Cristina Peña was born in 1984 with HIV. Her father died from AIDS, and her mother is still living with HIV. Cristina was told she had HIV when she was 9, but she and her family kept it a secret from her schoolmates and friends.
In high school, she started dating Chris Ondaatje. One day, Chris decided to tell Cristina that he was in love with her.
That’s when Cristina sat him down for a revelation of her own.
“I remember sitting on your living room floor, and I could tell something was wrong,” Chris tells Cristina on a visit to StoryCorps in San Francisco. “You started off telling me your dad had passed away of AIDS, and I thought to myself, ‘Ah, that’s the big secret.’ But then you kept going. And you said your mom was HIV-positive. And then you told me that you were born HIV-positive.”
“I remember saying to you, ‘I’m OK if you don’t want to keep dating me,’ ” Cristina replies. “And you could have reacted any way. You could have gotten up. You could have called me horrible names. You could have ran out. But you said, ‘Babe, I’ll pick you up for a date tomorrow.’ You gave me a big squeeze, and that meant so much to me.”
“We really learned how to communicate with each other,” Chris says. “It’s definitely forced us into having to grow up faster than we probably would have otherwise. I struggled with telling my parents about it. And my dad, he was pretty upset. He tried to talk me out of dating you.”
“I remember I’d walk into your house and he’d get up and leave, without saying anything to me,” Cristina recalls. “That was the first time I had ever realized that I was actually a threat to someone.”
“I said, ‘Look, here’s this piece of paper. I get tested every six months. We’re safe. I love this girl. I want to be with her,’ ” Chris says. “All I wanted was acceptance. It was a few years of being really distant with my mom and my dad, and really only in the last five or six years have we started to mend those issues. And we have a great relationship now. Their biggest concern is when we’re going to get married and start having grandkids for them.”
Cristina and Chris are both 29 now, and have been together for 13 years.
“You know, when I found out I was HIV-positive at 9, I had no idea what my future looked like,” Cristina tells Chris. “And now, as an adult, obviously still HIV-positive, but I have a future, and I have a future with you. And we’ve built that. And you’ve made me feel so beautiful and loved. And I didn’t think I could have that.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon.