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At the age of 17, Los Angeles native Richard Zaldivar first embarked on what would become a lifelong dedication to his roots and his community. His incredible journey began as president of a local youth group, where he hosted community meetings to help educate his peers about addiction issues, as well as community engagement and leadership. A few years later, Zaldivar entered the political realm when he worked on a campaign for Los Angeles councilman Art Snyder. Zaldivar ended up working with Snyder for the next 13 years. It was during this time that he successfully led the effort to save Cathedral High School in northeast Los Angeles from closure and demolition.
“From there I went to work for the Los Angeles City Attorney and then I left there [and] political campaigns,” he recalls. And like many Los Angeles-area residents, Zaldivar has at times turned to the entertainment industry to make ends meet. “I worked as a screen extra. I was a member of the [Screen Actors] Guild – then I founded the organization, The Wall: Las Memorias, in 1993.”
Although Zaldivar is not living with HIV himself, as a young gay Latino who witnessed the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s firsthand, the devastation struck too close to home to ignore. After learning that his dearest friend had contracted HIV, Zaldivar sprang into action to combat his feelings of helplessness in the face of the epidemic raging around him.
Richard Zaldivar (second from right) takes part in a group discussion of Latino men in 1997
“Around 1989, my best friend, David Ruiz, told me he was HIV-positive and didn’t want anyone to know about it,” Zaldivar recalls. “And it left a very lasting impact on my life – because he was my best friend and the word ‘HIV’ just scared him. There was the stigma, so few people found out about it.
Shortly after, Zaldivar recounted, “I got sober from alcohol, came out of the closet, and pledged to build a monument to those who died of AIDS. The purpose of this, for me, was to create a place where families could mourn openly, without stigma, their lost loved ones.
He says that in addition to honoring and remembering those lost to the epidemic, he hoped the memorial would also serve as “a conduit for the conversation about HIV in the Latin American community.”
In 1993, The Wall: Las Memorias was born – as an idea anyway – although “it wasn’t easy to start an organization,” admits Zaldivar. “We did a lot of volunteering. Very early on, we created the Latino Men’s Group, which was really a great base for how we work in the agency today. And basically we would serve about 100 men a week in group support meetings. There were very cultural groups, very spiritual [that were] very successful… we required nearly all participants to be tested for HIV every six months at a facility. And at that time, it was unheard of. »
The Wall: Las Memorias AIDS Monument in East LA and some of its events over the years
“So that was our starting point in HIV prevention,” he continues. “And then we secured funding for the AIDS monument…with support from then-Assemblyman Gilbert Sedillo, Mayor James Hahn, and foundation dollars and other California endowments supported us. Even the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles supported us.
Zaldivar says incorporating important cultural elements into The Wall’s programs, such as faith and spirituality, has been key to reaching the Latinx community. “We had Catholic priests who came to our groups,” he says. “And we’ve done a great job where we’ve integrated [spirituality] in everyday conversations about the challenges men faced. And so…[we] created visibility and engagement with the Los Angeles faith community. From this, we received an HIV prevention grant that lasted 15 years. This has allowed us to reach over a thousand Latinx churches in Los Angeles – doing assessments, providing information, helping to create HIV ministries. It was very successful.
The campaign to have the actual physical monument built spanned a total of 11 years and faced its fair share of opposition throughout. In an interview with TO magazine last year, Zaldivar shared that “right-wing Catholics who opposed the project and were very homophobic…did their best to organize against us. We even received death threats.
Finally, in 2004, the completed Las Memorias AIDS monument was unveiled at its permanent home in East LA’s Lincoln Park. The monument, consisting of six murals on freestanding walls and a stainless steel arch sculpture surrounded by a ceramic and red tiled bench, was designed by architect David Angelo and public artist Robin Brailsford .
“We inaugurated the monument in 2004 — and since then we have extended all our services. We provide HIV prevention and testing services, substance abuse prevention services to Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities, mental health prevention services to transition-aged LGBTQ youth…. Recently, we just launched the Act Now Against Meth Coalition…. This is our second attempt to fight methamphetamine since 2006.”
Zaldivar honored by President Barack Obama at the White House in 2016
Over the years, Zaldivar has worked with several organizations and served on several advisory boards, including the La Raza National Council and the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV. He is also the former co-chair of the Los Angeles County HIV Prevention Planning Committee, where he served for six years. In 2016, Zaldivar met then-President Barack Obama when he was honored by the White House for his years of dedication to the LGBTQ+, Latinx, and HIV communities. These days, he is often invited to participate as a motivational speaker and presenter at conferences, workshops and universities.
Last year, the physical monument underwent a major renovation and was rededicated on December 1, 2021, World AIDS Day. “We had over 800 people there that night, it was awesome…. We had Mayor Garcetti, [California assembly speaker] Anthony Rendon, a number of elected officials, ministers, rabbis,” explains Zaldivar. “It was a great rededication of the monument.”
For more information about the monument, its history, and its services, visit TheWallLasMemorias.org.