2008 Youth Scholar - Digna Santiago, Carmen Belen Veiga, Juana Diaz, PR
"Digna has become the new face of HIV in Puerto Rico after having taken on the Commonwealth's huge Board of Education system. She not only took on the government after being denied enrollment in high school, but she also took to the media to mobilize the community and advocacy groups."
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Digna Santiago has become the face of activism for people living with HIV and AIDS in Puerto Rico. Upon moving to the town of Juana Diaz with her family, the local school board prevented her from enrolling in the public high school because she is HIV positive. The school superintendent suggested homeschooling and a GED program instead. Rather than accepting this decision, Digna and her family mobilized the media and politicians to expose the discrimination against her. Her campaign was successful: she was featured on several television shows; was visited by prominent Puerto Rican politicians, including the governor; and the school board ultimately allowed her enrollment. Digna not only resolved her own personal dilemma, but she also brought the continuing prejudice against people living with HIV and AIDS into the public consciousness.
Digna's Scholarship Essay
I am a student and a civil liberties activist.
My mother and I moved to Puerto Rico looking forward to a healthier life. When I got to Puerto Rico I started taking steps to get assigned to a high school. I don't remember how many times I tried to enroll in a school, but as many times as I tried nobody wanted to accept me. Why? I've been HIV positive since birth.
Since no school would accept me, I decided to go to the superintendent of schools. But without listening to my opinion, the superintendent just wanted to send me to a GED program. I didn't want to finish school that quickly – all I wanted was to enjoy my last year in high school and then go to college to study engineering.
All of a sudden I saw that many doors were closed to me. I cried and cried because what had been my dreams were all crushed down with no hope. I thought, "Why am I treated like this? It isn't my fault that I am HIV positive." All humans should be treated equally, like the laws say.
When I looked at it that way, I decided it wasn't going to end that way: I had to fight for my dreams. I decided to call all the news stations to let them know what was going on – and not only them, but the world. I knew I couldn't face this on my own but would need help.
Once I was on TV, I finally got into school. I finally got the right to defend my civil liberties and my human rights. Since that happened, I have decided to dedicate my life to my studies and to telling people what HIV and AIDS really are and that we are all brothers and sisters. That's my experience of defending my civil liberties in Puerto Rico.