Staying Positive: Hope, Futurity, and HIV in Spain

 

Dean Allbritton is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Colby College, where he teaches courses on Spanish cinema and culture. His work analyzes representations of illness and health in contemporary Spanish culture and media as focalizing points for larger discourses of national and societal health. He is currently working on a manuscript that explores the cultural history and legacy of HIV/AIDS in Spain. He has published articles in The Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Hispanic Research Journal, and in The Companion to the Films of Pedro Almodóvar.

 

In its early years—and in the most cynical and cruel of interpretations—AIDS was perceived as illness where one got what one deserved. Hoping to quell the potential of rising panic in the early 1980s, Spanish news reports, newspaper articles, films and television would continually remind their audiences that the threat to the public at large was minimal, laughable. As time passed and the disease spread, however, and as new swaths of the population were made vulnerable and exposed, the steadfast belief in one’s righteous impermeability to AIDS was put under pressure. In the face of increasing vulnerability and susceptibility to the taint of illness—which was never only physical, but also social and cultural—victimhood was a status to be bequeathed, not a natural state of physical precarity. One’s susceptibility was measured in powerfully moralizing ways, and the true victim was ultimately seen to be a wild amalgam of conundrums: healthy but infected, innocent but tainted, and marginal to AIDS’s depravity while remaining central to the purported normalcy of the nation.

The real victims, it was consequently figured, were children. The history of HIV in Spain lent itself to this reading, as the first two reported cases of AIDS in Spain were long believed to be two hemophiliac brothers who received infected blood coagulant, Juan Antonio and Diego de los Reyes Mesa.[1] The brothers contracted the virus in Seville some time in 1982; 9-year-old Diego passed away in January 1983, while 16-year-old Juan Antonio died in April of that same year.[2] Although the brothers were not officially confirmed as AIDS cases until May 1983, months after the onset of their symptoms, the treatment of their story in the Spanish press was remarkably different from the description of cases among gay men at the time. As two of the first hemophiliac cases of the epidemic in Spain, Juan Antonio and Diego were seen as innocent victims of a terrible disease, two children who had died in the crossfire of bad medical practices and the spreading taint of a homosexual epidemic.

When considering the general perception of AIDS victims of the time, the outpouring for the brothers is remarkable—their deaths must be mourned, their loss lamented as a tragedy of bad medicine and faulty transnational practices that place the innocent in harm’s way. Their deaths had an immediate and profound effect in Spain: they coalesced public sentiment towards the nationalization of blood banks, they underscored the arrival of the epidemic in Spain, and they unleashed a building panic of the illness. The sickness of others who contracted HIV at this time (homosexual men and intravenous drug users, primarily) was another matter. As news of the HIV+ children spread, it became important that childhood be protected from the reaches of illness.

The cinematic representation of seropositive childhood in Spain, though spotty, has followed closely along the lines set by news reports of the brothers. La niña de tus sueños/The Girl of Your Dreams (Jesús R Delgado, 1995), considered the first Spanish film to deal with HIV/AIDS as a central topic, shows the difficulties that the titular niña Ana (11-year-old Laura Rico) has upon contracting HIV. Shunned from school and her friends, she is adopted by a family who also begins to feel the heat of intolerance from their social circles. As the first wide-released film dealing exclusively with HIV, and like the news reports a decade earlier, La niña de tus sueños displays the AIDS patient as innocent, accidental victim; and, also like so much of the reporting on the illness during these years, Ana’s struggles are eclipsed by those of the normalcy of a family whose love knows no bounds, whose pure motives can rescue childhood from the grips of sickness.[3]

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FIGURE 1: The innocent face of HIV: Ana (Laura Rico) in La niña de tus sueños (Jesús R Delgado, 1995).

 

The types of individual relationships that we have to children can be prickly, based on our own feelings and remembrances of our past selves; but our relationships to the concept of childhood and the figure of the child are often warm and tender. The sick child often inspires powerful feelings in us, feelings that were visible and immediate in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Kathryn Bond Stockton notes that ‘the child is precisely who we are and we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back. It is a ghostly, unreachable fancy’.[4] When thinking about the perception of the ‘most innocent’ victims of HIV/AIDS, Stockton’s quote seems particularly insightful. Our investments in the continuity of the future—and here we can think in broad lines, in the continuity of futures that are at once personal, political, cultural, and genetic—are deeply embedded within our fantasies and recreations of childhood and children. Yet by attaching ourselves to the seemingly inherent promise of the vaguely defined future, we reify the child-as-construct and, as Lee Edelman has brilliantly and polemically noted, invest ourselves in political stasis. In his No Future (2004), Edelman writes that the ‘figural child alone embodies the citizen as an ideal’[5] and that, unlike the ‘ghostly fancy’ of Stockton’s imagistic child, our representations of childhood have a damning effect:

The social order exists to preserve for this universalized subject, this fantastic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actuality of freedom itself, which might, after all, put at risk the Child to whom such a freedom falls due.  Hence, whatever refuses this mandate by which our political institutions compel the collective reproduction of the Child must appear as a threat not only to the organization of a given social order but also, and far more ominously, to social order as such, insofar as it threatens the logic of futurism on which meaning always depends.[6]

The “logic of futurism”, to crib from Edelman, is concerned with reaffirming structures which already exist in order to preserve them for the future—or more precisely, for the imagined child of the future. Sinisterly, then, our attachments to a figural child work to ‘affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future… That Child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention’.[7]

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FIGURE 2: ‘Different? No, not with your blood plasma’: The cover of the May 1984 issue of Nueva Imagen, the journal of the Spanish Association for Hemophilia, uses children as stand-ins for the potential homogeneity of the nation and the possibility to normalize illness through health.

 

In this configuration, our perceptional fictions of childhood are directly related to the upholding of political and cultural structures that affirm life and futurity. So what does illness ‘do’ to this political fantasy? What ideas of generational continuity are disrupted or destroyed with the injection of mortality, and what new ideas might be brought about in this disruption? The final moments of “SIDA: Crece la alarma” [AIDS: The Growing Alarm], which aired on the Spanish national news station RTVE on 15 September 1985, seem to sketch out a hesitant answer, remarkably demonstrating the adult fantasies that delineate childhood, our insistence on tracking innocence as commodity, and the potential of illness to both disrupt and reify these. As the father of a hemophiliac boy reflects on his son’s fatal contraction and development of the illness, he adamantly divides the essential innocence of childhood from the adult terrain of suffering within disease. Believing himself to be ‘protecting’ his son from the malignancy of knowledge (represented here as future suffering and mortality), the father instead conscripts himself to psychic suffering:

Para mí, hay una diferencia radical—dramática—entre el hecho de que un enfermo que padece del SIDA lo sepa o no lo sepa. Si lo sabe, sus condiciones existenciales son verdaderamente horribles. La sociedad no se puede hacer una idea de lo que esto significa para la persona que es consciente que tiene esta enfermedad. En el caso de mi hijo, afortunadamente, él no lo sabía, lo cual es un cambio también profundísimo. Mi hijo no sufrió de esta enfermedad—murió de esta enfermedad, pero no sufrió de esta enfermedad. El enfermo que sepa que tiene esta enfermedad, si no recibe—en un entorno de cariño y humanidad—si no recibe ese afecto, desde luego es algo espantoso. La sociedad no sabe qué es esto.[8]

In what can only be described as an attempt to protect the figural childhood of his son—a childhood also under literal attack from illness—the father bore the burden of the AIDS sufferer so that his son would not have to. In this way, the report clearly identifies the ways that the child with AIDS is perceived and the dogged, adult insistence in this child’s purification. Childhood must not be tainted nor overcome with the “truly horrible existential conditions” of the AIDS victim, and the figure of the child must be continually recuperated, revivified, and its innocence reasserted. Yet in the same breath, the child is portrayed as the most iconic of victims: not only must viewing audiences feel their heart strings tugged at the thought of a life cut short in this manner, they must also recognize the desire to safeguard this child, and childhood in general, from the threat of HIV/AIDS.

