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Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez Up Close and Personal

September 27, 2007

Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez is good at many things. One skill he has honed to high perfection is being a patient. He is excellent at following drug regimens, monitoring his body, being attentive to rest and nutrition, staying sane, enduring pain, and fighting for humor. For 17 years, since he was diagnosed with AIDS, after collapsing with sweats and a fever of 104 degrees, being a superb patient has been Sandoval-Sánchez's ticket to tomorrow.

A professor of Spanish whose interests extend to theatre, identity politics, queer studies, and monsters, Sandoval-Sánchez refers to the 1990s as "the time I was dead." Lately his father, who is 86, jokingly tells those around him, "I will bury you all." To that the scholarly son retorts, "I was already buried." His fortieth birthday in 1994 had the distinct feel of a goodbye party, "It was a farewell to Alberto and then Alberto never died." His T-cell count had gone down to six before that celebration. He named one Dennis, for his doctor in New York City who himself succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Sandoval-Sánchez laughs easily, telling a visitor with a hint of irony, "I am a very positive person," to help explain his equilibrium in the face of unrelenting physical and emotional ache.

On Tuesday, October 2, he will read from what he calls his "Latino AIDS Testimonial" ("It's a Broken Record/Ese Disco se Rayó," at 7 pm, Cassani Lounge, Shattuck Hall), as part of Latina Heritage Month at MHC. It deals with the two big transitions in his life: migrating from his native Puerto Rico to attend college in Wisconsin in 1973 and going from inhabiting a healthy, energized body to having his identity become embroiled with a body that is constantly, and at a great physical cost, battling a virus it can't expel and which is bent on compromising his immunity to deadly intruders.

Opportunistic disease has cost him an eye and threatens the other. He is always on the lookout for "floaters" (black spots appearing in his field of vision) and "flashes" (of brightness). When he wakes in the middle of the night his first panicked glance is toward the VCR to make sure he can still see the display. Confronted with the quandary of whether to stop infusing medications to save his eyes because of the damage the drugs were wreaking on his kidneys, Sandoval-Sánchez decided to turn that and future medical decisions over to his doctors. Negotiating trade-offs when the side effects (the name of his 1993 play produced at MHC) of lifesaving drugs can be as debilitating, or even lethal, as the condition they are meant to address, is exhausting.

Sandoval-Sánchez's greatest trauma was not wrought by AIDS. It was the heart attack almost four years ago that felled his lover and soul mate John Schwartz. They met during their graduate studies (he in architecture) in Minneapolis. For two decades they maintained residences in New York's Greenwich Village and in South Hadley. "I have been diagnosed with AIDS for 17 years, but nothing compares to the day John died," Sandoval-Sánchez said. "Time stood still" as he and a friend drove 11 hours through a blinding snowstorm just to pull the plug on the brain-dead corpse.

He started writing his testimonial in 1996, and he refines it along the way. He uses song fragments to summon memories from epochs in his life. Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," for instance, evokes the disco era and the gay scene Sandoval-Sánchez once relished. "We went from the dance floor to the ER," he said. Music also draws in the audience around shared cultural markers. The testimonial, at its most basic level, is a survivor's narrative. Being alive in the face of unlikely odds gives Sandoval-Sánchez the authority and the position to report from the netherworld fate has led him to. "It breaks the silence," he said. "Sometimes it's scary to be so public about something so personal."

Through his many ordeals Sandoval-Sánchez remains intellectually active. He published José Can You See? in 1999, a book about Latinos on and off Broadway. Together with Smith College professor of Spanish and women's studies Nancy Saporta Sternbach, he published two books on Latina theater (Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology, 1999 and Stages of Life: Transcultural Performance and Identity in U.S. Latina Theater, 2001). Currently he is analyzing deathbed scenes in theatre and film.

Soon after his diagnosis Sandoval-Sánchez embraced the cliché of living life "one day at a time." Over the years his drive to be a good patient delivered him to an outlook that focuses on "one more day." In his mind he was dead, and now he is alive. But only "until midnight," he said. "The future doesn't exist, only the past. If I make it, fine, I won't complain. I did more than I ever expected."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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