Carlos Toro was a scrappy fighter whose advocacy on behalf of people with AIDS helped hundreds of people around Hartford deal with disease and discrimination.
He was the first to admit his flaws. He fought drug addiction most of his life and spent time in jail. His marriage dissolved when he realized he was gay.
But his legacy lies in his passionate and effective fight for respect, treatment and hope for people living with HIV and AIDS.
"He was unapologetic and militant," said Ann Levie, who worked with Toro on a committee that decides how federal AIDS money should be spent. Despite many setbacks, "he kept coming back."
Toro was born on Dec. 12, 1952, in Caguas, Puerto Rico, to Carlos and Carmen Toro. He graduated from Hartford Public High School and was married to Carmen Soto in 1973. They had three children.
His problems developed early. He started using drugs, then tested positive for HIV in 1991. He spent time in jail, and separated from his wife. He was in and out of drug-rehabilitation programs.
Then, in 1994, Toro learned that a local AIDS group, Latinos Contra SIDA (now known as Latino Community Services) was looking for an outreach worker. He lobbied hard to get the position, calling frequently until he was hired.
His qualifications? He was outspoken. He related well to people. He knew the community. And he was infected himself.
"He knew, better than ourselves, the 'street,'" said Zahira Medina, then the LCS director.
At that time, the powerful drugs that allow people with AIDS to live longer still were being developed, and many were sick and dying. Funerals were a constant in the world of AIDS.
In the beginning, AIDS had been seen as a disease targeting gay, white, upper-class men, but the stigma surrounding AIDS was even stronger in the traditionally macho Hispanic community.
"In the '80s and '90s, to be open about HIV was huge," said Shawn Lang, director of public policy at the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition. But Toro ignored the stigma.
"He was very open about himself," said Lang.
At the agencies trying to deal with the epidemic, efforts were under way to include infected people in policy-making positions, said Lola Elliott-Hugh, then director of AIDS Legal Network.
"Carlos was one of those people who was brave and bold, and saying, I have AIDS," she said. "He was really important to have with us in the foxhole to try to figure out quick ways to stop the bleeding in this pandemic."
Toro joined the Ryan White Planning Council, which allocates federal AIDS money among different programs, after determining community spending priorities including housing, medical treatment, transportation and care management. By law, one third of the board had to be people with AIDS or HIV, but few people were as effective or compelling as Toro.
At first, programs targeted gay men and hemophiliacs, but Toro "made sure that people with drug addiction were equally considered in the programs and policies we tried," said Elliott-Hugh. "He kept us very grounded in a lot of our work."
When council members used only acronyms, he didn't pretend he understood, and always asked for a translation. He was blunt and down to earth. Although his delivery wasn't polished, he knew his subjects well.
Toro sought equal treatment for Hispanics and respect for people like himself who were struggling to stay off drugs and were cycling in and out of jail. He would ask whether pamphlets had been translated into Spanish and would remind people that services should be made available on Park Street and other Hispanic and Hartford neighborhoods. He was invited to Washington during the Clinton administration to plan a National AIDS Day.
"If people were stigmatized or discriminated against, he would rally, and drive the point home," said Barbara Mase of the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
Through his efforts, a group of AIDS activists were allowed to spend a day at a maximum-security prison, giving workshops on disease prevention and treatment.
"He'd say, 'I know what it's like on the inside.' He put himself right out there to push us to do the right thing," Elliott-Hugh said.
Toro was a familiar speaker at AIDS rallies.
"He always fought for the rights of people with HIV. He could say it with eloquence and he could say it with anger," Mase said.
By the end of the '90s, AIDS had become a chronic, manageable disease, but the stigma persisted. Even so, "he had no problem saying he was HIV positive," said Janier Caban-Hernandez, the current director of the AIDS Legal Network. "He was comfortable with himself as a Latino male."
"He knew what it was like to live with HIV and AIDS," said Linda Estabrook of the Hartford Gay and Lesbian Health Center. "He brought that to the table."
There were times when recovery proved too challenging.
"He wasn't always clean and sober," said Elliott-Hugh. Months would go by, and no one would see him, then he would be back, on the street, visiting the sick, attending meetings, offering his opinion.
"He would be very ill, then get better," said Levie, now a public-health consultant. "He'd lose recovery, then get it back. It went on and on for years and years. He kept coming back."
He lived with daughters Yvonne and Sophia and was a doting grandfather of seven. Last fall, the Hispanic caucus of the Ryan White Planning Council honored him for his work.
His one vanity was clothes. Everything had to match.
"He was a sharp dresser," said Carmen Soto, liked to wear lavender and mint, but wasn't flamboyant. Nearly two years ago, Toro had a stroke, and never really regained his health.
"Carlos was loved," said Mase. "He stood up. He was eloquently angry. ... We lost a valiant fighter, and we lost a good friend."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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