Remembering Pedro Zamora -- ''The Real World'' star's legacy lives on after his death

Remembering Pedro Zamora

Obviously, there wasn’t much time left for Pedro Zamora, the AIDS activist and costar of MTV’s The Real World, when President Clinton phoned his Miami hospital room not long ago. ”I’m just calling to tell you I’m thinking about you and praying for you,” said the President. But Zamora, suffering from an AIDS-related neurological disease, could barely muster a hello as his sister held the phone to his ear. For all practical purposes, Zamora was already gone, for it’s hard to imagine him without a voice. Before he was silenced by AIDS on Nov. 11 at age 22, Zamora’s blunt words woke up a generation.

For most of the vast young audience of The Real World — MTV’s annual verite series about a group of twentysomethings learning to live with each other and a camera crew — AIDS did not have a human face until this openly gay, quick-witted, brooding boy next door was introduced on the show’s third-season premiere last June as HIV-positive. As the show progressed — the last installment aired the night before Zamora died — so did his illness. There were good, healthy times. He exchanged rings with his lover, Sean Sasser. He squabbled with his roommates (Pedro was neater than most), went to the beach, goofed around. Then there were sleepless, feverish nights, and the everyday horrors of his body’s erosion. ”I never kissed someone with AIDS (before),” says Real World roommate Pam Ling, who put medical school on hold to help care for her friend last October. ”In terms of the risk, I wasn’t worried at all. The risk was more emotional.”

In his battle against AIDS, as in his own hard life, niceties didn’t count for much. In 1980, his parents brought Pedro, then 8, and two of his seven siblings from Cuba during the Mariel boat lift, and the family would not be reunited until shortly before his death. When he was 13, his mother died; at 17, he discovered that unprotected sex had left him infected with HIV. Almost immediately he began his crusade against the rising tide of HIV infection among teens, speaking frankly about his HIV status and passing out condoms. Testifying before Congress last July, Zamora told lawmakers, ”If you want to reach me as a young gay man, and especially a young gay man of color, then you need to give me information in a vocabulary I can understand and relate to.”

With his Real World stint, Zamora may have reached more people than even he could have imagined. ”(He had) a very active and passionate audience,” says MTV programming exec Doug Herzog, who says that Zamora received thousands of letters each week. Ultimately, though, Zamora’s impact was as a human being, not a symbol. Says Judd Winick, another Real World roommate, who was with Zamora when he died: ”People place him on a pedestal, and they should, but to us he was just a friend. He was a wonderful person with an illness.” This is Zamora’s sweetest legacy — that other people with AIDS may be seen the same way. (Additional reporting by Heather Keets and Jessica Shaw)

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