A 30-Year Journey: Surviving and Thriving with HIV – Maria Mejia’s Path to Self-Love

Maria shares how HIV helped her love herself and give back to others

“Life is a path of roses full of thorns. You have to enjoy the good moments and appreciate them because you will always continue to get curveballs.”

Maria Mejia has been living with HIV for 36 years. Born in Colombia and spending much of her early life in Miami and other U.S. cities, she has overcome many struggles.

In a sit down with Take Control HIV, Maria shared her journey which includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at a young age, foster care, gang activity, and lack of medical resources. She opens her heart hoping to inspire others.
From runaway to revolutionary
From her earliest years of life, Maria experienced violence, family trauma, and emotional agony.
“I’m a survivor of child sexual abuse. That was my first memory at three years old,” she told us. “I grew up in a very violent home.”
Maria was often called derogatory terms throughout her childhood and teenage years: “I was always told that I would never amount to anything.”
“All of that created a lot of anger in me so I ran away from home at the age of 12,” she continued.
Leaving an abusive environment in Colombia, Maria was placed in foster care but eventually left due to further abuse. She then joined a gang.
“They were like a family, so I ended up being with the leader of the gang who was the one that gave me HIV at the age of 15, my first boyfriend,” said Maria, adding that neither of the two knew they had contracted the virus at the time.
Several years after running away, Maria returned home to Colombia to be with her family after she briefly lived in Miami and Louisville, Kentucky.
She found out about her positive status as an 18-year-old. At the time, this diagnosis was considered a death sentence. There were no safe and available medications for her to take.
While living in Colombia, Maria felt like she had to lie about her status, so she told people she had leukemia or lupus. She got very tired of lying.
“I hated myself and was hating the world.”
Facing barriers and access to proper medication, Maria’s body began to break down from the virus. She felt she needed to seek better care, so she moved again to the United States, this time landing at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
“I returned back to the U.S. in the year 2001, and I was dying. I had 39 t-cells and cancer in my uterus … there was no medicine in Colombia. One month they had it, one month they didn’t,” Maria told Take Control HIV.
“I didn’t die. I entered a hospital … that’s where I call the beginning of my activist, my ground roots, because a lot of people think it’s just social media.”
Around that time, Maria became a Red Cross and hospital volunteer “every day for eight years” in the immunology department.
Maria knew it was time for her to continue getting educated about HIV and to also give back to her community.
Empowering others through understanding and support
“I started going to medical student libraries and just getting my hands on every book that I could get hands on,” Maria said, emphasizing the importance of learning. She continued to volunteer, attend support groups and educational classes, and deliver speeches to inform underserved groups.
“I’m very good at helping others, it comes from my heart, no one told me to do it.”
“When I started going to their educational classes, as I spoke the supervisor started seeing that people would listen to me … that I had this gift to communicate and to put people at ease,” she told Take Control HIV. So eventually she became a peer educator and a counselor.

Maria began by speaking to people in hospitals, jails, churches, and foster homes but eventually, Maria realized she needed to be open about her status to reach more people. She knew she would be able to help many more people and understood the importance of providing support to others.

“I always say a support system is extremely important for us and just anyone that’s going through any condition.”

Maria founded an international support group on Facebook called, “International place for people with HIV/AIDS, and the people who love us.” The group now has more than 40,000 active members.

“I try to live by example with no judgement.”
Maria knows not everyone wants to be an activist but says it is important that others know there is a support system out there for them.
I have HIV and I’m still here.
On social media, Maria started putting “HIV” in between her first and last name.

When people ask why she does this she responds: “Immediately, I will educate if they don’t know about HIV, and promote testing, or if they have HIV I will tell them, ‘All these years I’ve had HIV, and I’m still here.’”

A common misconception about living with HIV is that the disease is a death sentence. A long-term survivor of HIV, Maria knows that through treatment and medication, individuals living with HIV can live long lives.

Another misconception is how HIV is transmitted. Maria advocates for medication and educates people on what U=U means (undetectable=untransmittable).

She remembers fearing she would transmit HIV but in 2017 when the truth came out that undetectable meant untransmittable, that fear subsided. She wants to encourage others to not be afraid of getting tested.

Individuals living with HIV can remain undetectable and untransmittable by keeping up on their regular testing, treatment, and medical appointments.

Maria shared more about her life and U=U on World AIDS Day.

“Through HIV, I found that I started taking care of myself more, loved myself more, become more sensitive, more compassionate towards myself.”
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If you are inspired and want to share your story, connect with us on social media. Take Control HIV is focused on building our community and is on a mission to ensure all people have access to HIV testing, care, and treatment.
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