

"So I did," she continues. "The first thing when we walked in the office, the phones were ringing off the wall. Some guy answers the phone, and he looks up and says, 'Charles, I don't know what to do with this one. They speak nothing but Spanish.' And Charles looks at me and asks me, 'Do you mind talking to them?' So I picked up the phone. That's how I started with PWAC. After that is when I started coming out of denial."

Rolon credits Hutchison, an outspoken and often abrasive activist, with teaching her the fine art of advocating for AIDS patients. "Picking up abandoned people," is how Rolon puts it.

She says PWAC paid her a stipend of $30 per day and provided her and other advocates with help paying bills or other in-kind assistance when necessary. By late 1995 Rolon's initial application for SSI had been rejected and the appeal denied. But her health was still fairly good, and one thing she didn't have to worry about was shelter: HOPWA was paying her rent in full, $450 per month, for an apartment on NE 108th Street.

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