This is not a wholesale condemnation of the father’s actions, made in grief and out of what he believed to be the best for his family; it is, however, a demonstration of the ways that we shepherd childhood, how it is correlated with innocence, and how illness both disrupts and consolidates the figure of the child. The father chains himself to the knowledge of his son’s imminent death and the prolonged physical ravages of disease so that his son might be free from it, preventing the contamination of childhood from mortality and suffering, and in so doing he protects general notions of unblemished childhood while also setting up the child as the exemplar AIDS sufferer (read: innocent, pure, untainted). As he finishes his statement, a sweet, light music plays over the interview, a sound not unlike that of a lullaby. Images of the young son fill the screen: first as a baby, then as a young boy, before closing on a family portrait of happier times. In this equation of youthfulness and happiness, suffering is the terrain of adults, not children.

What might this mean for our configurations of illness and childhood? Allowing childhood to becoming a stand-in for the innocent victim (the only one who deserved the status of victimhood, in fact, in these early years) protected normalcy in the face of its disruption and consolidated popular beliefs in what constitutes good or bad health, what makes up a good family, and what type of citizen can accurately represent the nation. The protection of the child, in turn, relegated HIV/AIDS to the lap of the (heterosexual) family and disrupted the illness’s associations with sex and drug usage. But can illness be so easily contained? The children who died from tainted blood products in the early years of the epidemic were more than figural children or symbols of national futurity—they were real, living people who succumbed to illness. How might we resist the normalizing reactions produced out of fear, reactions that would have us retreat to the (hetero)normativity of limited, conservative structures of power? As AIDS has raged through the globe, other pressing questions have sprung up around its maintenance, containment, and eradication; the question asked at the beginning of the epidemic’s spread in Spain, however—What about the children?—continues to affect the way that we perceive a future that may (or may not) be available for everyone.

[1] As is often the case in the origin stories of epidemiological outbreaks, there is rarely one infectious super-agent (or ‘Patient Zero’) or point of origin, and a disease may appear simultaneously in different populations and under radically different circumstances. This is especially true with HIV, which presents itself as the presence of any number of rare infections and illnesses; it is thus impossible to know with certainty where the true origins of HIV lie in Spain, as its presence may have been initially misdiagnosed, ignored, or poorly understood. Chronologically, the first known AIDS patient in Spain, a homosexual man living in Barcelona, had succumbed to the illness about a year before news of the brothers’ illness was made public. See J. Vilaseca and others, ‘Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Toxoplasma Gondii Brain Abscess in a Spanish Homosexual’, The Lancet, 319 (1982), 572.

[2] See E. Lissen and others, ‘AIDS in Haemophilia Patients in Spain’, The Lancet, 321 (1983), 992–93 and Alfredo Relaño, ‘Confirmado oficialmente que dos hermanos murieron en Sevilla a causa del síndrome de inmunodeficiencia’, El País, 5 May 1983.

[3] The purported normalcy of familial love surpassing all—especially HIV—has, unsurprisingly, been the general track for representations of seropositivity and children in Spanish film, as made particularly evident in Todo sobre mi madre/All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999) and Cachorro/Bear Cub (Miguel Albaladejo, 2004).

[4] Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Series Q (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 5.

[5] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 11.

[6] Ibid., p.11.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] ‘For me, there is a radical difference—a dramatic one—between the fact that a patient who suffers from AIDS knows it or not. If he knows, his existential conditions are truly awful. Society has no idea what it means for the person who is aware of having this condition. In the case of my son, fortunately, he did not know, which is also a profound change. My son did not suffer from this disease—he died of this disease, but he did not suffer from this disease. The patient who knows that he has this disease, if he does not receive—in an environment of care and humanity—if he does not receive that affection, it is certainly something awful. Society does not know what this is like.’ ‘SIDA: Crece la alarma’, El Dominical (Madrid: RTVE, 1985).

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